You’ve probably heard of Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright, but if you’re new to the name of Phil Freelon, you should.
A new exhibition created by students and faculty at UNC Charlotte’s School of Architecture examines the design contributions of Freelon, a North Carolina-based architect who died in 2019.
“Container / Contained: Phil Freelon – Design Strategies for Telling African American Stories” is now on view until January 17th in one of Freelon’s award-winning buildings – the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte. Then it’s on to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh from February 26th.
Freelon, who was Black, gave its architecture the meaning of expressing the content of each structure while reflecting the communities it would serve.
The exhibition shows how Freelon turned ideas into subtle architectural elements. Some examples include the use of the interlocking arms of civil rights-era marches as inspiration for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the use of the colors of hit records as architectural fins for a new addition to the Motown Museum in Detroit, and the use of unfolded strands of DNA on the facade of the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise at North Carolina Central University in Durham.
In his four decades as head of the Freelon Group in Durham and later as design director for the North Carolina office of Perkins & Will, he has particularly focused on museums and cultural institutions that narrate black experiences and use architecture to elevate and to inform.
He designed such prominent buildings as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, and the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro.
But he designed many other structures as well, from public libraries and buildings at historically black colleges and universities to community parks. One of his final projects, North Carolina Freedom Park in Raleigh, is slated for completion in 2022. It recognizes the contributions of black Americans to the cultural, educational, and economic development of the state.
A unique collaboration
When Freelon died of ALS in the summer of 2019, Emily Makas of UNC Charlotte’s School of Architecture felt it was important that the university – as one of only two accredited architecture schools in the state – commemorate and analyze his work.
“It’s nice work, but also really interesting,” said Makas, noting that there had been no previous scientific or critical examination of Freelon’s designs.
Makas, Associate Director of the School of Architecture and Associate Professor of Urban and Architectural History at UNC Charlotte, had just completed a project involving students helping research and designing an exhibition at the Levine Museum of the New South.
She suggested offering a similar semester course with Associate Professor Greg Snyder. The goal: To delve deeper into the way Freelon used architecture to tell stories for a campus exhibition – to explore his design strategies and whether patterns or evolutions appeared in his work over time.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, which brought both challenges and opportunities.
With public meetings on campus interrupted, the exhibition was delayed, unexpectedly giving professors and their students additional time to prepare. It also inspired Makas to partner with the Gantt Center to bring it to their larger uptown gallery with greater community reach.
“It just grew and grew and grew,” Makas said. The project expanded from a semester-long look at Freelon’s museum work to a more comprehensive two-year study of his architecture across different design types.
The importance of the project has also evolved.
âMy work has always revolved around architecture and identity, but with the resurgence of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter last year, centering the African-American part of the narrative became a goal – to raise your voice, but also as a project for mine Student color, âsaid Makas. “We’re not talking about so many color architects in the examples we give, (and) here’s this fascinating one that I’m working on anyway.”
It was the perfect opportunity to involve even more students – 23 total – doing research, creating display panels, and building 3D printed models of Freelon’s designs.
Among the students involved was senior Tahlya Mock, who was doing her sophomore year on the project. She said the experience of seeing how Freelon positively influenced his community and designed monumental buildings was inspiring, especially as a black architecture student.
“Like your mom said, ‘You can do whatever you want, reach for the stars,’ but until you see someone like yourself doing it, it’s hard to believe,” Mock said.
âWe’re so few,â she added. “Only 2% of architects are African American, which is so much less than so many other statistics for different career paths.”
Mock, like many of her classmates, continued working on the project after their first class ended. For her, that included paid opportunities through the UNC Charlotte’s Office of Undergraduate Research one summer and a micro-internship this fall.
“But if it hadn’t been for these opportunities, I would still have signed up for the independent course,” she said. “Because I felt too connected to the project to just let go of it.”
A legacy of community and history
âHe was just an extraordinary person,â says architect Darrel Williams, founding partner and owner of Neighboring Concepts, of Freelon, with whom he worked on the Gantt Center design team.
Freelon captured a community’s history and culture through its architecture, said Williams, who now serves as the Gantt Center’s chairman of the board. The design of this building, for example, pays tribute to Charlotte’s historic Brooklyn neighborhood, a once thriving center of the city’s black community that was razed to the ground in the 1960s.
Freelon took inspiration from Myers Street School, Charlotte’s first public school for black children in Brooklyn, for the interior stairs and nooks of the Gantt on the outside of the building. The school’s distinctive outdoor fire escape had led it to become known as Jacob’s Ladder School. The exterior of the Gantt also replicates a pattern of quilts that are reminiscent of both African American and African history and culture.
“When you (the people) explain how and why the building was designed the way it is, it reminds you of that story,” he said. “This story can be told forever, based on and inspired by a building that no longer exists.”
Williams said he hopes the talks on Freelon continue to ensure that âits influence and impact will last in many ways, which will help inspire young people – and inspire young black boys and girls – so that they can become the best, whatever they choose to do.
“And that’s what Phil did,” said Williams. “He became the best …”
“Container / Contain: Phil Freelon”
Where: Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, 551 S. Tryon St., Charlotte
When: Until January 17th (closed on Mondays).
Costs: Adults $ 9; Seniors, Educators, K-College Students, or Military $ 7; 5 and below free.
Where: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh.
When: February 26th – May 15th
Costs: For free.
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