Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the groundbreaking for the Museum for African American History and Culture would be Tuesday, Feb. 21. It is scheduled for Wednesday. It also misspelled the name of Phil Freelon’s wife, Nnenna, and misidentified the university at which his eldest son teaches. It is American University, not the University of Washington. This version has been corrected.
On Tuesday morning, architect Phil Freelon will watch a symbolic shovel break ground on a five-acre site for a new museum adjacent to the Washington Monument.
It will be the second time in six months that the earth there has moved.
August’s 5.8-magnitude quake rattled the historic obelisk all the way up to its aluminum-tipped capstone. Ironically, that capstone had already inspired a key design element for the Smithsonian’s soon-to-be-built Museum for African American History and Culture across 15th Street.
The museum’s design is the result of an intense collaboration among Freelon and two other architects: David Adjaye and the late Max Bond. They came together in 2008 as Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup to compete for the design. They would prevail over 21 other star-studded teams jampacked with names such as Richard Meier, I.M. Pei and Norman Foster.
Each architect in their group was highly regarded. Each happened also to be black: Freelon and Bond were African Americans, and Adjaye was born in Tanzania and raised in London from age 14 by his Ghanaian parents, both diplomats.
Freelon, now the museum’s architect of record, specializes in designing spaces that weave together the nation’s history, fabric and culture. “He uses his talent for the future of our country,” says South Carolina architect Paul Boney.
A native of Philadelphia, Freelon comes from a highly artistic background. His grandfather was a prominent impressionist painter during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. His father, a sales executive, sketched and collected art. His mother was a schoolteacher, engaged in early childhood education.
“My father encouraged painting and drawing,” the 58-year-old says in a telephone interview. “I discovered architecture in high school — I thought it was a perfect blend of art and science.”
His wife, Nnenna, is a six-time Grammy-nominated jazz singer. Their youngest son is a musician who teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill; their daughter, an artist in mixed media with her MFA from Tufts, teaches at Towson University; their oldest son holds a Ph.D. and teaches political communications at American University .
Freelon’s work is, by choice, almost exclusively in the public sphere. “It’s experienced by everyday people,” he says. “I enjoy providing design excellence for people to encounter, in places like libraries and bus stations.”
Wednesday’s groundbreaking looks to the nation’s past as well as its future, underscoring the challenge of interpreting the complex and often appalling narrative arc of the black experience in America — a history of persecution and struggle, to be sure, but one of resiliency and triumph, too.
“The African American story is the quintessential American story, even though it was about a forced migration,” he says. “America is about opportunity for people from other places. You’ll find the best and worst of what the American story is in the African American story.”
Freelon, a graduate of N.C. State’s College of Design in Raleigh with a graduate degree in architecture from MIT, has lived in Durham, N.C., since he received a job offer to return to Carolina from Houston in 1982. He established his own firm there in 1990.
Though his office is based in Durham, he’s no stranger to the District. President Obama recently named him to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, where he follows a distinguished line of historic trail-blazing appointees like Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Gordon Bunshaft (who designed the Hirshhorn Museum), and J. Carter Brown.
His 55-member firm designed the Reginald F. Lewis Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. He recently completed award-winning libraries in Anacostia (2010) and Tenleytown (2011), both earning LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
“It says something when he’s not only worked with us on two libraries but that we hired the Freelon Group as architect of record on the Martin Luther King Library, too,” says Ginnie Cooper, the District’s chief librarian. That 40-year-old building, one of Mies van der Rohe’s last designs, is undergoing renovation.
Cooper hired Adjaye and Bond to design two libraries each for the District as well. Bond was responsible for the Watha T. Daniel Library in Shaw and the Dorothy I. Height Library in Benning. Both opened in 2010. Adjaye’s Francis Gregory Library in Hillcrest and Bellevue Library will open in mid-March.
One of the team’s three architects will not be attending Tuesday’s groundbreaking. Bond, for decades regarded as the dean of African American architects and one of the nation’s most influential architectural educators, succumbed to cancer in 2009.
The gentlemanly, 73-year-old Harvard-educated architect knew precisely what this new museum was meant to be. “He understood the significance — historically, architecturally and culturally — of an African American building on the Mall,” says Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director. “This is sacred space, where most of the world comes to see what it is to be an American.”
Bond and Freelon met in 1989 at Harvard University, when Freelon was on a Loeb Fellowship at the Graduate School of Design. A mentor-protege relationship developed, followed by a friendly competition. By 2005, they’d agreed to join forces to compete for the museum’s initial planning phase.
Shortly after that win, they got a call from the 45-year-old Adjaye, one of Britain’s leading architects, known for his international, award-winning designs for the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, the Moscow School of Business and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. The three had lunch in Manhattan, then elected to collaborate on the competition’s design phase.
“He had an excellent design reputation and stature,” Freelon says of Adjaye, who would become the museum’s lead designer. “We had similar firm cultures and philosophies.”
When Bond died a few months before the design win, Freelon stepped up to fill his shoes — in the project, and also the profession. “He was an example of a prominent African American architect with integrity and design talent, paving the way for the next generation,” he says. “I’m trying to do the same, to make it possible for anyone else coming along.”
Soon, the collaboration by Freelon Adjaye Bond will be tangible, in a 374,000-square-foot, $500 million museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015. Within the next three years, a new monument — sheathed in bronze-colored panels rather than granite, marble or limestone — will start to glow on the Mall.
“The bronze has a patina to it,” Freelon says. “It depends on the sky, the lighting and the time of year to give it a dynamic, changing quality. At night, light emanates from the building, but not to overpower its neighbors.”
It’s a different kind of design for a space known largely for its neoclassical landscape. This museum eschews the influence of Western civilization, instead choosing to focus on West Africa and the rich culture of the ancient Yoruba tribe there. They’re a people known for their exquisite bronze and metal sculptural art — and for their role in the African diaspora in the Americas.
Adjaye sees the museum as a consciousness-raiser. “It’s about how you understand the roots of the African American community — where it comes from, and how you move one culture into another,” he says.
“The concept is a blending of African and African American influences,” Freelon says.
The seven-story building is designed to be an uplifting experience. Its first and largest gallery, accessed by an interior glass elevator, will lie underground, but rise 60 feet. There, visitors will view a vintage Pullman car and a restored Stearman PT-13D aircraft used to train Tuskegee Airmen from 1944 to 1946. Escalators and stairs will lead to galleries above, each articulating the stories of African American contributions to music, sports and civil rights, among other topics.
Within the galleries will be a number of framed, uninterrupted vistas of surrounding monuments — to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln — viewed through the lens of African American history and culture.
The museum’s primary signature will be its silhouette of a bronze corona. In a form reminiscent of an inverted ziggurat, the corona is akin to a huge capital at the top of a Yoruban column — tiered and cantilevered out as it rises.
It is freighted with meanings.
“It’s like the inverted, triple-headed crown used by the Yoruban court,” Adjaye says.
“It’s a crown that signifies the status of the person wearing it,” Freelon says. “It’s part of the celebratory nature of the building — an architectural form that’s uplifting and dignified.”
The rhythmic pattern stitched into the corona’s perforated skin, a filigreed envelope designed to add transparency and dappled light to the interior, was inspired by the ornamental ironwork on the verandas and porches of Charleston and New Orleans.
But most symbolic is the angle of this corona. It slants skyward at 17 degrees — almost precisely the cant of the capstone atop its neighbor, the Washington Monument.
It’s at once a deft and thoughtful statement by Freelon Adjaye Bond — and a fitting gesture for the nation’s newest museum.
Welton writes about architecture, art and design for a number of national publications. He also publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.