In 1996, the State of Oklahoma issued two RFPs advancing an ongoing plan to build a new museum and cultural centre honouring the 39 Indigenous tribal nations in Oklahoma today. Also home to the National Native American Hall of Fame, the complex now known as First Americans Museum was poised to be a Turtle Island landmark for generations to come. But when Los Angeles-based architects Johnson Fain won the commission to design the Oklahoma City institution, they could scarcely have predicted that another 25 years would pass before the 16,250-square-metre cultural haven opened to the public.
When the time the museum was completed late 2021, it marked the culmination of an even longer journey over 30 years in the making. The State of Oklahoma began exploring the idea of a museum in the late 1980s, and the project was spurred on by the creation of the Native American Cultural Authority in 1994, with the two architectural RFPs — which outlined site selection and building design respectively — followed by the 1998 creation of a public-private partnership to lead the development process. Construction kicked off in 2006, but a funding shortfall stopped progress in 2012, leaving the museum in political and financial limbo, with calls for the unfinished structure to be demolished. Finally, a partnership between Oklahoma City and the Chickasaw Nation saw the state project transferred to municipal management and completed four years later.
In architecture, a lot changes in 25 years. For designers, the decades-long development and construction process would typically be reflected in an aesthetic that feels dated by the time the ribbon is cut. But Johnson Fain appropriately looked beyond design trends for inspiration, instead working closely with local tribal members and partnering with cultural and heritage advisor Donald Fixico — and architectural partners Hornbeek Blatt — to create a space rooted in centuries of local Indigenous heritage and cultural tradition.
“At the First Americans Museum, conventional architectural strategies were dissolved by a highly iterative process that led to a new vocabulary of form drawn from an orientation to natural elements, shared space, and the freedom for visitors to pursue their own path of discovery,” says Scott Johnson, Design Partner at Johnson Fain. “The design embodies multiple eternal concepts, such as time, generations, shelter and identity.”
It’s a design language that began to take shape with the selection of a 280-acre brownfield site near the banks of the Oklahoma River. The USD $175-million complex sits on a lot formerly known as Oklahoma Drilling Site #1, where crude was extracted for much of the 20th century — an oil field that accounted for up to 60 per cent of national production at its peak. By the 1980s, however, the site was abandoned, with a landscape of debris, demolition and 57 capped oil wells left in its stead.
Designed by New York-based landscape architects Hargreaves Jones, the polluted floodplain was remediated and revived — and, in a sense, decolonized — with native trees and grasses. Donated from local construction sites, a gift of nearly 400,000 cubic metres of red earth fill allowed the design team to craft a complex that emerges from the landscape.
A holistic Indigenous paradigm of circularity — which encompasses the cycle of life, the changing seasons and the earth’s rotation — inspired the design’s key gesture; the “Mound,” an elevated earthen spiral rising to a height peak of 27 metres. Inspired by the Spiro Mounds once common across the South Central United States, the berm is precisely aligned with the cardinal directions, which are rich in symbolic (and cosmological) meaning for Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island.
Dubbed the Festival Plaza, a sheltered outdoor event space sits within the heart of the mound. On the other side of the berm, the elevated landscape is also embraced by similarly curved volumes housing the exhibit spaces, as well as a smaller courtyard. Clad in weathering steel, the buildings are designed to evoke the region’s red earth as a rusted patina gradually develops. Free of right angles (which, according to Indigenous teachings, trap the spirit and energies), the the built forms converge at the light-filled Hall of the People’s, a rounded 33-metre-tall glass entry gallery that nods to the form of a Wichita grass lodge.
In the Hall of the People’s, 10 columns rise, representing the 10 miles a day that tribes were forced to travel when Indigenous Americans were relocate to Oklahoma during the 19th century. It is a tragic history, and one that forms part of a genocide central to the nation’s founding. But at the First Americans Museum, in a timeless, landmark space of light and learning — and at the end of a long journey — those 10 columns are also pillars for reconciliation.
A 30-year development saga culminates in the opening of a major cultural institution in Oklahoma City.