The Idea Drives the Design: An Interview with Phil Freelon

Phil Freelon, FAIA

Phil Freelon, FAIA

Who are you, and how would you describe yourself?

I’m an architect. That’s who I am professionally, and that means that I work with clients to create environments that meet their needs and desires, their dreams, and their wishes in a collaborative way. We partner with folks who have needs for physical space and in a very general sense that’s what we do as architects. We listen and try to interpret what we hear, to create buildings and in some cases broader scale environments like urban planning, landscapes, and the natural environment. That’s who I am professionally. I’m also a husband, a father, a grandfather, and an African American. There are many different ways one could define themselves.

Share something about yourself that most people don’t know.

I’m a photographer also. That’s another way of expressing my creativity. I consider architecture an art, an art that people use that has utility to it. There are other things that I do like photography that are ways of expressing an artistic side and creativity. I’ve had one-person shows in Durham and Houston. I’ve taught at the architecture courses at the college level, and that’s something that many people don’t know.

I want to hear about the Smithsonian project. What about that project excites you? When I think about it the first thing that comes to my mind is, wow!


What excites me is the opportunity to be involved in something of that scale and that magnitude that’s going to be on the mall in Washington, DC… a prime location, and it’s about my culture, the African-American experience in the US. The struggles, the triumphs, and just having a role in bringing that to fruition is a tremendous honor and very exciting. It’s also like a nine-year process, and there are moments when it’s challenging and excruciating but also exhilarating, fulfilling, and inspiring. So that’s what the project means to me in a very broad sense. When you come back to the box of architecture, what that means is we’re able to give architectural form to the mission and vision of that institution so that the architectural expression is an extension of that message and the realization of those goals and ideals of the institution that is the national Smithsonian. It’s always been our approach to try to create spaces that weren’t simply beautiful wrappers around exhibits but where the architecture itself plays a role, and the exhibits and the architecture are integrated. All those things are very special to me on that project.

What stands out about the Smithsonian project?

The idea drives the design. We often say that our design is idea-driven. Even in a building such as a hospital or a bus station, there still can be ideas that inform the process. So that’s one—not that we’re the only architecture firm that does that, but it’s something we work on. It’s who we are. It’s a distinguishing characteristic that we think our clients resonate with.

What would be the biggest challenge for that project, something that would keep you up at night?

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture (Alan Karchmer photo).

It depends on where you are in the process. It’s been nine years or more. Early on, it was trying to focus in on the requirements—what sort of spaces, the requirements of each of the spaces, how big are they. The costs…huge challenge. Schedule…enormous challenge. Coordination between four architects…really challenging. Another 29 consultants. Being the architect of record and holding the contracts as the responsible party for delivering the entire design. To single out one challenge is like a person saying what’s the most important part of their body? You just can’t say one individual thing was the most important challenge. It’s a moving target. As architects, we see those challenges as exciting opportunities. But that word has negative connotations, that it’s a struggle. No, that’s what we do. We solve problems. We figure out what the challenges are, jump right in, and find solutions. The off the shelf answer is schedule and budget. There are many, many challenges, thousands of decisions along the way. Some of them are difficult. Some are simple, but it all adds up to a complex project that requires a lot of attention, passion, and drive, and a huge team.

What’s been your most favorite project and why?

I have three children. If someone were to ask me about my favorite child…well, there’s no answer for that. So for different reasons, they’re all special. I can’t say that the Smithsonian is my favorite, because where do you go from there. I think the next project is the favorite, because you want to come to it with fresh energy, another challenge. I get asked that question a lot of times, and I use the analogy of being father and each of my children being special in their own way.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I want to help people. As a mentor and as a role model. I would like my legacy to be that for folks who observe what I’ve been doing…it’s inspired them to enter the profession, to encourage a young person to enter the profession and the design fields. By the way, those professions are very underrepresented in regards to African-Americans. I’d like to think that any exposure I get is helping to rectify that. There is this huge challenge for architects wanting to see more diversity in the profession, because most young people in communities of color just don’t know any architects or what we do. Fewer than 2% of the registered architects in this country are African-American.

Early on in my career, I decided to focus on certain building types that make a positive difference in the community. So we don’t do prisons. We don’t do strip shopping centers. We don’t do jails. Let other architects do those things. We do things that contribute to enlightenment…schools, college and university buildings, museums. The thought is that we’re making a difference, and after I’ve retired and I’m gone, hopefully the impact that I’ve had continues through those buildings and consequently I have a positive impact on those who visit, live, play, work, and observe these spaces.

Tell me a little bit about your teaching.

I’ve always had a hand in teaching. I taught at NC State, never fulltime, but as an adjunct and guest lecturer. In recent years, I’ve been teaching at MIT. I’m on the faculty there as a professor. I was appointed in 2009 to that position and prior to that I was a visiting lecturer since 2007. That’s my alma mater. So in fall semesters, I teach there on Fridays. That institution did a lot for me and so did NC State. So I’m giving back by staying involved. It feeds my curiosity and my spirit to be around young people and curious minds. I do it for those reasons.

How does the architect design at home and how do you think that the way you see things as an architect has informed the way you interact in a personal and family type of setting?

My children…they’re all teachers at the university level. They’re artists. My daughter Maya is a visual artist, and she has had one-woman shows and has taught. Right now she is concentrating on her family. She has a five-year old son and is expecting a second child. My daughter is in the middle. She has an older brother and a younger brother.

The older brother Deen is in Washington at American University where he just received tenure. He has a Ph.D. in political communications and teaches there in the School of Communication.

My youngest son Pierce is also a university professor at the university in Chapel Hill and at Central. His degrees are in African-American studies and Pan-African studies. He’s also a performer like his mother. He’s a musician, and they’re really doing well. They’re talented.

As an architect, it’s like they don’t see anything unusual because I would always bring them to the office. I never pushed them into it nor did I encourage it. I just fed their interest whatever it was. So I guess my daughter who is the visual artist is the closest to what I do. But each of them has their own way of expressing creativity and having a positive impact on their environment, just not as an architect. That sort of philosophy has permeated through our family, through my wife Nnenna and me and the work that we do. We have chosen to do this with our careers, and they can see those things. They can see what I’ve been talking about in action, and I’m sure that has influenced their choices, career choices, partner choices, and life choices.

Phil Freelon at the International Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta (Mark Herboth photo)

Phil Freelon, FAIA
Title: Managing Director, Design Director, North Carolina Office
Firm: Perkins+Will (The Freelon Group merged with Perkins+Will in 2014)
Company: Perkins+Will, a global design and architecture firm of 2000 employees
Lives in: Durham, NC
Business Bio: Phil Freelon

You mentioned the underrepresentation of people of color. What are some of the things you think could help with that?

Let’s go back to the profession. It’s kind of a small profession to begin with. There are only about 110,000 licensed architects in the country. Now in comparison there are over a million attorneys. There are 800,000 physicians. So what do people see? That’s what they see if you are talking about seeing mainstream professions. That’s where the visibility part becomes important because in a very small profession, we’re a very small slice. That’s also where the awareness comes into play. When a mother sees me on television or someone sees a newspaper article and calls and says my nephew wants to be an architect, the answer is always yes bring them to the office. I get calls from middle schools, high schools, career day…can you come and talk. I don’t do it as much myself but I send other people, other architects. The people who work here understand our commitment to diversity not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it fuels our creativity to have different perspectives, different backgrounds. If you know that exposure and understanding of the profession is the reason for the lack of diversity, then you try to have an impact on that by educating people and making them aware of certain professions.

The other reason I teach is that once you’re in an architectural curriculum…first of all it’s very hard to get in…because the admissions standards are higher than the average; even within a school you can have the SAT scores and grade point average to get into the university but then it’s higher. So there’s a barrier there. If you’re not focused in high school to get those marks, then even if you want to be an architect it’s hard to get in. It’s another barrier. Then once you’re in, who’s your champion? Who’s your mentor? How do you get through this very rigorous curriculum that is famous for attrition? So that’s one of the reasons I teach so that I can have a role in guiding them through…there’s someone here who’s done it and looks like me. Then you graduate. You’re not an architect yet. There’s an intern period of 2, 3, 4 years, whatever it takes to get qualified. Then you have to take an exam. So there are all these hurdles that any one of which could knock you off your game and discourage you. Those are some of the things I try to focus on…making it more accessible and positioning our bright young talented people with potential. That drives my decisions about teaching and about bringing interns here in the summer, and lecturing.

So who were your mentors, your champions who sort of guided you even if they didn’t know they were guiding you?

I didn’t know any architects. My parents were college educated but didn’t know any architects. I stumbled onto it. I took classes in high school in drawing, design, and drafting. I was at Central High School, a magnet school in Philadelphia where there were entrance requirements. I was fortunate to get into that program. It’s almost like a prep school education. I got some exposure there.

My grandfather Allan Freelon was a painter and a fine artist during the Harlem Renaissance period, and I knew from visiting his studio and seeing his paintings that that was something that was possible for me. So early on I was interested in painting and sculpting and stuff like that. It sort of changed when I got to high school and learned about all these other avenues for that kind of talent, and architecture seemed to be to me a really perfect blend of things like art and also math, physics, geometry and some of the more technical sides.

Not really understanding what architecture was but sort of guessing about what architects might do, I applied to architecture school and got into Hampton. I met my first architect in the flesh, John Spencer, who was a mentor. Before that it was my father and my grandfather. They weren’t architects but got me on the right path. Although my father was not in an artistic career per say, I was able to observe him in a business environment and watch how he was able to build a career in sales and marketing, and advance. Being around him was great and once I got to college, Spencer, Roger Clark, Bob Burns, and other architects who saw in me potential and talent, encouraged me. From a distance and across time, Julian Abele was an inspiration. He was an African-American architect from the 20s, 30s, and 40s from Philadelphia who worked at Duke University. I thought to myself, look, if this gentleman could do what he did in that time frame…well, it was very inspiring.

Shelia A. Huggins is a North Carolina licensed attorney who practices primarily in the areas business and contract law. Her niche is working with new and expanding businesses in the entertainment and sports worlds. Ms. Huggins obtained both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from North Carolina State University. She has a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Certificate in Documentary Arts from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. As an attorney, she has worked with musicians, filmmakers, writers, performing artists, restauranteurs, and a variety of small business owners across the state. As an artist, she has been recognized as an Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artist in Photography and was selected as a 2015 Documentary Fellow.