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In American architecture and design, there are few practitioners who can claim the unique legacy left by Philip Freelon. The Durham, North Carolina-based architect and the Design Director for Perkins and Will’s North Carolina practice passed away on July 9 due to complications from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
His design influence is found among major museums specifically dedicated to Black culture in the United States, including the Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, whose building design is fused to the museum’s vision and mission. Freelon is most notably known as the lead architect who teamed with lead designer Sir David Adjaye on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History, where the building’s bronze, mosaic-clad exterior is an homage to African American craftsmanship.
His design philosophy emphasizes the importance of storytelling as a critical conceptual bond that connects people to place. As he explained in a profile by the North Carolina History Museum, “These are institutions and buildings that tell a story and have meaning beyond just being a beautiful structure, they’re making a difference in people’s lives in the cities where they are built.”
Freelon has also played a key role in the civic and cultural transformation of Durham, North Carolina, where the Philadelphia-born architect settled and built his career after graduating from North Carolina State University in 1975. He subsequently earned his master’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in 1990, upon the completion of a Loeb fellowship at Harvard, he returned to his adopted home of Durham to open the Freelon Group, where he cultivated a civic and cultural practice that specialized in institutions dedicated to Black history and culture. In addition to designing MoAD in San Francisco (2005), his firm also designed the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture in Charlotte (2009), and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson (2017). In 2014, the Freelon Group merged with architecture firm Perkins and Will, and Freelon was named the Managing and Design Director of the North Carolina practice.
As one of the most influential Black architects in the United States, Freelon’s long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion extended to his practice, underscoring his design ethos by creating work environments that recognize, celebrate, and cultivate diverse ideas and perspectives. According to a National Council of Architectural Registration Boards survey reported in Fast Company, “90% of architects identified as white, 5% as Asian, 2% as African American, and 2% as other. Only 19% are female.” Meanwhile, at the Freelon Group, 40% of the firm’s employees were women and 30% were people of color.
To further counter inclusion challenges within the industry, Freelon implemented a multi-pronged approach to expand Black and underrepresented access to the field via K-12 educational outreach and a scholarship foundation backed by Perkins and Will that supports Black design students entering Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. His philanthropic work also supports the local arts community of Durham; in 2018 he joined efforts with his wife, jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, to open the North Star Church of the Arts.
When the design director was diagnosed with ALS in 2016, he remained committed to his practice, mentoring and advising his Perkins and Will colleagues who eventually took over his projects as his disease progressed. His most recent work includes Emancipation Park in Houston (2017), Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles (opening in 2020), and the North Carolina Freedom Park in Downtown Raleigh, which is ongoing.
An important aspect of Phil Freelon’s civic design involved community engagement to ensure that the voices of residents are represented and incorporated into the planning process. Strong leadership doesn’t just execute a vision, it cultivates that sense of vision in others; this will remain an indelible part of his legacy for generations to come.