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Phil Freelon, architect of National Museum of African-American History and Culture, dies

The acclaimed Durham, NC-based architect leaves behind a remarkable roster of cultural works and a legacy of mentorship

Phil Freelon responds to a question during an interview at his office in Durham, N.C. in January, 2017.

Phil Freelon, one of the most influential black architects of his generation and part of the team that designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., died earlier today of complications from ALS. He was 66.

News of Freelon’s passing was announced by the North Star Church of the Arts, an organization he founded last year with his wife, Nnenna.

Born in Philadelphia in 1953, Freelon was a celebrated architect, academic, and designer, graduating from North Carolina State University’s College of Design and later MIT, where he earned his masters and recently served as a visiting lecturer. While attending Central High School in Philadelphia, the same predominantly white, all-boys magnet school as Louis Kahn, Freelon was drawn to the arts, drafting, and design. He points to his grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon Sr., a Harlem Renaissance-era painter, as a key influence.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture occupies what was the last open site on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Alan Karchmer

His experience as one of the two black architecture students at NC State helped fuel his lifelong passion for increasing diversity within the profession. A Harvard fellowship fund to support students of diverse backgrounds was set up in his name in 2016.

“If you have a talented young African-American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman, but not an architect,” Freelon told The Undefeated. “My parents, who were both college-educated, didn’t know an architect of any color, and certainly not a black one.”

After working for primarily Durham, North Carolina-based firms after graduation, Freelon went on to found his own firm, The Freelon Group, in 1990. The practice, which grew to employ more than 45, worked on many notable projects, including the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and Emancipation Park in Houston, and was eventually acquired by Perkins + Will in 2014. Freelon would become the head of the multinational firm’s Durham and Charlotte offices.

His work with Sir David Adjaye on the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, was considered a career highlight. Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, or, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease, six months before the Smithsonian institution opened on the national mall in fall of 2016.

Freelon had long advocated for the project: “It’s personal to me as an African American to be able to contribute to this huge endeavor and to add value in that way, through the architectural work and coordinating with the exhibit designers,” Freelon said during an interview with the Curbed Appeal podcast in 2016.

Emancipation Park Houston
Emancipation Park Houston
All photos courtesy Perkins+Will; Mark Herboth Photography

Freelon’s work often spoke to and addressed the experiences of black Americans, with a focus on celebrating great achievements and community, especially those who may not have been well-known or celebrated in their time. While discussing his work on the NMAAHC, he spoke about highlighting “the unsung heroes.”

“Everybody knows ... Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but there are lots of other people who contributed who are not known,” he told Curbed. “Contributors to science, to literature, to many other fields people wouldn’t ordinarily think about. Architecture. I hope this museum would enlighten folks about the broader contribution beyond entertainers and athletes.”

In speaking to Curbed about the NMAAHC building, he made it a point to note a feature called The Porch, a free-span feature meant to transition from the inside to the outside. At a site dedicated to cultural history, education, and awareness, he felt community and engagement was all the more vital.

“It’s this welcoming gesture, and we know from our culture that the porch is a place to see and be seen,” he said.

A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Freelon was also appointed to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts by President Barack Obama in 2012.

At the time of his death, Freelon’s most recent projects included an expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit, a mile-long open-air museum along Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, and the North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh.

Freelon’s practice has long prioritized design meant to embrace and elevate community (“The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community” he told The Undefeated. “The only home I’ve ever built is my own”). When he served as a juror for Curbed’s Groundbreakers in 2017, an annual celebration of new and important voices in architecture, he said he looked for “high-impact projects that were delivered within modest budgets—great design should be enjoyed by everyday people in the public realm.”