Beyond Black + White

Philip Freelon built his practice from the ground up—and now he’s the go-to architect for African-American cultural commissions.

Philip Freelon is a rare exception in the world of architecture: he’s among the talented tenth of the barely one percent of African-Americans in the profession and for the past 15 years has been proving that it’s possible to carve out a very respectable niche in a bitterly competitive market. He has done it by putting his considerable personal charm at the service of great design—on time and within budget—and through a savvy choice of partners and a canny management style that has allowed his firm to expand from educational buildings into science, aviation, and sports facilities, and increasingly, museums and cultural centers. “Phil Freelon is one of the good guys,” says Marvin Malecha, dean of North Carolina State’s College of Design, where Freelon has often taught studios. “He’s a very enlightened practitioner, but he’s also known for his business skill—how to sustain an architectural practice through good times and bad.”

That business model has made the North Carolina-based Freelon Group not only one of the largest minority-owned firms in the country but also increasingly recognized for the quality of its work, placing it in a position to compete for high-profile cultural commissions such as the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, in Baltimore, designed in collaboration with Gary Bowden of RTKL; the recently inaugurated Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), in San Francisco; and the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, in Greensboro, North Carolina. “It’s one of the market segments we’ve been heavily involved in over the past ten years,” Freelon says. “I’ve always believed that if you provide a superior service most people will go with that.”

People familiar with his practice echo the idea that attentiveness to the client is a hallmark of the firm. “If you have a tight budget for a facility where everything has to be watched very closely, it’s very hard to do the kind of glamorous architecture that appears in magazines,” Malecha says. “But Freelon’s work consistently raises the standard of architecture around it.”

His emphasis on diversity and collaboration, moreover, has made the Freelon Group feel more like a family than a corporation. “I was really surprised at the diversity of the people and the projects when I started checking it out,” says Zena Howard, a young associate. “In this profession there are not a lot of minorities—particularly African-American females—so it was attractive to be aligned with a firm that’s doing well, especially compared to other minority firms that are smaller and have a more limited focus.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1953 and trained at NC State and MIT, Freelon spent the better part of the 1980s at O’Brien/Atkins, becoming a partner before going on to found his own practice in Research Triangle Park in 1990. “Around the time I started the firm there was an economic downturn,” Freelon says. “Developers and bankers were not investing in new construction, so most of our work in the early years was public-sector work, particularly schools. We’d like a balance between private- and public-sector work, but it’s hard to achieve when the economy is slow.”

Since then the Freelon Group has won more than a dozen AIA awards for its university and government buildings, sports facilities, offices, parking structures, and cultural centers, including a 2001 award from a jury made up of Aaron Betsky, Reed Kroloff, Mark Robbins, and Tucker Viemeister. “We were particularly pleased that they were doing good modern architecture in a state that’s not very progressive architecturally—let alone politically or socially,” says Kroloff, dean of architecture at Tu-lane University. “That was reason enough to be excited about their work, but they also have a good reputation from the people who work there.”

Freelon is proudest of the fact that the project awards were granted on the basis of a blind review process that recognized the quality of his work as an equal among his peers. “It’s a way of competing on a level playing field,” he says. “We feel like we’re being judged with everyone else and coming out extremely well. Sometimes when we go up to get the award people are shocked to see who it is.” The drastic underrepresentation of African-Americans in the field, on the other hand, also makes it important to Freelon to be recognized as a black architect. “I never met an architect of any sort until I got to college, minority or otherwise,” he says. “It’s just not a career that is apparent to aspiring young African-Americans, and one way to deal with that is to raise the visibility of the profession.”

The conflict is a very familiar one to other African-American architects, none of whom has achieved the kind of big-name status that would help win top cultural and government commissions. “The debate within our circles has been maturing,” says Steven Lewis, a program coordinator for the GSA’s Design Excellence Program and longtime member of the National Organization of Minority Architects. “At one point it was about making it to the level of the ‘starchitects.’ But another thing has evolved that has to do with empowering disenfranchised communities that don’t typically have architectural input in their lives. Phil is straddling those two worlds.”

Freelon’s latest projects are part of a boom in new museums around the country, reflecting the unfinished revolution that began with the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision a half-century ago and offering African-American architects some of their first large-scale opportunities to experiment with form as a means of symbolic expression. “Black architects have always wanted to do major public commissions, and suddenly a new market niche has grown up through these African-American cultural museums. I’m just happy to see that some of us are game for the task,” Lewis says. “There are architects, like Jack Travis in New York, who are exploring an African-American aesthetic through clients like Spike Lee and Wesley Snipes, but most architects of color have not participated in that conversation.”

The Freelon Group is not interested in trying to develop an African-American aesthetic per se, according to Victor Vines, a principal with the firm who managed Freelon’s Charlotte office until it was closed last year after the completion of their local projects, including the new Charlotte Bobcats arena done in association with Ellerbe Becket and Odell. “I’m not sure actually how you do that to be quite honest,” he says. “But there has been a push to be a little more experimental and aggressive.”

For the Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, which opened last July on the edge of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—filled with gleaming new buildings such as the National Aquarium, designed by Peter Chermayeff of Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.—Freelon symbolized the themes of struggle and vibrancy in the African-American experience through a kind of aesthetic intervention into the standard black box. A three-story “Red Wall of Freedom” cuts through the entrance and forms a bold staircase inside the skylit central atrium. “There were these positives and negatives struggling with one another, but all of it was relevant to the African-American experience in Maryland,” Freelon says. “The museum had to focus on African-Americans in this state and their contributions, struggles and successes, and we wanted to find a way to express that.”

Despite a limited budget Freelon managed to capture the top AIA award for a public building in Maryland using a few simple gestures. “Their work has been nicely rigorous, but this project allowed them to cut loose a little,” says Kroloff, who visited the museum soon after its opening. “The museum takes on a story that is fraught with drama—similar to what Daniel Libeskind tried to do with his Jewish Museum through an extremely aggressive geometry—but in this case they made a strong statement with a relatively modest budget using color and simple formal strategies.”

Freelon adopted a similar approach for the MoAD, situated in a three-story sliver of a towering SOM-designed apartment and hotel complex in downtown San Francisco. A triangular orange canopy above the entrance reaches into the lobby and becomes the basis for an angular pivot in the alignment of its interior, as well as serving as another aesthetic intervention symbolizing the duality of the African-American experience. The intrusion into the space of three enormous columns supporting the 40 stories above is moderated by a series of thin cantilevered staircases allowing a 34-foot mosaic to be exposed through the facade’s angled glass curtain wall.

“There was this big shell of leftover space that was apportioned out of the building by SOM, and we knew we wanted different expression for the entrance because we didn’t want it to look just like any other storefront,” Freelon says. “These huge col-umns were really out of scale with our part of the project, so we wanted to do something that would cover them but at the same time bring some of the museum’s content out onto the street.”

At the end of this year Freelon’s project for the International Civil Rights Center & Museum is scheduled to open in Greensboro. Its centerpiece is the “whites only” Woolworth lunch counter where in 1960 four students from North Carolina A & T State University staged a heroic sit-in that became a major landmark of the early civil rights movement. The plan is for visitors to be carried downstairs on an escalator into a modern interior containing immersive exhibits and to resurface for a grand finale at the preserved site of the demonstrations. “Walking in there and seeing it is pretty emotional,” Freelon says, “just seeing that it’s still there after all these years.”

It’s a project that’s clearly close to his heart as well as his home. “If I had thought that it was impossible to do what I’m doing I would have quit a long time ago,” Freelon says of the difficulties facing African-American architects. “Part of my personal makeup is that I’m an optimist. I’m in a profession where people like me are represented at the one percent level, but to me that brings an opportunity to be noticed in a homogeneous environment, which is something that architecture firms struggle a lot to do. Over the years the folks who select architects have become more and more diverse, so if we can bring a team that reflects diversity I think it resonates with our clients.”

“It’s tough enough to be a modern architect in the United States,” Kroloff says, “but they’re working under the double whammy of being a modern architecture firm in an institutional setting managed by an African-American architect in the South. It’s tough to be black in the country anywhere, but it’s particularly tough in the South—and if you’re peddling modern architecture? He has accomplished something rather extraordinary. And he built this practice himself. It offers me hope for architecture as a profession in this country.”

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