America’s Humanitarian Architect

Co.Design’s Architect of the Year, Phil Freelon, is changing the profession–one building, and one architect, at a time.

It’s just before 9 a.m. on an overcast February morning. About 60 fifth graders at a Harlem charter school have just filed into a multipurpose room to hear architect Phil Freelon talk about his career-defining work on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, or NMAAHC, in Washington, D.C., the universally celebrated newest addition to the Smithsonian Institution. But before he gets to his lesson about the design—a brilliant, bronze-hued building that alights the Mall like a shining crown—he warms up the crowd by letting them in on a secret: He once played drums in a band with his brother, Gregory Freelon, a teacher at the school. The room’s energy perks up as students whisper; Phil has instantly connected to each of them. Now it’s time for the meatier part of his talk.


The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is one of Freelon’s career-defining projects. [Photo: © Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC]
“What does art mean to you?” he asks.

Eager hands shoot into the air. “Art is a subject of creativity,” a boy says. “It’s expressing yourself,” a girl comments. Freelon gestures toward the room’s vibrant student paintings and explains that while art can hang on a wall, it can also have dimension, like a sculpture. Or even a building. He’s made the link to architecture.

“Design is like art, but it’s solving problems,” Freelon says. “It’s art that has a purpose to it.”


Now they’re hungry for more. After speaking about the NMAAHC’s influences–how the crown on a traditional African column influenced the structure’s shape, how the latticed facade riffs on cast-iron fences in the American South that were often built by slaves, and how the building’s angles are exactly the same as the Washington Monument’s peak–Freelon welcomes questions from the students.

A study model of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, a museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.  [Photo: Arturo Olmos for Fast Company]
Some ask about the museum’s design, or its future. “Will Donald Trump end architecture and tear down the museum?” one girl wonders; Freelon reassures her it isn’t going anywhere. But most questions are about what it’s like to be an architect, how Freelon knew he wanted it to be his life’s work, and what he likes most about it. “It gives me pride to make a building that tells the story [about African-American history],” he explains. “Doing something you love doesn’t seem like work, it feels like fun.”

Freelon is riding a decade-long hot streak in his career. He’s designed nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to black culture in the United States, from the NMAAHC, in D.C., and the Center for Civil and Human Rights, in Atlanta, to the Museum of the African Diaspora, in San Francisco, the forthcoming Motown Museum, in Detroit, and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, in Jackson. He is the design director of Perkins + Will‘s North Carolina Practice and a member of the firm’s board, and was named by President Obama to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in 2011 and served from 2012 to 2016. He’s unquestionably the most influential African-American architect practicing today.


In designing the Center for Civil and Human Rights, a museum in Atlanta, Freelon riffed on an historic portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. linking arms with protesters.   [Photo: © Mark Herboth Photography]
But in addition to designing spaces that celebrate diversity, Freelon is trying to design diversity and inclusivity into the very profession of architecture–which is stubbornly male and pale. According to a 2017 report from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, 90% of architects identified as white, 5% as Asian, 2% as African American, and 2% as other. Only 19% are female. The percentage of African-American architects has remained steady at 2% for the last several years. It’s why Freelon is visiting a school where 100% of the students are from low-income and/or minority families to talk about his work; why, earlier that same week, he spoke to his grandson’s second-grade class. By getting children interested in architecture at an early age, Freelon hopes to infuse his profession with a wealth of perspectives and voices.

“You look at music and you look at sports and you have all these great examples of African Americans who have had transcendent impact on other professions, but not architecture,” Freelon says. “Where’s our Miles Davis? Our Barack Obama? It’s because there isn’t critical mass. The profession, in general, is missing out on a potentially deep pool of talent and the world is missing out on great ideas and buildings that could be happening by virtue of that infusion of energy and creativity that we see in music or dance or almost any other profession.”

Freelon, who is 65, speaks softly with a slight southern twang. He’s got the demeanor of a professor, and, with his charcoal-gray suits and black sneakers, the look of an architect on the go. There’s an economy to his words—a reflection of his design sensibility, which derives its richness from having only the essential details and right references to make a building understandable and meaningful.


The first time I met Freelon was at the Center for Architecture, in New York City–the local American Institute of Architects chapter’s headquarters. He was speaking on a panel about diversity in architecture. “The very highest level in the AIA is the fellowship,” Freelon, who is a fellow himself, told the audience. “And that’s 4% African American. Think about that. That’s because those who go through the struggle and persevere are at the very top of the game. What this means, if you sort of read between the tea leaves, is if you’re a marginalized person, and you don’t have a mentor, you’re not going to get through. If you’re the majority race, the support system is there. If you’re running with the wind to your back, you don’t notice it. But if you’re running with it in your face, you really do notice it.”

Freelon is trying to shift those winds, and promote diversity and inclusion through a multi-pronged approach. Earlier this year, the AIA issued new guidelines for equity, diversity, and inclusion, and many of its suggestions mirror the strategy Freelon has taken for years: better K-12 education outreach, financial aid for university students, and more aggressive hiring. He speaks to students of all ages about architecture, and gives speeches and appears on panels. In 2016, he and Perkins + Will established the Freelon Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, a financial aid program for students from underrepresented demographic and economic backgrounds, which named its first fellow, Aria Griffin, this fall. But most importantly, he’s leading by example by structuring his practice to be as inclusive and diverse as he would like to see the overall profession become. His practice is about 40% women and 30% people of color. The managing director of Freelon’s practice, Zena Howard, is an African-American woman and has been working alongside him for 14 years.


Phil Freelon and Zena Howard, managing director of Perkins + Will’s North Carolina practice. [Photo: Arturo Olmos for Fast Company]
Promoting diversity isn’t just about advancing progressive values and social equity–it’s a savvy business move, too. A 2015 McKinsey report found that ethnically diverse organizations are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors. For architecture, which influences virtually every aspect of our lives from our homes to our schools and shared public spaces, including a range of perspectives and voices in the design process has never been more critical. When architects communicate with and embody the population they serve, their buildings work better for people. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that Freelon’s buildings, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, have served as places of demonstration and collective action in 2017.)

“I like having different perspectives at the highest level of the practice because it makes for better decisions,” Freelon says. “If I knew everything and felt like my decisions were better than anyone else, why have anyone else around? Having women, minorities, people from other parts of the world, and age diversity makes for better design, better decisions, and a more vibrant practice.”

Freelon’s current office is in an historic tower in downtown Durham, North Carolina. [Photo: Arturo Olmos for Fast Company]
Freelon tells me this during a February meeting at his then office in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, a suburban innovation hub. Freelon has worked out of this area since 1990, when he founded his own firm, the Freelon Group, which merged with Perkins + Will in 2014. It’s an understated building with glass walls, views of the surrounding trees, concrete floors, and exposed steel trusses. Dozens of study models line bookshelves in the cavernous space; plans for in-progress projects are tacked up on the walls, and a tidy library of material samples tucked in the back. His is the only private office in the building, an unfussy room strewn with papers, books, and magazines. He has a few antiques from his travels to Africa and South America perched on a long, low shelf and access passes to the Grammys propped up on a windowsill from when he was a guest of his wife, the jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, who is a six-time nominee of the award.


In early 2016, Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease, and the diagnosis has thrown his impact on the profession–and the designers around him–into sharper relief. At a time when both citizens and organizations are waking up to the inequities that hamper social progress and the realization of great ideas, his career is a blueprint for making an industry more diverse and empowering people and others to effect change through creative work. His legacy isn’t just about designing buildings–it’s about building people.

Freelon was born and raised in Philadelphia and his family–which included artists and educators–fueled his creativity and his social perspective.

“I want to do something for my culture, for my people, and for my community,” he says. “Sometimes that means folks who are affluent and their children may already have privilege, that’s fine, but it’s also folks who may not have had the start that I had, with both parents at home, a very strong father. I want to help people who may have not had that. It’s always been on my mind. And my parents were the same way.”


Freelon recounts a story about one of his earliest memories with his grandfather, Allan Freelon Sr., who was an impressionist painter and the first African American to oversee the Philadelphia School District’s arts programing. “I couldn’t have been more than six or seven when we had a quiet moment together walking through the woods,” Freelon tells me. “At one point he asked me to stop and sit down next to him on a log. He asked me to close my eyes and just listen and experience the environment without using my eyes. And I still remember that because it may have been the first time that I was dialed into the environment around me in a different way, a conscious way, rather than just things coming into your ears and eyes and nose and not thinking about it–sort of just analyzing and being aware.”

The office has a full materials library, which helps the designers create buildings that are visually exciting and warm. [Photo: Arturo Olmos for Fast Company]
His father, a sales and marketing professional, and mother, a school teacher and administrator, encouraged Freelon and his siblings to pursue what they were interested in creatively. Freelon and his brother used to build toy models their father bought for them on business trips.

“We would get little kits and we’d follow the instructions—like A clips to B, B clips to C—and glue on these decals,” Gregory recalled after Phil’s lecture at his school. “We made fighter planes and jets and military-type things and we’d sit in our room we had together and make them. Mine had fingerprints all over them and the decals were bent and crooked. Phil’s were always perfect.”


In high school, Freelon took a technical drawing class–which he liked because it involved artistic creativity alongside geometry, math, and physics–that introduced him to architecture, which he describes as a “compelling blend” of those subjects. He left Philadelphia when he was 18 to attend Hampton University, in Virginia, to study architecture. He quickly rose to the top of his class and eventually transferred to a more rigorous program at North Carolina State University. He then went to MIT and he earned his Masters in Architecture degree in 1977. Shortly after, he worked at architecture firms in Boston and Houston then returned to North Carolina to work in the Durham-based practice O’Brien Atkins, where he interned before graduate school, and hasn’t moved since. “I’ve been here so long,” Freelon says. “I’ve adopted North Carolina and it’s adopted me.”

It’s impossible to visit Durham and not encounter Freelon’s work. Historically, the city’s economy was based on manufacturing and Durham, in comparison to Raleigh and Chapel Hill, is known as the blue-collar town in North Carolina’s triangle. For generations following the Civil War, tobacco and textiles were the city’s primary industries. The city experienced a growth spurt in the first half of the 20th century, and many of its downtown buildings—including the one where Freelon and his wife resided for decades—were constructed during the Art Deco era. The city has been a hub of African-American entrepreneurship for decades (which grew from the Jim Crow laws in the United States, which forced African Americans to develop their own companies); downtown Durham was known as Black Wall Street. As the tobacco industry left, and urban renewal planning practices took over in the 1960s and ’70s, the city’s economy slumped. In the last few decades it has experienced a gradual rebirth, much of which is tied to Duke University’s growth and the thriving education and medicine industries.

Freelon’s work is primarily in the public realm—a by-product of his interest in architecture that enriches communities—and much of it runs parallel to the region’s upswing. In 1995, the Freelon Group, in collaboration with HOK Sport, completed a $16.1 million stadium for the Durham Bulls, the city’s triple-A minor league baseball team. Located in downtown Durham, the stadium is part of an adaptive reuse project that turned a former tobacco factory into a mixed-use development.


The Durham Station Transportation Center. [Photo: © James West/]
In 2008, he completed Durham Station Transportation Center, the city’s public transportation hub, which serves an estimated 4.5 million passengers annually. At the Raleigh-Durham airport, he designed the parking structure, which earned state and local AIA honor awards, and the General Aviation Terminal. Years later, his firm collaborated with architect Curt Fentress on Terminal 2–a 920,000-square-foot, $570-million structure that opened in 2011.

“I have this feeling that everyone should have access to beautiful architecture, not only people who can afford custom homes or are going to a museum and can pay the price of getting in,” Freelon says as we’re driving to the Transportation Center, which despite being close to 10 years old, still looks fresh. Built into its sloping site, the two-story glass structure features a soaring atrium, custom metal benches, and a polished red-and-black terrazzo floor. “It doesn’t look like a bus station; it looks beautiful,” Freelon adds. “I’m happy that people get to experience that kind of uplift in their everyday lives.”

Freelon wanted The Durham County Human Services Complex to “be a place that was dignified and welcoming and beautiful as a public space,” he says. [Photo: Perkins + Will]
In his work, Freelon has taken a humanitarian approach. One of the local buildings that’s most emblematic of his point of view is the Durham County Human Services Building. There’s no attribution to the quote emblazoned on a three-story votive wall near the building’s entrance, but Freelon authored the inscription: “Durham’s vitality is built upon the health of our residents and the capacity of our community to foster and enhance the well-being of every citizen.”


The previous public health department building was a windowless brick fortress–a building that was harsh and imposing with little interest in quality of life for the people who worked there or who came for services. Freelon’s design, on the other hand, puts human experience at the center. Completed in 2013, DCHS is home to public medical, dental, and mental-health services. The airy, energy-efficient building is wrapped around a central courtyard, which offers people who use the building a calm area to use while they wait for their appointments, and helps keep daylight enter the sprawling 277,000-square-foot structure.

“I wanted it to be a place that was dignified and welcoming and beautiful as a public space,” he told me when we visited the building. “And also for the people who worked here to be proud of it.”

While Freelon is widely respected among peers, what he’s recognized for most from the public is advancing diversity through museums and cultural centers dedicated to African-American history. Freelon’s success in this area is a function of his strength as a designer and communicator—but it’s also the result of shrewd business development by one of his closest colleagues and oldest friends, Lew Meyers.


Meyers has known Freelon for over 30 years, and Nnenna since she was in high school when he was her Upward Bound counselor. He started with the Freelon Group in 1997 as a business development consultant and later joined the firm full-time to become the head of marketing (and a shareholder). His role was bringing in new clients and projects, generating exposure for the firm, and talking up Freelon’s bona fides. He became Freelon’s right hand over the years; if they were a double act, he’d be the funny man to Freelon’s straight man. After retiring in early 2016, Meyers joined Downtown Durham Inc.—an economic development nonprofit—as its interim CEO.

“Phil is sort of selfless,” Meyers, who was part owner in the Freelon Group, tells me. “My biggest problem with Phil was trying to sell him. I’d say, ‘Phil, damnit, I need to sell you! You need to do what I tell you to do!’ Because I think he’s bashful, I think he’s shy, I think if Phil had his druthers he’d probably be doing a little sketching, doing some fishing, doing some photography. When you think of a lot of the things that he does, they’re somewhat solitary. Phil is just a good person.”

To Meyers, how people network is one of the biggest challenges of making the profession more diverse. It’s a problem present in many industries, but it’s especially prevalent in architecture–and the business of architecture–since commissions are frequently based on reputation, word of mouth, and connections.


During lean times economically, a substantial part of Meyers’s role was staying active in community groups, attending conferences, and keeping his ear to the ground to stay abreast of potential commissions so that when a big project did come about, the people commissioning the building would immediately think of Freelon’s firm.

“The big problem is in the business world, there’s so much structural segregation: where people live, where they go to church, etc.,” he says. “If I was white and I wanted to meet [a potential CEO client], because I don’t live in his neighborhood, I don’t go to the same country club, I’d figure out where he went to church. If he went to Grey Baptist, I would be at Grey Baptist. That gives you a platform to meet. And that’s the problem with race. If I’m black and I go to that all-white church [they’d say], ‘Who in the hell is that crazy animal? Oh hell no, I’m damn sure not going to do business with him.’ That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but that’s what I mean with structural segregation. Where do you get a chance to meet people? Because the good-old-boy network is that people do business with people they know. That’s logical. Business is risky. If I can reduce my risk because I know you as opposed to I don’t know her, I’m reducing my risk and I’d rather my friend make the money as opposed to someone I don’t know. That’s natural.”

Meyers’s networking strategy fueled the firm’s rise in the cultural realm. In the early 2000s, he attended a conference hosted by the American Alliance of Museums, a nonprofit professional association for the museum industry. At the conference, the Association of African-American Museums hosted a reception for their annual meeting, which was done on a nonprofit’s budget, to put it gently.

“I went to the reception and we were drinking cheap wine out of plastic stem glasses,” Meyers recalls. “There were two grapes, three pieces of cheese, and four crackers. So I told the guy who was in charge, ‘Look, this doesn’t work. This is embarrassing. What would it cost to do a first-rate reception?’ He said, ‘A thousand.’ I said, ‘As long as I’m with the firm, you can have the $1,000.'”

With that offer, the Freelon Group became a sponsor of the Association of African-American Museums. “We hit that market at the right time in the sense that, why was there a proliferation of African-American museums? Because people of color were getting on city councils, and they said it’s my time,” Meyers says. It was at one of those receptions that he met someone working on the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), in San Francisco. Freelon eventually won the commission in 2002.

A 40-foot mosaic composed of thousands of photographs is a metaphor for the stories told within the Museum of the African Diaspora, in San Francisco. [Photo: © Todd Hido/Edge]
At the time, there were few nationally recognized museums focused on African-American history and the Freelon Group was completing two of them: MoAD and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, in Baltimore. Meyers enlisted the help of an outside publicist, Michael Reilly, and the two, recognizing that it was a category of museum that was poised for growth, orchestrated a large press push and got the coverage and national media attention they wanted for the firm’s work on both museums.

The Lewis Museum is located in downtown Baltimore, a short walk from the city’s waterfront. It celebrates the achievements of Maryland’s African-American citizens, and also tells their painful history. The museum’s design embodies this duality. The facade is mostly somber black granite, except for a zip of red and a yellow wall near the museum’s entrance. Inside, a vibrant vermillion interior wall becomes a multi-story sculptural feature that wraps around a dramatic staircase. For MoAD, which opened in 2005, Freelon and his team were presented with a challenging but prominent site in an area of San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood that’s become a mini cultural district. The architects called for an all-glass facade so that passersby can see the three-story tall mosaic mural of a young child’s face, which is composed of hundreds of photographs—a metaphor for the museum’s mission of highlighting the stories of different individuals and groups that are part of the larger diaspora. After the museum opened, it was covered locally in the San Francisco Chronicle and nationally in the New York Times.

“There was a potential for a market for African-American museums,” Meyers says. “I think we helped grow that market because we supported the trade group, we had high-visibility projects, and someone could say, ‘Oh look, if Baltimore has it, I need one.’ And so people were proud.”

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum Of Maryland African American History And Culture uses color–based on the state’s flag–to enliven the space. [Photo: © James West/]
Because museums are big-budget projects, the boards commissioning them often go to architects who have shown that they’re able to work successfully at that scale. With two under his belt, Freelon was automatically on the radar of anyone else who was considering one.

In 2007, Freelon won his next big commission, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The 43,000-square-foot museum’s tessellated exterior walls nod to West African textiles and the patterns from quilts sewn during the Underground Railroad’s era. Freelon helped convince the museum’s board to site the building in the central business district, a part of the city that was once the heart of the black community but was razed in the 1960s for urban renewal plans. This decision reinserts lost culture into downtown Charlotte and makes the museum’s subject matter more accessible to all of the city’s residents.

The wins kept coming. In 2009, the Freelon Group won a competition to design the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR), in Atlanta, beating out higher profile competitors like Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Antoine Predock.

“Phil will often speak about bringing high-quality design to groups or communities that can’t normally afford high-quality design–they sort of get the leftovers,” says Kenneth Luker, a design principal at Perkins + Will’s North Carolina Practice who has been working with Freelon for 11 years and was a lead designer, under Freelon’s direction, of the CCHR. The museum’s form—two arcs that embrace a central volume—was inspired by the symbolism of interlocking arms in an iconic photo of Martin Luther King’s 1965 Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery. Designed to be a space for action, the CCHR’s site was inspired by great urban gathering areas, like Tiananmen Square, Tahrir Square, and the National Mall.

“I like to describe it as, we do architecture that matters,” Luker says. “It matters that it’s there and it would matter very much if it wasn’t there.”

To Luker, the significance of Freelon’s work was made more apparent through the Black Lives Matter movement and in the weeks and months following the 2016 election. His buildings–like the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights–were hubs for political demonstrations and helped enable action. Many protests began or ended at these locations and aerial photography of the demonstrations showed thousands of people congregating around them. “They very clearly mattered at that moment and you understood the impact and the meaning that they had to the community,” Luker says.

Architect and NMAAHC project manager Zena Howard—who was essentially the ringmaster coordinating the dozens of design, engineering, and construction firms involved with the museum, agrees. “These places became places of action because they were designed to allow people to gather,” she says. “They feel safe coming to this building or that building to have a voice and to participate in our democratic process.”

The connection communities develop to Freelon’s building is by design. A building that speaks to the people who use it, his philosophy goes, will ultimately work better for them and stand the test of time. He uses stories to ground each work: the symbolism of MLK in the CCHR’s silhouette, the reinterpretation of slave quilts for the Gantt Center’s façade, and the nod to African crowns in the Smithsonian’s form. Even if you don’t step inside one of these buildings to see the exhibitions that explain the narrative they physically represent, they become part of public’s collective experience.

Emancipation Park, in Houston, features a community center, pool, and rec fields. [Photo: © Mark Herboth Photography]
Freelon also uses this storytelling approach in the public spaces he designs. Take his recent renovation of Emancipation Park, an 11.5-acre public space in Houston, Texas’s Third Ward, an historically African-American, underserved neighborhood. In 1872, local church groups led by a minister who was a former slave pooled together $800 to purchase the land and named it Emancipation Park to honor their newfound freedom. Due to segregation laws in the city, it was the only public park accessible to African Americans for decades. Until the 1960s, it had the only pool for African Americans.

After Houston awarded Freelon and his firm the $33 million renovation, but before any design work took place, he spent an entire year hosting workshops and informal get togethers like BBQs to hear what the community wanted the new park to embody. Lifelong residents in the area shared their personal stories about their connection to the neighborhood and park. As an especially meaningful and symbolic space, Freelon knew their input would be crucial for the project’s success.

Teri Canada, project manager on Emancipation Park, recalls seeing family photographs and reading news clippings the community shared. “People brought trunks of treasures,” she says. “Everyone wanted their family’s history to be part of the park.”

The project includes renovated fields, a new pool, and a new community center whose footprint is inspired by shotgun houses in the area. The flexible design can accommodate new uses over time, ensuring that the park can evolve along with the community. The sensitivity Freelon and his team showed on Emancipation Park represents the design approach they take for every project the practice takes on.

“Many of the projects we do are community based,” Anna Marich, director of visual communications at Perkins + Will’s North Carolina Practice, says. “They have a lot of community engagement and a lot of stakeholders. You have all of these components, but then you have someone like Phil who is a consensus builder. What encompasses his leadership style and his design style is really trying to unite different people and different mind-sets as they come to create one vision. So what makes that happen? A lot of that is Phil’s personality, and identifying and bringing together really strong individuals with different strengths to work toward a goal.”

Architecture is an industry where egos run rampant and the visionary genius is often lionized, but Freelon takes a more empathic and democratic approach. He takes his role as a mentor–to his staff, to his students, and to aspiring architects–very seriously, as it directly relates to the diversity pipeline problem.

“A lot of what I do is facilitate other people–leveraging and enabling others, coaching and being a mentor,” Freelon says. “You want to create an atmosphere where people aren’t afraid to fail. And so I want people to take risks and to know that they’re not going to be fired, they’re not going to be chastised if there’s a failure or two along the way. You have to take some chances. I want to encourage that type of culture . . . [To achieve that], I think it’s important for staff to see their leaders as vulnerable people. This fearless leader, or someone who is afraid to express something less than total positivity about an experience, that happens a lot in our field. You’re going to make errors and mistakes and if I can show that’s not only tolerated, but also celebrated, as part of learning and growing, then that’s a good thing.”

As a rule, every time a parent cold-calls his office and says their son or daughter is interested in architecture and wants to learn more—which happens a few times every year—Freelon always invites them to his office. Either he or someone from the office will show them around and tell them about the work they do, why they pursued the career, and what it means to be an architect. This policy has directly led to getting more underrepresented individuals into the profession.

Edwin Harris–who worked on Emancipation Park, Freedom Park, CCHR, and the Smithsonian–was one such individual. He grew up in a rough neighborhood with underfunded schools in Richmond, Virginia. He liked drawing, and his grandfather suggested that he become an architect. Harris didn’t know anything about what the job meant, and he wanted to talk to some practicing architects to learn more.

“My grandfather reached out to a couple architects but nobody wanted to meet with me,” Harris says. “But then some guy named Phil Freelon did. He said yes. He didn’t know me from anybody, but he still allowed me to come to the office. If it wasn’t for him introducing me to the people I needed to know, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into design school. That was huge.”

After graduating from architecture school and gaining some professional experience at firms in the Raleigh-Durham area, Harris returned to Freelon to talk about a position at the firm. He got the job and worked there for nearly 10 years before launching Evoke Studio in February with Teri Canada and Billy Askey, also a former architect in Freelon’s practice. Harris is now a registered architect, a LEED-accredited professional, and a member of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

“What’s important to me is it’s not just one moment,” Harris says. “Overall, Phil is providing opportunity. It’s one thing to have talent, but if you don’t have opportunity to actually be able to use that talent it doesn’t matter. Phil is able to recognize someone’s abilities and say, let’s put that person in the position [to use them].”

Canada became familiar with Freelon’s work during architecture school. She met him at a Chamber of Commerce meeting after she had been working for a few years and struck up a conversation about the type of work she was doing and what she hoped to achieve. Freelon invited her to visit his practice and eventually hired her. When she decided to leave Freelon’s practice to launch her own, he encouraged her.

“When Edwin says [Phil] gives you an opportunity, it’s true,” she says. “Up until that point [of joining Phil’s firm] I was working on small, local projects. I didn’t know what I could do, but he gave me opportunity after opportunity on national projects.”

Canada worked with Freelon for close to a decade and was appointed to Perkins + Will’s diversity council to help foster more inclusivity, an important part of her professional work. (Canada was one of the first five African-American women to become a registered architect in North Carolina, is a LEED AP, and is also a member of the National Organization of Minority Architects.) At Evoke Studio, she plans to create the same supportive environment she experienced with Freelon.

“I feel like the voice of African-American women has definitely been underrepresented in the architecture profession,” she says. “It was important that I saw what those ahead of me were doing and that I further what they were doing so I can do the same thing for whomever is coming up now.”

Freelon argues that reaching bright people at a very young age is critical, because it can help them get ahead earlier and focus their creative energy sooner. “It’s that saying ‘yes’ all the time so there’s a constant stream of people,” Freelon says. “I’m just happy I’m able to show them, through example, what a great career this can be.”

Pierce Freelon, the youngest of Phil’s three children (his daughter, Maya Freelon Asante, is an accomplished visual artist and his other son Deen Freelon is a communications professor), agrees that helping kids uncover their interests early is important. In 2014, he founded Blackspace, a youth education program in Durham and Chapel Hill that teaches digital media, writing, music, and social entrepreneurship. In 2017, he ran for mayor of Durham on a platform of equitable growth, intersectionality, nurturing the city’s youth.

“It helps you find your purpose in life,” Pierce says. “My dad has known since he was young that he’s wanted to do architecture. Realizing and following your inner compass and feeling those butterflies and following the breadcrumbs to your passion are important things. It’s like finding your love in life. That’s one of the most important things a person can do. You spend so much time working, why not be working on something that’s fulfilling?”

Educational outreach and mentoring has been a mainstay in Freelon’s work, but recently he’s become a different type of advocate. After he was diagnosed with ALS in early 2016, he founded the Freelon Foundation to help raise awareness and research funding to help combat the disease. In April, he and his wife, Nnenna, hosted a benefit concert that raised $95,000 for the Duke University ALS Clinic. To date, the Foundation has raised $172,000 for ALS research.

Freelon’s diagnosis has accelerated some things that were already in the back of his mind, namely a succession plan for eventual retirement. He stopped teaching in 2016, but remains on the faculty at MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning–he’s become more selective about his speaking engagements and encourages senior members of his team to step up and take his place at the podium. He took a monthlong vacation last year, but when he got back to work, he was more energized than ever. Freelon and his wife have been planning a new home for over a decade. This October, they finally completed it.

“I’m looking at every day as a special moment and not thinking so far ahead, and thinking about things like retirement, travel, and time with Nnenna,” Freelon told me after we visited the house when it was still under construction in late February. “All those things are much more precious. Because I enjoy my work, and it’s meaningful work, it’s important to me, too, to continue to do that. So I happen to think about that balance. Part of you says, ‘To hell with work, I want to just live my life.’ But the other part of me says, ‘I don’t want to walk away from the Motown Museum and the other projects.'”

Freelon remains an indispensable part of Perkins + Will for his creative vision and dedication to design and the business of design. “Phil Freelon is a gentle giant of an architect,” Phil Harrison, Perkins + Will’s CEO, says. “He possesses an extremely uncommon combination of ambition, talent, and verve, while also being open, kind, and generous. He is a brilliant gentleman. Phil touches Perkins + Will at every level–a strong voice on our board of directors, our design board, and our research board. At the same time, he makes himself available to mentor Perkins + Will staff and others outside of the firm—the junior and the experienced alike. His designs speak for themselves and are some of the most exciting work coming out of Perkins + Will. I’m delighted to be able to call Phil my partner.”

“I want to do something for my culture, for my people, and for my community,” Freelon says of his work. [Photo: Arturo Olmos for Fast Company]
The North Carolina Practice is in a transitional moment as it readies itself for its next chapter. In mid-May, Freelon stepped down from his position as managing director (Zena Howard earned a promotion to the position), but he’s retaining his position as design director. In August, it relocated to a space in the North Carolina Mutual Building in Downtown Durham, a Brutalist tower which, at its construction in 1965, was the tallest building owned by African Americans, and is located across the street from the Durham Transportation Center. As Freelon’s ALS progresses, it’s likely that he’ll step back from the firm entirely. But because of his leadership and how he’s designed his practice, the hallmarks of what makes his work remarkable will endure indefinitely.

“It’s not like he holds the pen on all the projects; he made room for great design to happen” says Luker, who is likely to become design director of the North Carolina Practice when Phil decides to step back. “By doing that, he has built a practice that is sustainable. He didn’t build a style. Phil built an attitude. And he built people. And he brought people like Zena and myself and others in and made room for us to grow in our careers, nurtured that, and encouraged that. So I don’t like the term ‘the days after Phil.’ It won’t be, ‘He had a style and then that’s done.’ He has built a studio, he has built a culture, and he has built an attitude. That will carry on for many, many years.”

In parallel with his prolific career designing buildings, Freelon has designed a network of architects and creative leaders who are actively following his lead—and they are thriving. Perhaps one day, one of the eager fifth graders he spoke to that cloudy February day will be among them.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.


#FCFestival returns to NYC this September! Get your tickets today!