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Renowned African American Architect Philip Freelon Dies At 66

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Phil Freelon was an architect whose grandfather had been an impressionist painter during the Harlem Renaissance. Freelon continued that legacy by designing public buildings for African American communities around the country.

In 1990, he founded the Freelon Group, which designed the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Museum of the African Diaspora. But his most celebrated work was as lead architect of the African American museum, which opened on the National Mall in 2016.


PHILIP 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.

BARCO: Freelon told NPR's Tell Me More in 2009 that he wanted visitors to the building to feel they were part of the American story. A few years later, after the groundbreaking, Freelon told NPR that, among other things, he wanted the building to capture the history of civil rights leaders.


FREELON: 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.

BARCO: Freelon said the museum's design drew on Yoruba architecture and incorporated suggestions to add water elements, which are significant in different ways.


FREELON: 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. So 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.

BARCO: Born in Philadelphia, Freelon lived and worked in his adopted hometown, Durham, N.C. He is survived by his wife Nnenna, a jazz singer, and three children.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO NOVEL'S "CONNECTED COLORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.