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Inspiring Action: The National Center for Civil and Human Rights

From our Ideas+Buildings Blog

Responding to a design challenge is part of every project. In the case of the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the challenge presented was both exciting and daunting. An international design competition outlined the goal: create a world class destination designed to reflect and support the Center’s global humanitarian vision.

Right after our team won the competition, I met with CEO Doug Shipman and we talked about the aspirations for The Center’s design. They clearly were aiming high. The Center’s supporters envisioned a world-class destination for Atlanta. We talked about the need for a distinctive design and a space able to spark a deep personal connection and inspire each visitor to take action in some way.

Reaching Beyond Building Type

To achieve this emotional connection, The Center needed to connect past and present and offer an experience that went beyond chronicling historic events and curating exhibits. The design team began our journey by looking closely at the history of civil and human rights in the United States and around the world.

We were intrigued by the seminal events and the public places where groups gathered – places belonging to everyday people. In these public squares, plazas and parks, citizens from all walks of life came together to show a sense of unity and purpose. We looked to gathering places such as the National Mall in Washington, Tiananmen Square in Beijing and Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Creating A Space for Action

The Center’s design is inspired by those places where human rights and civil rights stands were taken and history changed. We wanted to capture that sense of possibility and unity.

With multiple interior and exterior gathering places, The Center provides spaces for visitors to congregate and encourages exploration and a natural flow of people into, through and around the entire site. The variety of spaces allows for communication around ideas and action through exhibits, performances, poetry readings, lectures and global conferences.

We introduced the idea of congregation to The Center’s exterior as well. Its sculpted form is defined by two curved walls that embrace the exhibits and programmed spaces within. Clad in architectural panels of varying size, color and transparency, the exterior wall assembly suggests the rich and varied palate that defines humanity and celebrates the power of individuals coming together to achieve a common goal.


The exterior wall assembly suggests the rich and varied palate that defines humanity and celebrates the power of individuals coming together to achieve a common goal. Image (c) Albert Vecerka | ESTO

The 42,000 square foot building, with its curved walls and placement on the site, provide a Space for Action where The Center and its various programs and interactive exhibits offer a reminder of civil rights accomplishments of the past while casting a light on the human and civil rights issues we face today.

Upon arrival, you immediately notice how the City of Atlanta and the public gathering space overlooking Centennial Olympic Park are as much a part of the visitor experience as the building and exhibits. The main entrance faces Pemberton Place, a pedestrian park that connects The Center to other major Atlanta cultural venues including the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca Cola.

The building program is arranged to connect visitors to each other, the important stories of the Civil Rights movement in the US and current human rights issues throughout the world. The lower level is anchored by the gallery dedicated to the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. collection, an archive of papers and artifacts that includes the original script of Doctor King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Selected portions of the King collection will be displayed on a rotating basis.

More than five decades after that famous speech, the struggle for civil and human rights continues. We see reminders in the news every day showing us how the mission of the Center is critically important now and in the future. As Dr. King once said, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.” By taking individual and collective action, we can begin to address injustice at home and abroad – working together to advance civil and human rights.


The author (Phil Freelon) inside the new space. Image (c) Mark Herboth Photography

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