Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is Philip Freelon’s ‘commission of a lifetime

The late Durham architect Philip Freelon is  in front of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Freelon, who died in July, is known as the architect of record for the museum in Washington, D.C., but also is known for his state and regional projects.
The late Durham architect Philip Freelon is in front of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Freelon, who died in July, is known as the architect of record for the museum in Washington, D.C., but also is known for his state and regional projects. Courtesy of The Freelon Group

Nearly 30 years after U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., proposed the bill that created it, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens to the public Saturday, Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C.

The African-American museum is a striking building in the context of the National Mall — its dark iron facade, called the Corona, sets it apart visually from any other structure on the mall, which is mostly surrounded by marble and rectangular buildings.

On the inside, the museum takes you chronologically through the African-American experience, from the Middle Passage to African-American influence in the 21st Century. It’s an experience that this writer found to be moving and quite emotional during a media tour of the exhibits earlier this year.

One man who was integral to the creation and design of the museum is Philip Freelon, founder of the Durham-based architecture firm The Freelon Group. Freelon, along with the architecture firms Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroupJJR, created all of the pre-design and design work for the building.

It’s a project that he has worked on for the past nine years and something he called the “commission of a lifetime.”

The following is a brief conversation with Freelon edited for clarity:

How did you get involved?

This goes back 12 to 13 years. Back when [President] George W. Bush first appointed a commission to study the possibility of a museum of this type. I would come up to Washington to observe and sometimes participate in those commission hearings. Just because as an architect, I got wind that this might happen, and I wanted to know all that I could and gather information.

It was sort of a long range goal to possibly be involved with it. During those trips, I would see other colleagues in D.C. interested in the same thing — one of them being Max Bond out of New York. He is a colleague, a friend and some ways a mentor — he was older, he's deceased now, but I knew him from my Harvard days.

At some point Max and I decided that maybe teaming together would be a good thing. We wouldn't be competing against each other and we would be a very strong team, and at the very least pursue the planning and pre-design programming work, which is the precursor to design.

We decided to form an alliance called Freelon-Bond. We did that in preparation and anticipation of the pre-design work. That happened in 2006 or so, and we submitted our credentials and were selected in 2007.

[Our submission for the pre-design] work became the basis for the design and before that the design competition. So, that takes us up to ’07 and ’08. We were finishing up the program when the design competition was announced toward the end of 2008. We made sure that if we were successful that we wouldn't be denied the opportunity to also compete for the design work.

So when the design competition was announced, we got a call from David Adjaye [the British-Ghanaian architect] to ask and meet with us. We met in New York and had a very good discussion. We didn't know David; I only knew him by reputation. But we got along quite well, and more importantly, we shared a similar design philosophy. We added him to the group [which at that time was now] Freelon-Bond-Adjaye-Smith.

The group entered the design competition with more than 60 submissions from around the world. We made it through several rounds of elimination and finally we were one of the six teams who were given a stipend and asked to produce a concept. That was in the spring of ’09, and lo and behold, we won the design competition. That's a long-winded answer but it was a long history for me.

How did you go about integrating African symbols into your work?

I think one of the compelling aspects of our team is that we had experience in designing cultural institutions that were specific to certain groups, for instance The Freelon Group designed the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, also the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta among many others. In all these cases our design approach has been to try to use the building as part of the storytelling, so that the building is contributing to the mission and vision of the institution and has a central role in the story telling.

So the Smithsonian knew, because we told them, that we were committed to a design process that was referential to the history and culture of African-Americans, because that is the way we approach our work. With that in mind, as the design competition began to ramp up, we brainstormed: What was the idea? What is the driver of this design? It has to mean something — not just be a beautiful building that contains exhibits.

We wanted to make sure the building conveyed the gravitas of the museum and was symbolic of the content inside as well. We developed [the design] very quickly, because the competition was only 60 days long. During the process, we very quickly focused on an idea that comes from Yoruba art and architecture — this idea of a crown or a corona. David Adjaye was instrumental in bringing that idea forward. We all pretty quickly gravitated toward that as the central notion of the building. A.) it had meaning, B.) it was simple and C.) it was different and distinctive and had roots in the motherland, Africa.

Then, as we began to develop that idea, we drew from another source for the inspiration on the patterning of the Corona. The perforations that we see are really derived from the iron work that you see in Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans, where enslaved African-Americans and freed African-Americans were creating these incredibly ornate and beautiful patterns in iron. The pattern that we see today is a modern interpretation of those ornate grillworks that we see in the South. It was meaningful on another level in that those structures in the South created shade, a barrier for the elements, but they were also beautiful and expressive of the handwork and artistry of our people.

What did it mean to you to work on this project?

For me, it was an honor, and an incredible opportunity to have a hand in this historic building that is going to be here for 100 years plus. It's an incredibly humbling experience and a privilege to be involved.

What do you want people to take away from the museum overall?

I would hope that people would feel welcome and be intrigued by the design and drawn to it, including the Porch, which is another southern tradition that we have on the south of the building. This broad expanse that provides shade and welcomes people into the building from the mall, where 77 percent of the people will approach the building.

First of all, I would hope people feel welcomed and intrigued by the design enough to come in and learn about it, and then once they've experience the exhibits and the building's interior and exterior, that somehow they are moved and it makes a difference in their lives moving forward.

What was it like to work with David Adjaye?

Working with David Adjaye has been a pleasure. He's very talented and creative. He works in a collaborative way, which is what compelled Max Bond and I to expand the team and include him. That promise of close collaboration has really come through, and what we see in the building is the result of those four different firms coming together in a very powerful way. I have enjoyed very much getting to know David, both personally and professionally, and I admire him as an architect.

Do you have a favorite part of the museum?

No, I don't. You can imagine that working on something for nine years, your focus on what you are trying to accomplish kind of shifts over time. Initially it was the challenge of keeping the water out of the site. Half of the building is below grade and we are in a high-water table area, so there’s a whole challenge of putting a building into a small site which is 50 percent below ground.

That was fun. It was interesting, and it was a challenge. I used that as an example, early on, that it has been kind of a moving set of challenges all along the way. How do you get the Corona to be engineered to do what it needs to do… and all the water testing and wind and thermal and seismic tests as well.

And so it all leads to what we see today. It's more about the process than one thing. I would say that the overall coming together of the elements is my favorite part. The fact that the Corona works with the site, it works with the porch and the interior, and it's all one integrated system that is beautiful. To me, that is pretty compelling.

In the context of the mall, how does the building work?

The building is distinct and different from the others, but I think in a positive way. That was intentional.

Many of the buildings on the mall are of a limestone color or a light marble — in that lighter tonal range. It is by design that our building stands somewhat in contrast of that, but I think it is complementary at same time. And it’s appropriate that the building have a deeper, rich color to it — and one that changes over time, so some times of the day it can appear really bright, almost ablaze with the reflection of the sun and other times, on a cloudy day or the early evening, it can appear brown or a bit darker, but still light and beautiful.

And then there are things to recognize our important place on the mall, for instance the angle of the corona at 17.5 degrees matches the angle of the top of the Washington Monument. The pyramidal shape is the exact same. There are references back to its concept that make sense and complimentary of its neighbors.

How do you put this into the context of your career?

I think that over the nine-year period that we have been involved contractually, I have been able to watch it develop from an idea to seeing it come out of the ground. There has been a lot of time to think about how it came together and how it fits into the history of Washington and beyond. It's obviously the commission of a lifetime, and it's a tremendous honor to have worked on it.

What will you be doing for the opening?

I am here in Washington now, and there are a number of events, including a reception at the White House, a donors reception and performance at the Kennedy Center. There are many activities that I am involved in. And hopefully I will be enjoying all those activities leading up to the opening.

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes