Phil Freelon, architect who helped design Smithsonian’s African American Museum, dies at 66
Phil Freelon, an architect who led a design team that gave shape to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened to critical acclaim on the Mall in as a monument to black struggle and triumph, died July at his home in Durham, N.C. He was .
He had complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, said a son, Deen Freelon.
Since , Freelon had led an architectural firm in Durham that specialized in designing public buildings, including other cultural centers devoted to African American life in Baltimore, Atlanta, Charlotte, San Francisco and Greensboro, N.C.
He led a consortium of several architectural firms — formally known as the Freelon Adjaye BondSmithGroup — that won the design competition for the African American Museum in Washington in . Their proposal was chosen, in a unanimous vote, over submissions from renowned architects such as Richard Meier, I.M. Pei and Norman Foster.
Freelon and the two other principal architects in the group, David Adjaye and J. Max Bond Jr., were black. Bond died in , just before the group won the competition.
Adjaye, born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, was the lead designer. As lead architect, Freelon helped with the design and oversaw the technical aspects of the project, which included negotiating the thickets of bureaucratic Washington. Adjaye described him in as a “steady rock.”
Over a seven-year period, and at a cost of more than $ million, Freelon and his group designed and built the ,-square-foot museum, which is adjacent to the Washington Monument. President Barack Obama was present for the museum’s groundbreaking in and when its doors opened four years later. Since then, nearly million people have visited the museum.
New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman pronounced it “the first really fine major public building of the century to rise in the nation’s capital.”
With its filigreed bronze-colored exterior and its three-tiered corona, derived from a Yoruban architectural element from West Africa, the museum stands in striking — and deliberate — contrast to the white marble edifices of so much of official Washington.
“We wanted the design to be meaningful beyond just a handsome building or a wrap around the exhibits,” Freelon told the Duke University Chronicle in . “We felt it was appropriate to have something linked to the motherland. This is an African American museum, so the African aspect of it seemed appropriate.”
Every part of the museum’s design had cultural meaning, even the .-degree angle of the edges of the three levels of the corona — exactly the same angle at the top of the Washington Monument, only inverted. The patterns in the building’s metal exterior are based on ironwork African American workers designed and forged for buildings in the South.
“The bronze has a patina to it,” Freelon told The Washington Post in . “It depends on the sky, the lighting and the time of year to give it a dynamic, changing quality.”
More than an upside-down pyramid, the three-level corona represents “a crown that signifies the status of the person wearing it,” Freelon added. “It’s part of the celebratory nature of the building — an architectural form that’s uplifting and dignified.”
The museum’s five levels of galleries begin in dark subterranean chambers, telling the story of Africans transported in cargo holds across the Atlantic to enslavement in the New World. Galleries on higher floors depict the path to emancipation, the sorrows and successes of the civil rights movement, and African American contributions to the nation’s culture.
“The African American story is the quintessential American story, even though it was about a forced migration,” Freelon told The Post in . “America is about opportunity for people from other places. You’ll find the best and worst of what the American story is in the African American story.”
Philip Goodwin Freelon was born March , , in Philadelphia. His father sold medical equipment, and his mother was a teacher.
Freelon discovered architecture in high school and, he told The Post in , considered it “a perfect blend of art and science.”
After attending Hampton University in Virginia, he graduated in from North Carolina State University. He received a master’s degree in architecture in from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he said he was often the only black student in his classes.
He worked at architecture firms in North Carolina and Houston before opening Freelon Group in Durham in . The firm grew from a staff of one — Freelon — to more than .
Following his belief that architecture could be a quiet form of activism and education, Freelon and his firm designed several museums of African American history and culture throughout the country, including the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture in Charlotte and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
In Greensboro, Freelon used the Woolworth’s store in which African Americans staged one of the civil rights movement’s first sit-ins to house the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
In addition to museums, Freelon worked on the Tenleytown and Anacostia public libraries in the District, a baseball stadium and a bus terminal in Durham, and at least college campuses in North Carolina. After his ALS diagnosis in , he continued to direct several projects, including an expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit. He also served from to on the Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees public building projects in Washington.
In , Freelon married the former Chinyere Nnenna Pierce, better known as Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon. In addition to his wife, of Durham, and son Deen Freelon, of Chapel Hill, N.C., survivors include two other children, Maya Freelon and Pierce Freelon, both of Durham; two brothers; one sister; and six grandchildren.
“Each of us has our own perspective on history, and mine is formed by my family, in stories of not just difficulties but also triumph and joy,” Freelon told the Durham Herald-Sun in , when he received the commission for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “This museum is about the heroes that are familiar names, but it’s also about everyday people who’ve made an impact on this country, one person at a time.”
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