MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And now a story about building diversity on the national mall, brick by brick. When the National Museum of African-American History and Culture opens in Washington, D.C., in 2015, visitors will be able to experience centuries of African-American history from the moment they walk through the doors.
And museum officials announced on Tuesday who will be responsible for creating that vision. With us to tell us more is Phillip Freelon. He's president of the Freelon Group, the architectural firm that led the winning design team. He's based in Durham, North Carolina, and he joins us from there now. Welcome, Mr. Freelon. Thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations.
Mr. PHILLIP FREELON (President, Freelon Group): Thank you very much.
MARTIN: This isn't your only major commission. Your group has designed major museums in Baltimore and San Francisco. You have a number of other commissions for important public buildings, but how important was this to you? How much did you want this?
Mr. FREELON: Well, this was an opportunity of a lifetime, really, and our team felt like we were preparing not just over the past year or two but for decades, looking forward to being involved in this very important project.
MARTIN: Of course, we'll have pictures of the winning design on our Web site so that people can see it for themselves, but if you could briefly describe the design for us.
Mr. FREELON: We took the idea of a crown, or corona, and created a box within a box and so there is a bronze corona surrounding the exhibits that are on the upper levels. And that creates a zone between the exhibits and the exterior where visitors are circulating up through the museum and can look out through different vistas out into the mall and other sites in Washington.
MARTIN: What kind of experience do you want visitors to have when they look at the building from the outside and what kind of experience do you want them to have on the inside?
Mr. FREELON: Well, we think it's important to express both the gravity and struggle of the African-American experience, but also the joy and vibrancy. And we would like for visitors to be welcomed and attracted to the building and the exhibits and learn something once they are in and feel that they are a part of this important American history story.
MARTIN: I'm going to put you on the spot, but what do you think distinguished your winning proposal from the others?
Mr. FREELON: Well, I would say that our design team - and I need to mention the others, because it's not just the Freelon Group but David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates in London, Davis Brody Bond of New York and the SmithGroup there in Washington. It was really a collaborative effort, and I think that the jury resonated with this notion of expressing both the difficult stories, telling the truth, but also the story that - of rejuvenation. And I think really the quintessential American story of being able to persevere against difficult circumstances and become successful in this country.
MARTIN: You, yourself, are African-American and as you pointed out other members of your design group are people of African heritage. David Adjaye was born in Tanzania. Max Bond Group, J. Max Bond group, who sadly passed in the course of preparing for the competition, is considered one of the deans of architecture in this country and African-American architecture also. Do you think it was important to have African-American architects as leaders of this design process for this project? Do you think that matters?
Mr. FREELON: Well, we certainly did. And perhaps the jury felt the same way. And at the end of the day the design and the approach I think is what's important. And I think that different architects, different backgrounds can certainly bring value to the process. Having said that, I do believe that being part of the culture, we are in a better position, as African-Americans, to help interpret that through architecture and through design.
MARTIN: Do you think there is an African-American aesthetic?
Mr. FREELON: I think that the buildings designed by African-Americans - we bring our own experience and our own values to that endeavor, and so in that sense it comes through in the design work. And that's different obviously for every person whether African-American or not.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the winning design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Our guest is Phillip Freelon. He is the head of the design group that won the competition. Your group, as I mentioned, has designed African-American history museums in Baltimore and San Francisco. Do you think you have a unifying style or theme across these projects?
Mr. FREELON: Not at all, no. Each one is different and as you look at the designs, they really are reflection of a number of things - the specific program and vision of the institution, number one. And then each building has its own context. And we feel it's important for any building to be a good neighbor and to fit in the urban fabric or whatever the architectural context is, listening very carefully and engaging the client and understanding what the vision and mission of the institution is.
We believe that the building ought to begin to express that, not simply be a vessel holding artifacts or exhibits, and so the building helps to tell the story. Each story is a bit different.
MARTIN: And in a lot of cities a single museum might be a significant landmark, I mean a real destination, some place that just really stands out aesthetically. On the National Mall there are - I don't even know how many museums there are and monuments and so forth - I mean that's kind of what it is. When you thought about the design, how did you think about this museum in relationship to the others already there?
Mr. FREELON: Well we felt that the museum - the new museum - should be respectful of this very important site. It's the last site on the Mall for building. And, you know, we came into the process understanding the importance of that, understanding that the building should be exuberant and dignified at the same time but not necessarily shouting out look at me. And so we feel there are moments on the exterior and the interior that are very vibrant and exciting in a manner that is appropriate for this important site.
MARTIN: Can I ask about you for a minute?
Mr. FREELON: Sure.
MARTIN: Why did you want to be an architect?
Mr. FREELON: Well, as a youngster, my parents exposed me to the arts, as that's part of my family history. And so I always felt like I would be doing something creative, even as a youngster. And when I got into high school, I stumbled upon design and drafting and architectural-type work and to me it seemed like the perfect blend of art and science. I was always interested in math and geometry and then there was this creative aspect to it and I felt that architecture was the thing I was born to do.
MARTIN: This has been a very big year for you. You're also set to receive the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture at the end of this month. What does that recognition mean to you?
Mr. FREELON: Any time your peers recognize your work in a positive manner, it's gratifying and humbling at the same time. And for us as architects, in my mid-50's now I'm kind of an adolescent in this profession, because it takes a while to develop a career and a body of work. And so I feel like these acknowledgments and accomplishments are really the beginning for our firm, you know, moving on into the next few decades.
MARTIN: As you get to work on this latest project, what are you going to be thinking about? Is there something that you're going to be thinking about as you proceed that is different from what you kept in your mind as you worked on the other projects that you've done, which are also very significant.
Mr. FREELON: Well, this is a national museum. And I have a lot of confidence that we can work together to accomplish this very important task and that is to tell our story through architecture and to work very closely with the museum and the exhibit designers to tell that story in a manner that is accessible to all people. This is the quintessential American story and it's not just for and about African-Americans. This is broader than that. And so we take that responsibility very seriously and we look forward to telling the story in a manner that is appropriate.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations once again.
Mr. FREELON: Oh, thank you very much.
MARTIN: Phillip Freelon is president of the architectural firm The Freelon Group. He's the leader of the group that submitted the winning design for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture which is scheduled to open in Washington D.C. in the year 2015. He was kind enough to join us from member station WUNC in Durham, North Carolina. Congratulations and thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. FREELON: Thank you again.
MARTIN: And speaking of history, okay recent history, our program's second anniversary is just around the corner. And that makes it a good time to think about what we've done well, and what we might want to do differently in the next year. So we'd like you to tell us: what do you love about TELL ME MORE and what could use some improvement? To tell us more about what you think, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again that's 202-842-3522. Please remember to tell us your name or you can always go to our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org and blog it out.
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