Architect On New Black History Museum Design

The way Americans learn about African American history is largely shaped by architect Philip Freelon. He's designed most of the country's major African American history and culture museums — from the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, NC, to the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. And Wednesday there was a groundbreaking ceremony on the National Mall for his highest profile project to date — the new Smithsonian devoted to African American history and culture. Freelon stopped by after the ceremony to talk with Melissa Block about the museum and his design philosophy.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The new museum will be 374,000 square feet, right next to the Washington Monument. It was designed by three architects. And the architect of record on the project joins me here in the studio. Philip Freelon, welcome to the program.

PHILIP FREELON: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about the design, the form of the structure. To me, I'm looking at an image. It looks like three trapezoids stacked on top of each other with the widest one on top.

FREELON: They're all the same width. But the idea really originated from Yoruban architecture. David Adjaye, our lead designer, came up with the idea of trying to link the building form to a cultural icon that was significant. There are other aspects of the design, for instance, the porch, which is, I think, more akin to what see in America - not only in black culture but across the nation. And so it's really a blending of cultural icons that we think speak to the African American culture.

BLOCK: I'm thinking about what you said about the drawing on the Yoruba culture and the design of the structure. How much would you expect the visitor to the museum to understand that? Would that be part of the experience of going that you might learn that this harks back to a certain African statue and the form?

FREELON: Well, I think it's subtle. And we believe that it's appropriate for the visitors to explore that a bit and not to be quite so literal in these references. And so we would expect that a visitor would think this building is beautiful and perhaps different from others they've seen, and they might want to investigate about why or what is the meaning - or why is the building formed in this particular way.

BLOCK: And the outside of the building is going to be a bronze of some sort?

FREELON: Yes. The walls of the corona are actually a bronze-clad composite material. So it'll appear bronze. This will have light-permeable panels that allow people to see through but also allow light to come into the building.

BLOCK: What's it going to look like at night?

FREELON: Well, it's going to have somewhat of a glow, but we were careful to respect our very prominent neighbors, most importantly, the Washington Monument. And so the building will emanate light from inside but not to the extent that it would be, you know, overpowering visually to the Washington Monument.

BLOCK: We're at a point where a number of the leaders of the civil rights movement have died or are getting on in years. Do you think about this as a certain turning point and a point at which it's important to capture that history before they're gone?

FREELON: Well, I think there's a sense of urgency, as we look at that body of work and the people that were influential in bringing civil rights, you know, to the forefront in this country. And so we want to capture that, and I think it's a heightened awareness on the part of the general public.

BLOCK: Did you have conversations with civil rights leaders as you were designing the building? Did you try to incorporate some of their thoughts?

FREELON: Of course. And not only the well-known names, but these facilities should express the ideals and vision of the everyday person. There were foot soldiers, if you will, of the civil rights movement that need to be commemorated. And often, those stories, because they're unfamiliar, are really quite interesting. And so our efforts to pull out the interesting stories goes beyond just the marquee names that we all know.

BLOCK: Can you think of things that folks from the civil rights movement told you were important to them that have gotten folded into the design of the new museum here in Washington?

FREELON: Yes. So, you know, we knew that water was something that we heard over and over again, and the significance of water on a number of different levels. One would be obviously the Middle Passage and passing over water to arrive in this country from the African continent. And then water as a reference to spirituality and cleansing. And so if you'll notice in our site plan, there are moments where you cross water to come into the building, or you pass by water. And also, in the building, there's water flowing.

BLOCK: What was it like for you today to be there at the groundbreaking?

FREELON: It was very moving, I have to say. The list of speakers, the performances, there was music, the president was there, and it went off just beautifully. I mean, all I can say is that there were moments where tears began to flow.

BLOCK: Philip Freelon, thanks so much.

FREELON: Thank you.

BLOCK: Philip Freelon is the architect of record for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open in November 2015.

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