Cardinal disowns his masterpiece
Step into the five-storey atrium of the $199-million (U.S.) building of the National Museum of the American Indian, spiralling like the interior of a seashell, and your spirit soars.
Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal has moulded steel, concrete and katosa (a stone with a golden glow from Minnesota) into a rhythmic, undulating whole that looks as playful and exuberant as a child's sandcastle from the outside, with the sophistication of a cathedral within.
The atrium has a circular skylight called an oculus over a web of steel. Through the criss-crossed steel, sunlight throws a pattern on the north wall of a giant dream-catcher. On the south wall, a vertical window has giant prisms inset at varying angles that fragment incoming sun into rainbows."It is a fusion of the physical with the spiritual. The first time I walked into the building, when the interior scaffolding came down, I wept," says Richard West, Jr., NMAI's director.
NMAI may be the 69-year-old architect's finest building, more intimate than the much larger Canadian Museum of Civilization. But Cardinal calls it "a forgery" in a phone interview from Ottawa and has never seen it.
Will he be attending the museum's opening? "No, why should I?" he answers bitterly.
Cardinal was picked, along with the firm of GBQC in Philadelphia, to design it in 1993 but the museum's board wanted him to work under James Stuart Polshek, former dean of the Columbia School of Architecture, who is well connected in Washington (he is building the Clinton library). Polshek had built NMAI's Cultural Resources Center in Maryland.
"Polshek wanted me to be Tonto to his Lone Ranger â€” his sidekick," says Cardinal. "I told them I wouldn't work with that individual. He called me racist."
Cardinal held "vision sessions" with elders about a design, set up a Washington office and produced thousands of computerized drawings to take everyone's input into consideration â€” a process that was more expensive and time consuming than he anticipated. When a new secretary of the Smithsonian, Michael Heyman, came in he assigned Polshek to do a "peer review" of Cardinal's work. Cardinal felt insulted. "Polshek reported that my work was only 35 per cent complete when it was 65 per cent," he fumes.
"I was a Canadian â€” I didn't have the political background to deal with the situation."
In 1998, GBQC and Cardinal were fired from the job because, according to the Smithsonian, they had "repeatedly failed to meet contractual performance requirements."
Polshek & Partners proposed cheaper ways of doing the building, including a column to hold up the front canopy, but these were rejected as "ugly" by the National Capital Planning Commission, which had earlier endorsed Cardinal's proposal. Considering Cardinal's plans to be in the public domain, the Smithsonian went ahead with them. Cardinal says he lost $1 million and had to close his offices in Edmonton, New York and Washington.
Today everyone seems to regret Cardinal's mistreatment.
"We are trying to get him to come to the opening," says West. "His is the defining architectural voice for what will be the principal spiritual marker for native people beyond both our lifetimes."