Architect Philip Freelon (1953-2019)
ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL African American architects of his generation, Philip Freelon (1953-2019) has died. He was 66. The architect-of-record for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Freelon passed on July 9 at his home in Durham, N.C. His son, Deen Freelon, told The Washington Post he had complications from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
The Freelon family posted a message on the Facebook page for the Northstar Church of the Arts, which was established in 2018 by Freelon and his wife, jazz singer Nnenna Freelon. The statement said Freelon had “joined the ancestors” and described him as a “renowned architect, photographer, fisherman, husband and father of three.”
The team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup was commissioned to design the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in April 2009, after winning an international competition. The team was led by Freelon, chief designer David Adjaye, and the late J. Max Bond Jr. (1935-2009)—three black architects. Constructing the 400,000-square-foot museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., took seven years and cost more than $500 million. NMAAHC is the first museum on the mall designed with sustainability in mind. Designed to green building standards, the museum received LEED Gold Certification in 2018.
Distinguished by a three-tiered bronze corona that references Nigerian sculpture and historic patterned ironwork made by black craftsmen in New Orleans, the museum stands as a monument to the African American experience. NMAAHC opened to the public Sept. 24, 2016, following a grand dedication ceremony with remarks by President Barack Obama.
During a May 2016 press preview, Freelon spoke to a clutch of reporters about the significance of the project. “As an African American who grew up in the 60s and 70s and was part of and served in the Civil Rights Movement, it is just an incredible honor to have association with this project …illuminating this history and understanding now that our nation’s capital is paying attention and really holding that up as an example for the world to see,” Freelon said.
“This story of African American culture is infused throughout the planet all over the globe and to have it be memorialized here in a living way, not just about the history, but looking forward to the future, is really something special. I speak for the rest of the team when I say it really is an honor and a privilege to have worked on this project.”
“This story of African American culture is infused throughout the planet all over the globe and to have it be memorialized here in a living way, not just about the history, but looking forward to the future, is really something special. I speak for the rest of the team when I say it really is an honor and a privilege to have worked on this project.” — Philip Freelon
From left, Architects David Adjaye and Philip Freelon speak to journalists on May 12, 2016, months before the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
Composed of intricately designed bronze panels, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is sited adjacent to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. | At left, Photo by Alan Karchmer. Both Courtesy Smithsonian Institution
THIS MORNING, Lonnie G. Bunch released a statement about Freelon. The newly appointed secretary of the Smithsonian Institution was the founding director of NMAAHC. Bunch said Freelon “was considered one of the great architects of our time” and noted that his creativity extended beyond architecture. Freelon was a painter and fine art photographer, too, who publicly exhibited his work.
Bunch added: “I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend and colleague, Phil Freelon. Though, our hearts are heavy, they are filled with appreciation for his vision, his passion and his love for our museum. His work brought to the National Mall a bold, new statement of elegance and dignity. Phil once said, ‘the museum is more than a building; it is a sacred place that houses the spirit and the dreams of our ancestors.’ Phil Freelon will forever have a permanent place in the story of this museum.”
In fact, the architect’s personal and professional records are in the collection of the museum. NMAAHC acquired the Philip G. Freelon Archive in 2017. Selections from the collection were displayed in the 2018 installation “Recent Acquisitions: Architects’ Archives.” The collection spans his life and career, including documents, ephemera, photographs and artifacts. Among the items are original sketches, design proposals for major projects, and Freelon’s identification card from when he studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), graduating in 1977.
“Phil was considered one of the great architects of our time. …His work brought to the National Mall a bold, new statement of elegance and dignity.” — Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian
In 2016, Philip Freelon discusses his work, he hopes it positively impacts the community and that the National Museum of African American History and Culture, that the institution will enlighten people. | Video by Perkins & Will
Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. Completed in 2017. | Perkins & Will
FREELON WAS A HUMANITARIAN ARCHITECT who believed everyone deserved good design. He gravitated toward community-centered projects that prioritized cultural equity and positive social change. At the same time, design was Freelon’s foremost concern. “My goal is to do great buildings,” he told Dwell magazine in March 2018. “I don’t have a bigger motive.”
Best known for his work on the Smithsonian museum, Freelon specialized in public spaces and civil buildings, designing libraries, cultural centers, parks, schools, and more museums. In addition to NMAAHC, his projects included the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, N.C.; the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco; the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore; the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans; and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Emancipation Park in Houston and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Miss., were recently completed. The Motown Museum in Detroit is forthcoming.
He leaves a significant body of work in the Durham area, his adopted hometown where he designed Durham Bulls Athletic Park, three public libraries, the city’s bus station, and multiple buildings at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and on the campus of North Carolina Central University, an HBCU.
In March 2016, Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He continued to work, opening the Smithsonian museum and taking on a new project the following year. His vision for redesigning North Carolina Freedom Park, near the state Legislative Building in Raleigh, was selected in 2017. Groundbreaking for the project is scheduled for October and it is expected to be completed in 2020.
Reggie Hodges, the former director of the Durham Literacy Center who serves on the Freedom Park board of directors, told the News & Observer that Freelon’s design stood out because it documented the challenging history of African Americans in the state and at the same time conveyed an uplifting message. He was also struck by the architect’s focus on the visual appeal of the project.
“In talking to him, I got a feeling that his association with art was what drove his architecture,” Hodges told the Raleigh newspaper. “He was really into the way something was going to look, how things were going to relate to other things, how colors would be reflected when light shines on them and when water flowed past them. He loved to put holes in his designs so that when light came through his buildings they would create art in themselves, too.”
“He was really into the way something was going to look, how things were going to relate to other things, how colors would be reflected when light shines on them and when water flowed past them. He loved to put holes in his designs so that when light came through his buildings they would create art in themselves, too.” — Reggie Hodges, Freedom Park Board of Directors
The Early Days: In 1990, Philip Freelon in front of his newly formed architecture firm, The Freelon Group in Durham, N.C. | Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Philip G. Freelon, © Philip G. Freelon
“Phil Freelon: Community Builder” explores the architect’s work on the occasion of an exhibition of some of his projects at the African American Cultural Gallery at North Carolina State University, his alma mater where he also served as an adjunct professor (Published April 2016). | Video by North Carolina State
PHILIP GOODWIN FREELON was born in Philadelphia. His father was in medical sales and his mother was a teacher. His grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon (1895-1960), was a Philadelphia-based painter active during the Harlem Renaissance.
The architect attended Hampton University in Virginia and North Carolina State University, where he earned an undergraduate architecture degree in environmental design. He went on to receive a master’s degree in architecture from MIT. He was later a Loeb Fellow, studying independently at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (1989-90).
In a 2012 interview with The Washington Post, Freelon said he was first exposed to architecture in high school and that he chose to pursue the field because it was “a perfect blend of art and science.” He also told the newspaper that he was usually the only black student in his classes at MIT. According to Architectural Record, “he was the youngest architect to pass the registration exam in North Carolina, at age 25.”
In 1990, Freelon established his firm, The Freelon Group, in Durham, N.C. One of the largest African American-owned architecture firms in the nation, the group worked on projects throughout the United States and grew to more than 45 employees. In 2014, the firm joined Perkins & Will, a global architectural practice with more than 20 locations. Freelon served as managing director of the firm’s Durham and Charlotte offices. He stepped down in 2017 and was succeeded by Zena Howard, who oversees the firm’s North Carolina practice now. Her current projects include Destination Crenshaw, the Los Angeles Metro Rail extension.
Over the years, Freelon lectured at many universities. He also was a professor of practice at MIT and an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University’s College of Design.
Freelon has been recognized with many appointments and awards throughout his career. He was designated a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 2003. President Barack Obama appointed him to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in 2011. He served from 2012-16. The Phil Freelon Fellowship Fund was established at the Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in November 2016. In 2017, Fast Company named him Architect of the Year and he received the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor.
National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Completed in 2014. | Perkins & Will
In a recent video, Philip Freelon opens up about his roots, family, and path to architecture. | Video by Perkin & Will
INTERESTINGLY, FREELON, Adjaye, and Bond, have each designed public libraries in Washington, D.C. Freelon designed two neighborhood libraries completed in 2010 and 2011, and played a key role in the decision to move forward with a comprehensive overhaul of the city’s central library, the MLK branch, which dated to 1972. Renovation of the central library is currently underway and the branch will reopen in fall 2020.
“Phil Freelon played a critical role in the transformation of the DC Public Library. …His vision helped the District to see a bolder future for what libraries could offer.”
— Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Executive Director DC Library
Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the DC Library system, released a statement about Freelon, the man and his legacy. He said:
“Phil Freelon played a critical role in the transformation of the DC Public Library. In addition to designing the iconic Tenley-Friendship and Anacostia neighborhood libraries, he was an early and authoritative voice that supported the modernization of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. In 2012, Phil was commissioned to develop a concept for a reimagined MLK Library and his work ultimately helped convince the Library, city leaders, and the public that the landmarked Mies van der Rohe building could indeed be transformed into an inspiring center for community education. His vision helped the District to see a bolder future for what libraries could offer. I and many others who have been impacted by his work will miss him dearly.”
Speaking to Architectural Record, Adjaye called Freelon a dear friend and mentor. He added: “I am deeply saddened by the loss of Phil Freelon. He leaves behind an indelible mark on the practice of architecture and his legacy transcends the brick and mortar of the buildings he designed. Phil was a pioneer, an advocate of diversity and inclusion, and his impact will only strengthen over time as we continue to see people of color rising in the field of architecture.” CT
TOP IMAGE: Portrait of Philip Freelon. | Screenshot from Perkins & Will video about Freelon’s background and family
FIND MORE about Philip Freelon‘s life and work on the Perkins & Will website
“Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture” by Mabel O. Wilson includes a foreword by Lonne G. Bunch. Also consider two recently published volumes: “Julian Abele: Architect and the Beaux Arts” by Dreck Spurlock Wilson and “Black Built: History and Architecture in the Black Community.”
Philip Freelon talks about paying tribute to one of his influences, Julian Abele, the African American architect who designed the majority of Duke University in Durham, N.C. (Published October 2016). | Video by Duke University
Philip and Nnenna Freelon bought a Durham, N.C., penthouse apartment in 2010 in a historic building that once housed a segregated lunch counter. Freeloon redesigned the loft-like, two-story space. With his diagnosis of ALS, the architect says his design principles, which always considered aging in place and access issues, haven’t changed. (An advertisement plays before the video starts, Published June 2017). | Video by Wall Street Journal
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