July 10, 2019

Celebrating the Legacy of Phil Freelon

Today, we celebrate the life and legacy of Phil Freelon—our colleague, our friend, our great source of inspiration. Phil’s lifelong dedication to designing places that express the spirit of community, promote cultural equity, and effect positive social change has left a profound impact on us, and on the entire nation.


Whether through his professional work or his personal passions, Phil touched the lives of so many people. We invite you to share your favorite memories of him here.


Phil Freelon
“I have worked through my career as an architect to create environments that are uplifting, inspiring, and set the tone for sharing knowledge and facilitating cultural exchange. You see, I believe that the built environment—that's buildings and landscapes—can and should contribute in a positive way to the lives of everyday people. Beautiful architecture should be accessible to all.”
Designing a Socially Equitable World

Over the course of his 42-year-career, Phil was committed to breaking down socioeconomic and cultural barriers in architecture and design. This was evident not only in his long-standing efforts to diversify the profession through community outreach and mentorship, but also in his championing of beautiful, dignified public spaces—particularly those in underserved urban neighborhoods.

Phil considered teaching and mentorship an inextricable part of his personal and professional mission. He believed both were critical for achieving greater diversity in the design profession.
Phil took every opportunity to introduce young people to architecture and design. Here, he engages with a group of fifth graders at the Global Community Charter School in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, February 2017.
Phil also devoted time and resources to providing more opportunities to underrepresented aspiring and emerging designers, allowing them to explore the possibilities of design through creative thought.

Here, he and Phil Harrison, our CEO, meet the first recipient of the Phil Freelon Fellowship, Aria Griffin, at the Harvard GSD in 2017. See more in this GSD video.

Phil drew a standing-room-only crowd in our Boston studio for a presentation to the local chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects in 2016.
“I made some decisions in my career about the kind of buildings I wanted to design. They include schools, college and university projects, public sector work, museums, and libraries. Why? Because they enhance the communities they’re in.”
Phil’s design of the Durham County Human Services Complex in downtown Durham, North Carolina, provides a historically underserved black community with a bright, welcoming, uplifting environment in which residents can access medical, dental, and mental health services. Here, too, county employees can benefit from a light-filled, airy workplace and a tranquil landscaped courtyard. It was Phil who wrote the words inscribed on the votive wall.
Bridging Cultural Divides

Phil believed strongly in the power of design to unite individuals—and entire communities—through the expression of shared human values and the exchange of cultural differences. He devoted much of his career to designing public places and institutions that promote learning, acceptance, and inclusion. And he always made it a point to actively engage community members, soliciting their input to help design places they’d be able cherish for years to come.

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, explores the history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, as well as human rights issues around the world. The symbolism of its design—interlocked hands—has also made it a popular public gathering place for grassroots movements, as seen in this aerial photograph of the 2016 Women’s March.
Engaging members of the community to help inform the design of a place was of paramount importance to Phil, who believed that community contributions to a project create a sense of pride and ownership.
Phil is the creative engine behind nearly every major museum or public space in the U.S. focused on black culture, including the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. On this project, Phil demonstrated his ability to turn a challenge into an opportunity. He worked with a very narrow tract of land to create an award-winning design and cultural nexus for the community.
Phil’s leadership of the design of the NMAAHC was unprecedented, requiring the oversight of four design teams on one of the world’s most culturally significant landmarks. Here, he talks about the project with Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie Bunch, who was then the museum's executive director.
Phil poses in front of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C.—in many ways, his career capstone.
In this 2016 video, Phil reflects on how design can strengthen communities and influence behaviors and ideas for the better, and how the NMAAHC is already doing that.
“We believe it’s not enough to put a beautiful wrapper around a gallery, or around a library, or around a public building or educational facility. Anyone can make a pretty box. We want the building to contribute in some way to the vision of the client or institution.”
The revitalization of Historic Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas—for years, the only public park accessible to African Americans—breathed new life into the heart of the community while celebrating its important past.
Phil delivers a keynote address at the grand opening of Historic Emancipation Park, June 2017.
“Throughout his career, Phil stepped up and seized the role of a leader, inspiring friends, colleagues, employees, interns, and students to aspire to become engaged and responsible citizens.”

—Marvin J. Malecha, President and Chief Academic Officer of the New School of Architecture and Design in San Diego and former Dean of the College of Design at North Carolina State University

A Distinguished Record

The list of Phil’s honors and accolades is long. A few stand out as particularly noteworthy, including his 2011 appointment by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a role Phil held until 2016; his 2017 designation as Architect of the Year by Fast Company; and his 2017 receipt of the North Carolina Award, the highest civilian honor in the state, which Phil has called home for over 30 years.

Phil accepting the 2017 North Carolina Award for fine arts.
Phil signs and gifts to President Barack Obama a replica of the bronze panels adorning the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2016.
Phil’s 2017 photoshoot for Fast Company, after being named Architect of the Year by the magazine, captured his playful and pensive personality.
The Freelon Group joined Perkins&Will in 2014.
An Honorable Leader

Phil, known for his extraordinary clarity of expression in both his architecture and communication, made invaluable contributions to our firm over the years, for which we are deeply grateful. In addition to serving as the Design Director of our North Carolina practice since 2014, he played a critical role on our Board of Directors, our Design Board, and our Research Board—helping to define our firm’s overall strategy and determine our path forward. Phil constantly challenged us to raise the bar on design excellence even higher.

Phil founded The Freelon Group in 1990.
With innovative ideas, thoughtful feedback, and a collaborative spirit, Phil strengthened the quality of every project he touched and improved the performance of every team he was a part of.
A Devoted Family Man

The only thing Phil loved more than enhancing communities through great design was his family. In them, he found an eternal source of love, pride, and inspiration—and he gushed about them every chance he could get.

The Freelon family, 1965. An adolescent Phil is pictured in the upper right.
Phil married the love of his life, Nnenna, in 1979.
Phil was enormously proud of Nnenna, a six-time Grammy Award-nominated jazz singer.
Phil and family
Phil, always at the heart of his family. Clockwise from left: Pierce, Deen, Maya, Nnenna, and Basie the dog. Photographed in 2019.
From his roots in Philadelphia to his role as a dedicated family man, Phil opens up, taking us on an intimate walk down memory lane. Meet the Phil Freelon you never knew you knew.
Forever in Our Hearts

While we are filled with sorrow over the passing of our beloved friend—a man who profoundly touched the lives of everyone he knew—we are also overflowing with gratitude for having known, collaborated with, and learned so much from him. Phil’s legacy will live on in our hearts and memories; in the spirit of his family and the communities he so passionately served; and in the scores of beautiful, uplifting, one-of-a-kind places he designed to stand tall and proud—just like him—all across the country.

Phil’s induction into the AIA College of Fellows, 2003.
Phil hard at work on the drafting table, 1985. He was proud of his academic and professional achievements, which included passing the Architecture Registration Exam in North Carolina at the age of 25 (he was the youngest to do so that year); becoming a professor of architecture at NCSU in 1978; and, later, being appointed Professor of Practice at MIT.
“Phil built a practice that is sustainable. So I don’t think in terms of ‘the days after Phil.’ He built a studio, he built a culture, and he built an attitude. That will carry on for many, many years.”

—Kenneth Luker, Principal


The architectural world has, for many years, taken great interest in the life, work, and impact of Phil Freelon. We are grateful for the many wonderful stories that have been published about him. As we celebrate Phil’s life and legacy, we invite you to read a few of our personal favorites:

“Phil Freelon, America’s Most Prominent Black Architect, Designs for the Culture,” The Undefeated, February 2019

“America’s Humanitarian Architect,” Fast Company, December 2017

“Meet Phil Freelon, the Architect Behind the Newest Smithsonian,” NBC BLK, September 2015


Since Phil’s passing, many preeminent news agencies have published obituaries for him. Here are a select few:

“Philip Freelon, African-American Museum Architect, Dies at 66,” The New York Times

Architect of African American museum, Phil Freelon, dies at 66,” USA Today

“Phil Freelon, architect who helped design Smithsonian’s African American Museum, dies at 66,” The Washington Post

Obituary: Philip Freelon, 1953-2019,” Architectural Record

Phil Freelon, architect of National Museum of African-American History and Culture, dies,” Curbed

Philip Freelon, ‘the most significant African American architect in recent history,’ dies aged 66,” Dezeen

Phil Freelon, Durham architect of African-American History museum, dies,” The News & Observer



Portrait of Phil Freelon © Arturo Olmos; photo of Durham County Human Services Complex and The Harvey B. Gantt Center of African American Arts + Culture © Mark Herboth; Photo of Phil at the National Museum of African American History and Culture © Noah Willman, Freelon Family portrait ©Lissa Gotwalds