Activism and Legacy

Phil Freelon   

inter·punct sat down with Phil Freelon to discuss his works and approach to architecture. Phil was a pioneering architect who chronicled the African American story through his built work and activism. Among many awards, he was appointed to the U.S. Commission of the Fine Arts, and  was Architect of the Year in 2017. Phil was diagnosed with ALS in 2016 and passed away in July of this year (2019). We dug up an old interview to celebrate and rember his life and legacy. We hope you enjoy. This interview was published as a stand-alone issue. Download PDF.

For additional information and to view Phil Freelon’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.



i•p: You recently worked on the Martin Luther King Memorial Library in DC. What were the main opportunities and the main issues with working on a building that was designed by Modernism’s master?

Phil Freelon: Well, working on a building by Mies is certainly an opportunity and a challenge. It’s his only commission in DC - and his last commission before he died - so that added an additional level of importance in our view. At the same time, I don’t think that building is widely considered one of his best designs, so it had some problems aesthetically and functionally. Not to mention some challenges with how the library used the space, the efficiency of it and daylighting. Design-wise there were certainly some issues that had to be dealt with. Then, the whole performance of the building envelope was provided by old mechanical systems, which was also something we had to remedy. When we came to the building it was leaking terribly, especially in some of the single-paned glass panels used on all the façades, caulking and sealant issues made HVAC systems very inefficient. The first thing we were hired to do was assess the functionality and also the performance – the energy performance – of the building. We included engineers and others in the collaborative systems report of the state of the building.

And then after that it was a more inspirational story of what could happen. Could this building be transformed into a state-of-the-art library and knock your socks off when you entered? The director wanted to know if that was even possible. And so we set out to explore the possibilities. The study was…not necessarily a design, but more of a concept analysis, how the building be repurposed up to current-day standards for a library. We did that and found out the short answer was yes, it could be. And the result of that study was that the mayor and the DC administration decided to fund the project because they could see the potential that wasn’t obvious or apparent at first glance. Our work opened their eyes to the possibility of what could go on there.

We were then hired to design the first phase, the first step in that transformation, which was to redesign the digital commons area. So we had this design and construction project that took place and was successful and is operating today. Then they had a competition for an entire redesign of the building and they hired Mecanoo. Regrettably we weren’t successful in securing the big commission.

i•p: You’ve also been working on the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC scheduled to open in 2016. Speaking to the turmoil surrounding the project recently, how has working with the city informed working with the federal government?

PF: Well we did two other projects with the [DC] library system. We did two branch libraries, one in Anacostia and one in Tenley-Friendship. Doing that work and the main branch, was very helpful because we got through a lot of the regulatory processes on those projects. We got to know some of the agencies, the National Capital Planning Commission, the Commission of Fine Arts, which all had jurisdiction – the Park Service – and other interest groups that are concerned about a very important site and not overshadowing the Washington Monument. And so yes, absolutely, working in Washington on public projects was certainly helpful. However, with the Smithsonian, the size of the project compared to the others – in a sense the nature of the site – you had a higher level of scrutiny and challenges. I’d say we got through about half the regulatory processes. It was difficult. That’s why the team was hired; because we had experience and could deliver and worked very well with the agencies in the past.

i·p: As a Black American yourself, on this project in Washington DC, and also the Museum of the African Diaspora and others, how do your personal experiences and your experiences growing up inform your work?

PF: I think that as architects, we believe that we can listen and understand clients’ desires and needs along with programmatic, functional settings and deliver a project regardless of who we are. We have work that’s not based on the African-American culture. At the same time, I do think that being of the culture, having been raised as an AfricanAmerican in this country does give you some insight on some of the issues that were being explored in these museums. So in the minds of the clients, I think that makes a difference to them. Interestingly enough, we were approached by a gentleman in Dallas who wants to build a South Asian museum. You know, I’m not South Asian but he was able to see value in our process and the work that we do in other cultural institutions. We’re hoping that we’ll continue to build a relationship with that particular client. That example is just to say that being sensitive to cultural heritage – no matter what it is – is a skill and understanding and experience setting that I think can be applied across the broader spectrum of the institutions we have.

i•p: You’ve begun to touch on this, but how do you conceptualize the work of the architect in our society? In a sense, what are our responsibilities to local or regional systems? There’s no Hippocratic Oath of architecture, so to speak, so how do you see our overall responsibilities as a professional field?

PF: Well, yes, there is a code of ethics, so that’s a recognized broad guideline. Beyond that, I think it’s for each of us to define how we want to apply our skills to what we want to work on. So as individuals, there are some choices we can make. I started my practice in Durham [North Carolina] in 1990. I found it useful to write a business plan, also to set up a mission and a vision for the firm that would be our guiding principles and help us make good choices about the type of work that we would do. I think that each individual architect and each firm has the prerogative to do that for themselves, but always working under the umbrella of the AIA Code of Ethics. It’s fairly specific about ethics, and it’s a good guide. Really, a lot of it is common sense.

I decided that I wanted to practice in such a way where the buildings and the plans and the master plans – regardless of the design challenge or commission – at the end of the work, we would be proud of what we had produced and it would enhance the community in which it was built. So that’s the broader role, and goal, and statement – that was something we wanted to achieve. For instance, I don’t believe that prisons and jails enhance the community in which they’re built. Therefore, checking it against our vision in action, no, we don’t want to do those. I don’t believe strip malls in the communities they’re built are something necessarily to be proud of at the end of the day. I don’t mean to make a value judgment about experienced architects who do that sort of thing. What we choose as individuals to do is a personal call. It’s also, I think, important as we bring on other employees and other coworkers, that you as a leader are fairly specific about what you’re trying to accomplish so that someone can say, all right, I can pick a line myself. That is something that is parallel to my own personal goals as an architect. I want to be clear about it so that if folks find that here was something they could buy into, then yes, come into the firm and we’ll work together toward those common goals. Or conversely, if they’re not about that and would rather go work somewhere else, go design McDonalds or Walmarts or whatever, that’s fine too.

i•p: So in a sense you see it as being on the individual to think about what kind of work and sensibility they appreciate.

PF: Right, not just to work, to be an architect no matter what. The thing for me, there’s got to be some purpose in mind. That’s for each of us as individuals to decide.

i·p: Your firm has recently joined with Perkin + Will, has that had any affect on your ability to make those calls and stand by your personal beliefs? Have your philosophies begun to merge?

PF: Good question, and it goes back to what I said earlier about the vision and mission. I found over a number of years talking with Perkins + Will and their CEO Phil Harrison that a lot of things I’ve been talking about over the past twenty or thirty or so years were issues and goals that Perkins + Will also had. They don’t do prisons. They have a statement about doing work for the greater good of society. They are very much into sustainable design. And so, the discussions really began about seven years ago when I was approached by Perkins + Will. At that point in time, to be brief about it, I told them no thank you. But at the same time I got to know some of the people, including Phil Harrison as president at the time. He approached me again even more recently and the circumstances both on their side and our side had brought us closer in alignment. We could see that coming together would be better for both firms. We were working all over the country in places like San Francisco and Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, DC, and really everywhere we went as The Freelon Group we would have to partner with a local firm. In Chicago we partnered with Gensler, Atlanta we partnered with HOK, DC it was a different firm, and so this was our chance to have a builtin partner in every major city, one that, again, we didn’t have to worry about the alignment of values and goals because that was there. It gave us a broader platform to practice, and we brought expertise and a portfolio in civic and cultural work that strengthens their overall firm. And of course, Perkins + Will was strong in areas where we were looking to expand, like for instance healthcare and several psychiatric hospitals in North Carolina. So there was synergy, which we felt was important to capitalize on and come together.

i·p: Is The Freelon Group being given autonomy and agency within the organization?

PF: Yes, we are. I’ll give you an example. The Freelon Group, we’re maintaining our structure and identity as we complete the Smithsonian project. In certain specific and limited cases, The Freelon Group will continue - like in the pursuit of the Obama Presidential Library. On the other hand, we’re moving forward with Perkins + Will as the leader of the North Carolina practice. Perkins + Will has an office in Morrisville, North Carolina, which is right next to Raleigh, and they have an office in Charlotte. Both of those offices have partnered under what we’re calling Perkins + Will North Carolina, which is under my leadership. In fact, we’ve begun to move into that building and I’m the managing director of eighty people in Charlotte and Raleigh. So, autonomy is too strong a word. We’ve been given control of… North Carolina under my purview - and we are able to maintain, and on a limited basis the pursuit of other work; if and when the Freelon brand is an important thing for the client.

i·p: What attracted or influenced you to start and maintain your practice in North Carolina specifically?


PF: Yeah, well, let’s go back to undergraduate school. When I got there, I was kind of nervous about being in the South, having grown up in Philadelphia. You hear stories about what it’s like to grow up in the South. But I found it to be a charming place, a place that was growing and had prospects for continued growth, which to me meant it would be a good place for an architect. And so as I left there and headed to Cambridge for graduate school, in the back of my mind I thought maybe someday I’ll go back. And so when we were living in Houston – my wife and I moved there – we were newlyweds without children, and then had two children while we were there. The whole idea about where I wanted to live kind of shifted when we started our family, so as young professionals – just two people – Houston was vibrant. It was growing at the time, and both being from bigger cities, we really enjoyed that aspect. As our family was growing – two children there, and eventually three – our notion of what was exciting and where we wanted to be kind of shifted. Coincidental to that, some colleagues that I knew when I was in undergraduate school had started their own firm a couple of years earlier, and they contacted me to persuade me to come back to North Carolina. We were ready to go back to a place where we thought the quality of life for a young family was much better. The growth opportunities in the building, construction, and design industries were also there, so combined that’s what persuaded us to move back.

i·p: Last question now, you’ve taught at NC State and been a visiting critic at various places – Harvard and MIT and so on – what do you think should be the prime focus of architecture students at this moment in time?


PF:  I think my view on that has been the same over the years. We have a responsibility as key players in the shaping of the built environment to do it in such a way that’s sustainable, that’s beautiful, that gives equal access to great design across all economic stratums. I still think that architects are in a prime position to improve the lives of people in general, in cities, in rural areas, and everywhere in between. It’s an awesome challenge and responsibility. I’m really energized when I go into schools to see the projects, the studios, to see the enthusiasm of the students just energizes my work. I enjoy teaching. It’s a way to stay connected with academia, and the future. I think the link between the profession and the schools needs to be strengthened. I think it’s a mistake to have too much professional focus when you’re in school because you have a few short semesters to really explore through thinking, ideas, the design and creativity without the constraints of schedules and all that. You have the internships when you graduate to really dive into the realworld constraints, having said that, I do think having professionals participate in schools of architecture is a good thing. It makes the transition of moving from school into the profession smoother. ·