Phil Freelon joined the African American Student Union at the GSD last week for an inspiring talk entitled “Design with Dignity.” Freelon, a Loeb Fellow from 1990, is the founder and director of the Freelon Group as well as managing director and design director of Perkins + Will’s North Carolina practice. He is perhaps best known for his ongoing collaboration with Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroup on the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, scheduled to open in 2016.
As an experienced instructor and lecturer, Freelon is comfortable and charismatic with students. Though he is enthusiastic about project particulars and site specifics, he is all the more impassioned about the vision for a building’s symbolism and synergy in its surrounding community. He is careful to use the physical space to echo the mission and vision of the building’s purpose with a distinct effort to “leverage space for stories.”
Freelon walked students through a selection of his projects, explaining design choices, project evolution and the importance of a clear and consistent vision for the community that will ultimately use the space. Freelon has long been committed to work in the public realm, with an impressive repertoire of cultural and civic buildings across the country, from cultural centers to municipal buildings to local libraries. He holds the same reverence for clients and community wherever he goes, and whether the building is devoted to the history of a specific people or the use of a particular neighborhood, the work is always intended to emphasize and elevate “the interconnectedness of all people.”
Freelon’s approach is well summarized in his vision for the Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina, a cultural building on a challenging “throwaway site.” He appreciated the challenge and committed himself to working creatively with the constraints at hand. The building exterior was inspired by “African textile designs and African American quilting patterns,” and Freelon created a beautifully “stitched” building, reflecting the significance of quilting in African American history. The powerful imagery of “stitching together” diverse pieces and pulling together “something of nothing” bolstered the project’s successful integration into a cultural district and historic neighborhood.
Students and community members were inspired by the commitment to creativity, authenticity and community consistent throughout Freelon’s distinguished career. Though his beautifully articulated vision is his own, Freelon speaks graciously and excitedly about the collaborative work he has engaged in. He might have been speaking of his views on collaboration or about the unique character of his perspective and approach when he said, “We’re not afraid of using color. We bring color into our work.”