Phil Freelon’s Design for Living

Phil Freelon’s Design for Living

The architect, educator and business leader and his family are living with a harsh reality that informs their lives every day. Now, they are making an impact on ALS research at Duke.

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Photo by Briana Brough

Phil has been in Durham nearly four decades, minus stints in Houston, Cambridge and even a split year between Cambridge and Holden Beach – he was completing a fellowship at Harvard when wife, Nnenna, was offered a visiting artist position in Brunswick County from the North Carolina Arts Council. Post-fellowship, Phil started his firm, The Freelon Group, 27 years ago. It was acquired by Perkins+Will in 2014. “Now my reach is broader; the foundation is stronger with this international company that provides a platform for continued growth,” Phil says. And the firm has shown their support of Phil, too, sponsoring a benefit concert at The Carolina Theatre in April for his new campaign, Design A World Without ALS, which aims to raise $250,000 to benefit research at the Duke University ALS Clinic, as well as to support ALS patients and their families. [You can donate to the fund here.] Phil was diagnosed with the neuromuscular disorder, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease, last year. Executive Editor Amanda MacLaren sat down with Phil to talk about this fundraiser, his family and his deep affection for and legacy to Durham.

One can’t imagine what it must be like to get a diagnosis [of ALS].

I had noticed changes in how I was feeling and how I was running. My walking, my gait was changing. I was running hard but I was getting slower and slower to cover the same distance. So I went to our family doctor and after a series of tests and exams by a bunch of people, including neurologists and [an] orthopedic surgeon, I ended up at Duke ALS Clinic with Dr. Richard Bedlack. He was familiar with the symptoms and had done some other tests that convinced him that it was ALS. I asked him, “What percentage are you sure that that’s what it is?” and he told me, “99%.”

Obviously I was disappointed, and there was a period of time when Nnenna and I were thinking that couldn’t be it, they’ve got it wrong. So you struggle through that and try and learn all you can about this, because there’s no reason to think about ALS, or what it is, if you don’t know someone or it doesn’t affect you personally. You just hear the word, hear the letters. … You may have read about Steven Hawking or Lou Gehrig, famous people who have been afflicted by this, but when it hits home like that, you want to dig in and figure out what it means to you and how are you going to deal with it or beat it or whatever.

How are you dealing with this?

That’s a tough thing, and it’s an ongoing process.

Let’s talk about the Design a World Without ALS campaign and the Freelon ALS Fund. Obviously, this is so personal for you.

[The diagnosis] led us to the fundraiser. Over time, talking with family about it, especially Nnenna, it was our feeling that we could continue to do whatever we can for me personally in our family, but there might be something we can do beyond that for people like me who may not have the resources that we have. It’s our way of saying, look, ALS is unfortunate, it’s difficult, but at the same time we want to see if there are ways of helping other people.

We were surprised to know that Duke ALS is only able to fund 20% of Dr. Bedlack’s time, so he’s only there one day a week. ALS doesn’t affect as many people as lung cancer, or heart disease, or AIDS, so [research] doesn’t have that large financial backing. We’re trying to make our little dent by raising funds for the Duke program and raising awareness, so that’s one of the things we can do rather than just retreat and draw into a shell about it.

You’re continuing to work.

I took a month off in July of last year and I got worse. I went back to work, and I felt better. I enjoy my work and I feel that it’s meaningful, and for as long as I can do so, I would like to continue. My colleagues and clients are aware of my situation, and I’m able to continue to work although my mobility is hampered quite a bit. For me, my speech is not affected yet. Some patients with this problem, they are not able to speak, so I’m counting my blessings as they come. And that allows me to continue to engage with clients and staff and colleagues. Also taking some time to travel, taking some time off. Nnenna and I went to Cuba in January and Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November – doing a little of both, continuing my work but also taking time to enjoy every moment, because none of it is promised to us.

Photo by Briana Brough.

What would you name as some of your greatest achievements, thus far? What’s on your highlight reel?

At the top is my family. My wife is incredibly beautiful and talented. [A] six-time Grammy award-winning vocalist who is renowned for what she does, and that’s only the half of it. She’s an incredible wife and mother and grandmother, too, and sister and aunt and all the different roles that you would think of in the family – she’s just embraced that and her career. We’ve been married 37 years. The day I met her was the luckiest day of my life.

And our children are all doing well around Durham. [Now] we’re known more as Pierce’s parents than we are the Freelons. He’s a dynamic guy doing great things for the community – he’s Durham’s No. 1 champion. Maya is a visual artist who has exhibited around the country, the world. [She’s] raising her family primarily now but she just [had] a show in Cary of her work. She and I are collaborating on a few opportunities [to merge art and architecture]. Deen is a tenured professor at American University in Washington, D.C. He was recruited by a number of places, including UNC, and they persuaded him to return – he’ll be an associate professor there starting in the fall of this year. His specialty is political communications, so his topic is very hot and has been for some time.

Also some of the non-architectural things I’ve done like mentoring young people. There are a number of people who have their own firms now that got their start with me, so I’m proud of that. And aside from the buildings, I have the joy of teaching. I speak to youngsters at elementary, middle and high school levels about architecture as a career because I want people to know, first of all, what a great way it is to earn a living and contribute to your community. I want [them] to maybe be inspired to join the profession, thereby increasing the inclusiveness of those of us fortunate enough to work in the design profession. Most professions like architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, they’re not very diverse. So whenever I can talk about that to young people, hopefully they’ll learn something about it and be intrigued and maybe enter the profession.

Through my Harvard affiliation, I’ve established the Freelon Fellowship at the Harvard School of Design to benefit diversity and inclusion. My firm and myself have contributed to an endowment and it spins off enough each year to help one student with their tuition, fees and expenses, etc. so I’m very proud of that.

And we talked about Duke, one of the highlights of this past January, I was asked to speak at the MLK commemorative service at Duke Chapel. I had a huge screen right there in the chapel and talked about our work, showed the [Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture] in Washington, and spoke about how architecture can help to advance some of the tenets that Dr. King espoused during his life, so that was a real thrill. And Nnenna performed at that as well. Whenever there’s an opportunity to do something like that together, it’s a lot of fun. That’s just another reason this [Design a World Without ALS] benefit concert is special, because music and architecture … there have been a number of times over the years when we’ve been able to collaborate and work together, even though on the surface it would look like these two careers wouldn’t have much in common.

What do you enjoy in your spare time?

I have several hobbies. Photography is one. I’ve had one-man shows, I’ve exhibited at Craven Allen Gallery on Broad Street. I’ve had exhibits at the School of Architecture at University of Houston. I also like to fish, so I visit the lakes around here and enjoy being in the natural environment. I catch and release the fish back, and take the pictures to prove I did it. I’ve done pretty well with the bass over the years. We own some property; we’re building on it now, in northwest Durham.

Of your Durham-based architecture projects, if you had to choose a favorite …

No, that would get me in trouble. They’re all really different and each is special in their own way, so I’ll just name a few that people might recognize. Years ago, we were the design architect for the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and also Diamond View I, which is the first office building at right field. Durham Station Transportation Center, the bus station, is a special project for me because I wanted to do something that would enhance the city and bring a certain elevated architectural presence to a regular building like a bus station. Then the Durham County Health and Human Services complex is also one that I’m proud of because it serves folks who otherwise wouldn’t have the kind of health services it provides: mental health, childcare, dentistry, counseling, all the services that they have there are really important to the community.

What was it about Durham that attracted you in the first place?

When I was at N.C. State, one of my professors was Roger Clark. He was the assistant dean at the time of the School of Design [now the College of Design]. I was looking for a summer job and he said, “Well I’m doing some design consulting for a firm here in Durham.” The architect was named John Latimer. That was the summer of ’73. We worked on Durham City Hall and some other projects in Durham, so I got to know Durham that way.

[I worked for Mr. Latimer’s Taunton, Mass., office while in graduate school at MIT, and moved back to N.C. to continue to work for him.] And I started to teach at the College of Design. In 1980, I got an opportunity to go to Houston. I was newly married and we didn’t have any children, so why not? I enjoyed the professional growth there; I got to work on large projects.

Then I got a call from [architects] John Atkins and Bill O’Brien, whom I had met at Mr. Latimer’s office who had started their own firm. [They] asked, “Don’t you want to come back to North Carolina?” Nnenna and I started talking about it – now we had two children and [we thought] North Carolina would be a better place to raise a family. So, [they] recruited me to come back to their growing firm in ’82, and I’ve been here ever since.

And nothing ever tempted you to leave?

Well, we’re doing work all over the country and Nnenna’s been able to enjoy a career in music from here and travels all over the world. You know, one of Nnenna’s very first engagements in Durham as a professional singer was a fundraiser for Mayor Bill Bell, who was running for county commissioner way back when. Lots of people claimed to have discovered Nnenna, and he may be one of them.

I mean, this state is my life. My grandchildren live here, soon to be all of them because [Deen] is moving back here to teach at UNC. I’ve been able to do all that I wanted to with my career and work on some interesting projects all over the country.

It’s been a good base of operation: two careers, three kids. We just love Durham. The city today is more exciting than ever. The things that attracted me in the ‘70s and ‘80s are still there, but the city today is more exciting and vibrant than ever. Duke University is a great partner with the city, and the community, the healthcare system is first class. When my father became ill, he moved here from Chicago and he got excellent treatment. It’s a diverse community that embraces that diversity and welcomes all sorts of people, and that’s always been a plus. The restaurants are great. We moved downtown seven years ago before a bunch of the recent development, and it’s very exciting to see now.

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Amanda MacLaren
Amanda MacLaren is the executive editor of Durham Magazine. Born in Mesa, Ariz., she grew up in Charlotte and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in journalism. She’s lived in Durham for five years now. When she’s not at work, you can usually find her with a beer in hand at Fullsteam, Dain’s Place or Bull City Burger or getting takeout from Chubby’s.