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Phil Freelon: Architect for Social Equity

The renowned founder of his eponymous studio—which joined Perkins and Will in 2014—passed away July 9th, leaving a major legacy of built works, community engagement, and advocacy within architecture.

Phil Freelon obituary
Phil Freelon Courtesy Perkins and Will

In 2016, as the three-tiered, bronze-skinned, and filigreed National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened on the National Mall—a signature building of the Obama era—one of its main architects, Durham, North Carolina–based Phil Freelon, was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease ALS. Earlier this week, Freelon died of complications from the disease. He left behind a four-decade legacy of considered, attentive design for communities typically ignored—or worse, harmed—by processes forming the built environment.

As one of the early champions of the NMAAHC from its inception in the 2000s, Freelon began collaborating with Max Bond of Davis Brody Bond on its predesign phase, their preparatory work eventually comprising a 1,200-page, six-volume document that set the stage for what would become both architects’ crowning achievement. For the international design competition, Bond and Freelon added David Adjaye, who was then an up-and-coming architect, to the team, along with SmithGroup, which had a local presence in the Washington, D.C. area. Just before the team won the design competition, Bond died, leaving the others to carry out the project. By the time of the museum’s completion, Adjaye had become one of the leading lights of a new generation of architects of African descent, picking up a torch passed by Bond and Freelon.

As Adjaye told Architectural Record, “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. More than anything, however, Phil was a dear friend and mentor.”

Phil Freelon obituary
National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) Courtesy Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

Freelon is best known nationally for his museum and cultural work, especially a series of projects dedicated to African American history and culture. In 2010 in Greensboro, he completed the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which preserves the Woolworth lunch counter where, in 1960, four students from North Carolina A & T university staged a series of sit-ins, catalyzing the nonviolent protest movement. His museum projects often employed sculptural form-making to express a building’s meaning and function. The 2014 National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta is a curving brown-and-tan panel-clad structure (its skin expressing diversity of skin color) that resembles a Richard Serra bent-steel sculpture with a glass atrium inserted in the center. In Baltimore, his 2005 Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture resembles an Alexander Calder mobile balanced precariously before adversity. In Charlotte, he designed a perforated metal-clad Center for African-American Arts + Culture in 2009 as a metaphor for Jacob’s ladder, symbolizing ascent to a higher, more blessed place.

But Freelon’s principle concern at Freelon Group—the 50-person office he founded in 1990, merging with Perkins and Will in 2014—was to bring architecture into the lives of people without traditional access to design. For that reason, he may have been proudest of service-oriented work for under-represented areas in Washington, D.C., such as the utterly modern glass-skinned libraries he designed in the Anacostia and Tenleytown neighborhoods. For historically black colleges and universities, he built classroom buildings for Elizabeth City State University, Morgan State University, and North Carolina A & T, incorporating a straightforward, airy Modernism possessing a spatial openness and access to light that its students might rarely experience elsewhere.

Phil Freelon obituary
National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, 2014 Courtesy Mark Herboth Photography

Exposing underrepresented group to architecture was not only a matter of service to clients but extended to his larger dedication to diversity within the building field. He often talked about how, despite his middle-class upbringing and college-educated parents, he had barely heard of or experienced architecture throughout his youth. Freelon devoted his office to building equity in his practice for clients and prospective young architects alike.

“He stuck to the values of great design that he could deliver, being accessible to people who had been previously removed [from consideration] and thought that architecture was something for the wealthy and elite,” says architect and 2019 Metropolis Game Changer Zena Howard, who led the project management of the NMAAHC for eight years and is a partner in the studio Freelon founded. “That’s his legacy and he instilled that in us.”

In September, the first phase of his design for the Motown Museum in Detroit breaks ground, and his Destination Crenshaw project in Los Angeles, when completed, will be a 1.5-mile outdoor museum of black South Los Angelean culture that reinforces the local identity of a rapidly changing neighborhood. “The number one impact that he had was to take great design out of the realm of the elite,” Howard says, “and just share it in a way that people can experience it and have better lives.”

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