Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The lead architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, among many other important cultural buildings, has died at 66.
Phil Freelon, an architect who chronicled the African-American story through his resonant museum designs, died on July 9. He served as the lead architect for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an immediate icon when it opened on the National Mall in 2016.
Freelon designed cultural institutions dedicated to the black experience across the country, including the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte. His legacy as an architect is keenly felt in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where he founded and led a respected architecture firm. Within the design field, Freelon will be remembered for his efforts to make architecture a more progressive and inclusive industry.
He was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in 2016, the same year that the Smithsonian Institution’s black history museum opened. Freelon joked that ALS stood for “architect lecture series.” He died at 66.
Freelon favored bold compositional strokes. For projects such as Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Houston’s Emancipation Park, gesture carried the design. Freelon’s modernist designs were muscular without being rigid. The architect, who often compared architecture to art, used rich, warm tones in his work.
The dull gold luster of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is an example. The central conceit for the building, designed by David Adjaye, Freelon, and the late J. Max Bond Jr., is the tiered “corona,” modeled after the crown worn by figures in traditional Yoruban caryatid sculptures. This design signature comprises 3,600 cast-aluminum panels: bronze-colored screens that give the museum its sturdy but subdued appearance.
The museum is a technical marvel: More than 60 percent of the 400,000-square-foot museum is below grade, situated within 75-foot-tall concrete container walls to keep water out. Visitors descend to the basement first, where bottom-level galleries tell the history of African-American slavery before the founding of the nation, and rise up through the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, arriving at top-level celebrations of black music, literature, and culture.
“As you move through history, you’re able to see different aspects of the exhibits from varying perspectives,” Freelon explained in 2016. “Which adds another layer of understanding to the overall sweep of history.”
“The passing of Phil Freelon is a moment of deep sadness for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture,” said Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the museum’s founding director, in a statement. “Phil’s reach was broad and national in scope.”
Freelon was raised in Philadelphia, and after studying architecture in the Research Triangle (at North Carolina State University), he adopted Durham as his home. There he built the Freelon Group into one of North Carolina’s largest and most distinguished architecture firms while building dozens of projects in the area. (The Freelon Group merged with the global architecture firm Perkins + Will in 2014; Freelon stepped down as managing director for the company’s offices in Durham and Charlotte in 2017.)
“Phil mentored countless young architects, including me, encouraging each of us to aspire to our individual vision,” said Zena Howard, who succeeded Freelon as managing director for Perkins + Will’s North Carolina studios.
Freelon’s work in Durham alone includes a ballpark, transit center, county human services building, and three public libraries, along with a terminal for Raleigh-Durham International Airport. He also designed two libraries in Washington, D.C. His firm built campus projects at North Carolina A&T State University, Morgan State University, Elizabeth City State University, and North Carolina Central University.
The Samuel D. Proctor School of Education at North Carolina A&T State University showcases the emphasis that Freelon placed on social spaces within his projects. The building features a dramatic overhang, with classroom space cantilevering out into space toward the campus green. Yet the project’s highlight might be the stairwell, which is enmeshed with the atrium to create a public space that also promotes circulation—a common stroke in Freelon’s projects, even in a highly restrained pharmaceuticals office building.
Freelon’s greatest contribution to education may be more direct than his designs. In 2016, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and Perkins + Will endowed the Phil Freelon Fellowship Fund, a scholarship designed for black and minority students at GSD; the first Freelon Fellow enrolled the following year. The architect was the first keynote speaker at the Black in Design conference, a movement launched by students at Harvard in 2014. For his work in advocacy and education—he taught at institutions including MIT, where he earned his master’s degree—the American Institute of Architects awarded him the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture.
Freelon won numerous accolades for his work. President Barack Obama appointed him to the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts in 2011; Fast Company named him Architect of the Year in 2017. While the National Museum of African American History and Culture stands as a testament to his work as an architect, Freelon’s legacy may be in his leadership, from his willingness to speak out against racial intolerance to his mentorship of young and aspiring black architects.