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Durham-based architect Phil Freelon spearheads design for Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

<p>Phil Freelon was the architect for the&nbsp;Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture as well as the&nbsp;National Center for Civil Rights in Atlanta.</p>

Phil Freelon was the architect for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture as well as the National Center for Civil Rights in Atlanta.

Phil Freelon is a Durham-based African American architect who was on the team that designed the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Chronicle spoke with Freelon about the new building, his involvement with Duke's recognition of Julian Abele and his thoughts about the future of architecture.  

The Chronicle: What was the inspiration behind the design of the museum?

Phil Freelon: Let me start by saying the design was the result of a collaboration between several architectural firms. The design team is known as Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup. The team got together to compete for the work. We won the design competition. It was an inter-design competition in 2009, and many firms had submitted their qualifications for the project, and six were selected out of the dozens. The Smithsonian selection committee which included the director, educators, deans of architectural schools, journalists and historians narrowed it down to six teams and Freelon, Adjaye Bond was one of them. During the competition period, which was a six-week time frame, that was when we had to focus on what the building would be. All the teams did. One of the advantages of the competition is that the client gets to see a lot of ideas. One of the disadvantages is you have to zero in on what you want to do fairly quickly. Normally, a design concept would take months to develop or even years. In the competition format, you have to arrive at a concept fairly quickly.

We wanted the design to be meaningful beyond just a handsome building or a wrap around the exhibits. We wanted the building to make a statement, we wanted the building to be relevant and iconic. So we looked at different notions about what the building could be and what we call a workshop or charrette format in which all of us get together and brainstorm. It was during one of those sessions when we settled on the idea of the caryatid, which is a West African architectural element from the Yoruban culture. The distinguishing characteristic of that form is the crown, or corona, that's at the top of that figure. It's similar to columns you see in Western architecture. Whether they be doric or ionic, the classical forms of architecture have a base, middle and capital. In this case, the capital is a crown. That particular form was the driver for the design. 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. 

There are other aspects to it like the porch that you see out front—the 240-foot element that shades the entrance on the south side of the building. The porch is something that you see in African American culture and American architecture in general. It's a place where the landscape and interior come together, it's a place where you're welcome, it's a place to see and be seen. So, that was another element of the design that had roots in American and African American cultures.

TC: It seems that there was a lot of African American cultural influence on this particular design. Why is that?

PF: We felt it was an opportunity for the building to contribute to the story and to be a vehicle for conveying the history and culture. It’s not simply a container for exhibits. Our concept was the building could play an active role in communicating the mission and vision of the institution. We felt it was appropriate for the building to say something and to have an iconic presence on the Mall and to speak to the culture which it represents with exhibits inside. And the other aspect of this, the corona shape itself is one thing, the larger form. But as you look at the pattern of the openings in the corona, the pattern of the porosity, the light that comes through the building, that pattern itself has meaning. We took a look at the ironwork that you see in places like Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans—the ornate iron and grill work of those places in the south were based on organic forms like twigs, flowers and branches. And so the pattern that you see in the corona is a computer-generated modern interpretation of those patterns. It’s subtle, but it’s another reference back to the work that was done by in some cases enslaved Africans and also free African Americans in the South.

The angle of the corona is at 17.5 degrees pointing upward. That angle was also chosen because it matches the angle of the capstone in the Washington Monument our most important neighbor right across the street. The angle at the top of the Washington Monument is a pyramid at 17.5 degrees, and the angle of the corona is the same angle but in the opposite direction, almost as if you had three pyramids oriented downwards instead of upward. But the effect because those angles now are splaying out and toward the sky, our intention was that it would give the impression of a positive and celebratory gesture, something that was dignified but at the same time exuberant.

TC: What would you say about the process of designing this building compared to other projects you’ve worked on in the past?

PF: I think working in Washington D.C. is a challenge because there are many different constituencies that have an interest in the building. Working in that environment in which we’ve yet to build a consensus among sometimes conflicting interests was a challenge. There are regulatory agencies such as the National Park Service, the Commission of Fine Arts, the Secret Service and others that all wanted a say in approving the building. For instance, the Secret Service was interested because there are sight lines from the building to the White House, so they wanted to make sure there weren't any balconies that a sniper could perch on.

TC: You also served on Duke’s task force that discussed renaming buildings in honor of Julian Abele. Were you satisfied with the decision to name the quadrangle after him?

PF: I think the decision to name the quad after Julian Abele was a good decision. In our view, it's a good choice because the quad extends beyond one building or one location, it's broader than that because Julian Abele’s impact on the campus goes beyond one building. When everyday people come to campus, they’ll have the chance to see that space and read the commemorative plaque and understand who had a hand in shaping West Campus.

TC: What is your vision for architecture as a field in general?

PF: I see architecture as a way to enable everybody to experience beauty in their environment and to do it in a way that enhances the planet. To do it with sustainability and restoratively, so that buildings can move toward blessing the environment instead of breaking it down.

Jackie Park contributed reporting.