Interview with Phil Freelon


Phil Freelon is the founder and President of The Freelon Group, an architecture firm based in Durham, NC. Freelon led the design team for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which opened just last month. The Freelon Group was the Architect of Record for that project.

In addition to the NMAAHC, Mr. Freelon has designed other buildings in Washington, D.C., Durham, and across the country. He is also a professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and serves as Vice Chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Freelon sat down with DPR’s Zach Fuchs.


DPR: How did you become interested in architecture?

PF: Well, go back to my childhood, coming up in a family where arts were certainly part of everyday conversation. My grandfather was a noted painter during the Harlem Renaissance period. His name is Allan Freelon, Sr. And so just by virtue of being part of that family, I visited his studio and was encouraged to develop my sketching and sculpting skills from the time I was a small child. When I got to high school, I discovered things like design and engineering – how art could be transposed to do other things. I went to what you would call a magnet school today. That school had a drafting class, so I kind of stumbled into that and discovered that architecture could be a blend of a number of things that I was interested in, like not only the artistic side, but also geometry, physics, math, the sciences – those things that also were intriguing to me and that I excelled at. Architecture, even not knowing much about it, seemed to be a really nice blend of things that were important to me or that I enjoyed. I had more of a practical idea of what my career might be. Being a painter seemed a little tenuous, so I said here’s an art form that has utility for people every day and is useful and can make a positive impact on people’s lives. And then I got to architecture school and found out it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.

DPR: Fast forward to 2003 when the National Museum of African American History and Culture was chartered. When did you come aboard and join the project?

PF: Let’s go back even further. I was following the potential project during that time period when the commission was formed and they were talking about sites and the possibility of a museum on the Mall. And the director, Lonnie Bunch, was hired in 2005. And a request for proposals came out for the pre-design services. And I teamed up with a colleague in New York named Max Bond. We formed an alliance called Freelon/Bond. We competed for and won the contract to do all of the pre-design work, which culminated in a six volume, 1,200-page document, which included an exhibit master plan, architectural program, site analysis, and so on. So we were finishing up the programming document when the international competition was announced in late 2008. That’s when David Adjaye called and asked about joining our team. It turned out to be that the three of us had a similar, if not perfectly aligned, view of how we might do a project like this. It was about collaboration. So we expanded the team to Freelon/Adjaye/Bond and entered the international competition, which included starchitects from all around the world. And we were fortunate enough to make it to the final six. Those six teams were given 60 days to develop a concept or a design to submit and to present, and so we did that in a competition with I.M. Pei and Norman Foster and Antoine Predock. Suffice to say, we were the long shot, but we won the design competition and were awarded the job in 2009. So it’s been seven years of design and construction from that point to now.

I think it’s poignant that the museum is coming online during a time when this nation needs it the most as we’re slipping back into some very bad historical precedents.

DPR: What was your general vision for the building?

PF: We felt that the building itself should play a role in telling the story. That it wasn’t enough to have a beautiful wrapper or container around the exhibits. We believe that the design of the building, particularly in that location, should play an integral role in conveying the mission and vision of the institution. That’s just the belief that led us to some of the decisions about the drivers for design. That it should be meaningful in the context of African-American history. So that’s the big idea. And then this notion of exhibits. You don’t just go through a threshold and then you’re in an exhibit and then you come out and go to another one. It should be integrated with the architecture. And that even with the site, before you get into the building, we strived to engage the visitor to the Mall through the landscape and through vistas from a distance. Looking at the building drawing you in to be a more comprehensive experience than just crossing through an entrance and then you’re inside. We want to reach out to the 2 million visitors to the Mall each year and entice them to learn about this American story.

DPR: The National Mall is important to so many people and your museum is such a big addition to it. You can see the museum when you fly overhead and there is a great postcard view of it from Constitution Avenue with the museum in the foreground and the Washington Monument in the background. How did you plan the building to account for the surrounding buildings and make it part of the Mall?

PF: Well that’s really important. And by the way, we don’t do that in isolation. There is a group of regulatory agencies that are interested in precisely that question. How is this building going to fit in to react and respond to its important neighbors in Washington? So groups like the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Park Service and even the Secret Service. They were interested because there are vistas from the White House to the building and vice-versa and they were concerned about folks finding their way to the roof and to a balcony and setting up a sniper position. So I use that as an example of the many concerns – some of them conflicting – of all these agencies. I think one of the huge successes of the project is carrying it through that gauntlet of regulatory restrictions. And what we did was to say, okay, this building needs to be distinctive, but it also needs to be respectful. That’s a delicate balance that you have and I think we achieved that. Half the building is below grade. That’s another concession to the surrounding area. If you put all this building above grade, you can imagine something twice as big on that site. It wouldn’t be appropriate. From the competition to what you see out on the site, a major difference is a lot of the building went under ground – more than half.

DPR: That’s interesting, because when I was touring the building, I thought it was intentional and I liked the fact that the Rubenstein history galleries were below ground and that the celebration of culture was above ground. How closely do you work with curators when you’re building a museum from scratch?

PF: All the way through. All the way through there are discussions. In the history gallery, those conversations and the collaboration with the Smithsonian museum folks led to the positioning of those elements where they are. We don’t go away in a vacuum for six months and come back with a design. It’s a constant communication with the users, with the administrators. The museum had a technical and historical advisory board to make sure the stories were authentic and vetted. So yes, those decisions were conscious. You go down to the bottom level and you’re at 1400 in terms of the calendar, when the slave trade more or less began, and you climb up out of the small space into a larger space. So all of that is very deliberate – the building helping to tell the story, not just walking through exhibits.

DPR: Little things like how the exhibit on the Middle Passage felt very claustrophobic.

PF: Exactly. 

DPR: One of the reviews of the museum from the New York Times called the museum the “Blacksonian” and said “Every detail here is so black.” How did you achieve that and what specific details did you incorporate?

It’s incredible. It’s been an incredible honor and privilege to work on this and to be part of history. This building, in and of itself, is an historical moment.

PF: The building materiality and color and shape – that’s the beginning of it. The corona alludes back to architectural forms that we see in West Africa, so that’s a huge move and step toward having an authentic idea that relates back to our culture. We are African-Americans, so there is an African piece to that. And then the pattern of the corona, if you notice the openings that allow light to come in in various amounts. Even what we call lenses, where there is no corona panel, where you’ve got views out. Those choices were made with an eye on history as well. The pattern that we see in the corona is derived from ironwork that we see in places like New Orleans and Charleston, where African-Americans craftsmen – some of them enslaved, some of them free – over these years created these beautiful, ornate patterns in wrought iron, and that was an inspiration to us for the corona panels.

DPR: When this project started in 2003, I don’t think anyone would have guessed that there would be an African-American president from 2008-2016. How perfect was it that President Obama was in office to open this building?

PF: Our schedule was predicated on the desire to open it before he left office, so the construction schedule was very aggressive to achieve that and we did. So I think it is perfect. And it’s also a nice confluence in terms of history that we see vestiges of the struggles surfacing again. Very similar to what I remember from the 60s with police bashing heads and people talking about voter registration, voter rights. I think it’s poignant that the museum is coming online during a time when this nation needs it the most as we’re slipping back into some very bad historical precedents.

DPR: As an African-American architect, how meaningful is this project to you?

PF: It’s incredible. It’s been an incredible honor and privilege to work on this and to be part of history. This building, in and of itself, is an historical moment. To have architects of African heritage working on this is significant, especially when you consider that our profession, architecture, is not diverse at all. Less than two percent of the licensed architects in this country are African-American. Less than two percent. It’s just incredible. And the profession is small. There are only 120,000 licensed architects in the country. That’s all. And of that, only two percent are African-American. So you’re talking about 2,500 total. So that’s significant that we’re able to contribute at this level to such an important city and such an important site.

DPR: You’ve also worked on the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and the National Center for Civil Rights and Human Rights in Atlanta, so your career does have a bit of a theme.

PF: Yeah, I’ve been kind of working up to this my whole career. I often tell people that I was born to do this project and it happened at the right moment in my career. It just seemed like fate to me that I would be so fortunate to have this opportunity because over the years I’ve been doing work based on African-American culture and celebrating that with museums and cultural centers. It’s not all that we do, but it’s been an important part of our portfolio for a number of years.

DPR: You’re the vice-chairman of the U.S. Commission of the Fine Arts. Could you talk about that?

PF: It’s been a learning experience, but also very satisfying to have been asked by the president to help protect the integrity of the buildings that make up D.C.’s inner core. It’s been great.

DPR: How do you get more people interested in the arts and architecture?

PF: It’s been unfortunate that arts education has been slashed out of our public school budgets around the country. You talk to art teachers and they’ll tell you that they’re in this school that day and then another school. They don’t have any consistency. So I think we have to build back up the art programs in public schools. That’s one thing that I always tell people. And architecture specifically, we need to heighten awareness of this terrific profession. We’re missing out on lots of talented people who simply don’t know anything about it. I was just lucky, as I said before, to stumble into it, not really knowing any architects. I think awareness is the key because the more people who know about design in general and architecture in specific, the better it is going to be for our profession and for the world because we’ll have access to a broader talent pool. Creativity is driven by diversity.

DPR: Finally, I have a question about Durham. Your office is located here. You’ve designed the Durham bus depot and the RDU parking garage, among other projects. What is your relationship with Durham?

PF: I love Durham. I came to NC State for undergraduate school, so when I was there one of my professors was doing work for a Durham firm and invited me to a summer internship. I got to know Durham as a student back in the early 70s. Then I graduated and went to graduate school in Cambridge at MIT and worked in Houston for a while, and I was persuaded to come back to Durham by some of the architects I met while I was a student. Since I graduated and moved on, they started a firm in Durham in 1975 – the same year I finished NC State. So by the time they caught up with me in Houston, their firm was seven years old and had 30 people and they asked me to come back and join them and I did. I was there from ’82 to ’89 and the firm had grown from 30 people to 150. All of this is in Durham. I got some tremendous experience there. I took a year off to do a Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and when I finished that commitment, I started my firm. I got to know Durham as an undergrad, I came back and worked for a firm for a while, and then I came back again from Harvard and started my family here. Durham’s funky. You know, Durham is great. It’s got its own personality. It’s progressive. There’s a certain authenticity about Durham that I love. It’s a great place to raise a family too.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 


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