Variant Expressions

A Highlight of the 2015 IRAAA Issue on Architecture

David P. Brown

The special architecture issue of the print IRAAA journal (v. 25, no. 2, 2015) includes David P. Brown’s essay on the improvisatory aspects of architect Phil Freelon’s designs and drawings. Freelon's design approach begins in hand drawings which are a fluid expression of his thought processes.

In another article in the issue, J. Michael Welton's "Phil Freelon/Drawing and the Language of Architecture," Welton quotes Freelon as saying:

In both cases, creativity and improvisation are essential. Like the jazz musician, I try to allow those moments of free expression to emerge within and through the regular structure of the overall composition. In this way, I believe that buildings can begin to emulate the joy and exuberance of jazz music.

We asked David Brown to reflect on Freelon’s statement about creativity, improvisation and jazz-influenced design. His response follows.

Freelon Table 2. Photo: Phil Freelon, FAIAFreelon Table 1. Photo: Phil Freelon, FAIAFreelon’s two tables share a common structure. Both are formed from a collection of tubes describing a basic geometric form (square and ellipse) that branch out to support a glass plane. They depart from one another in their sensibility about the branching. The first is a projection from a square described by 64 columns bundled side by side in an 8 x 8 grid to form a larger square. The 32 tubes of the second table are lined side by side to describe the perimeter of an ellipse, then branch to a scattered set of points in which an order is not apparent. 

As a pair, the tables are consistent with Freelon’s general use of contrasts. He asks the participant observer to actively think about two contrasting elements. There is a heavy/light contrast in his Raleigh-Durham International Airport Parking Structure and a close/distant one in the face comprised of photos as pixels in the Museum of the African Diaspora. Perhaps the most compelling example of contrast is the Tenley Library.

Tenley Library Hand sketch by Phil Freelon, FAIAThe plan sketch for the Tenley Library shows a six-sided object – its shape derived from the constraints of the site. The sketch also reveals three dominant plan shapes—a L or C shaped figure just inside the west and south outer walls, with an atrium with a boomerang-like shape,and a third shape in the north east portion of the overall shape. Three irregular polygonal shapes (with the final building articulated as two shapes joined by an atrium shape rather than the nested configuration with those shapes no more distinct than the ones in the sketch) define the overall form. The emphasis on the exterior form is not on the shapes but the planar relationships that those shapes establish. Equally notable in the sketch are three bent vertical lines running left to right, with the one to the far right articulated as a set of louvers. The two outer bars may be read as 7s, too, if one includes the north walls. 

DC Public Library Tenley Library. Photo: Mark Herboth These lines are rhythmic elements that are elaborated in the building to form a spatial play of suggested forms through use of the orange and gray panels, which unify the parts, in different ways. From the northeast corner, the building appears to be organized by two bars of similar proportion separated DC Public Library Tenley Library. Photo: Mark Herboth by an atrium—one bar is closed and the other open based on the orientation of the orange panels for both bars. There also are two proportionally similar, closed and open bars at the Southeast corner.  However, the width of these implied bars is greater than the width of bars implied from the northeast. A gray paneled eave runs below two thirds of the cantilevered area of the open bar before rotating 90 degrees and forming a two-story wall running east-west, perpendicular to the bar’s length, to suggest that the final third is a cube-like volume facing the street corner.  As one moves around and through the building or concentrates on specific elements within it, the building varies in one’s sense of the relations of parts. The focus is less on the overall form than on the relations of parts within planar or spatial moments. 

In his statement, Freelon recognizes that improvisation has an under acknowledged role in many endeavors. As Jane Jacobs wrote in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, while discussing economic development, “Invention, practical problem solving, improvisation, and innovation are all part and parcel of one another.”However, jazz performance is one of the few forms in which improvisation is valued and appreciated as a vital part of the work. Through his use of contrasting elements, which operate as a kind of call and response, Freelon similarly strives to extend the energy of improvisation within drawing into his constructed work.

Table 1 Hand sketch by Phil Freelon, FAIAFreelon Table 1. Photo: Phil Freelon, FAIAWhile Freelon’s tables participate in this call and response play of contrasts, they point to a different understanding, too. Both have fidelity to the same baobab tree sketch. Both use bent tubes to create a geometric abstraction of the tree. The essential difference is in their plan conceptions, which can be described as regular compared to irregular in their formal organization, but, focusing on the sense of motion embedded in the organization, this difference can equally be described as static versus dynamic. 

Table 2 Hand sketch by Phil Freelon, FAIAThe first table is stable in its order, even when one considers that the projection from one square to another is off center along one axis. The second, lacking an apparent order, is dynamically poised. It engages its observer in the qualities of its pattern, the composition of points and their proximities, as much as its overall geometry. Furthermore, it suggests other positions and patterns and possibly other unanticipated orders. The second tablemanifests movement innately, without the need of an opposition. It is an organization of time rather than an organization of space, and in this manner the table “emulates the joy and exuberance of jazz music.” 

Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. Photo: Mark Herboth PhotographyIn the Gantt Center and the Center for Human Rights, Freelon is able to extend “the emergence of moments of free expression” through façades informed by African textiles and African American quilts. Visual equivalents to the syncopated rhythms of jazz and African drumming, those textiles and quilts provide organizations that, like the second table, are internally poised and tensioned in ways that manifest movement.

Gantt Center Hand sketch by Phil Freelon, FAIAThe sketches for the Gantt Center reveal a development from a hovering box with a central aperture, to that box split in two, just left of center, by a jagged shard-like form (drawn in red), to the same form diagram with the box receiving diagonals seemingly derived in relation to the interrupting form. Those diagonals introduce an idea of textiles and quilts. A set of channels form a web, comprised of long, low-sloped diagonals connected by short steep-sloped diagonals, that describes the façade as a collection of differently sized and shaped polygons pieced together like a quilt. The primary material of the façade is a perforated metal screen that introduces its own grid pattern across the façade. There is slight variation in the color within alternating zones, described by the diagonal channels, of the screen, but the pattern of the screen is continuous. 

Gantt Center Hand sketch by Phil Freelon, FAIAGantt Center Hand sketch by Phil Freelon, FAIAGantt Center rear viewA visual play stems from the alternating perception of whether or not the façade is a patchwork or a singular element. Adding to this movement are the ways that the diagonal channels are aligned with or independent of the other elements of the façade.

 Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. Photo: Mark Herboth PhotographyA channel in the glass zone aligns with the top edge of the glass trapezoid in the large panel plane. However that trapezoid ends at a point where a small irregular patch—relative to the others—is needed. A second low-sloped channel is interrupted as it moves across the glass zone by a vertical rectangle framing an area where the glassslopes away from the façade plane.

A series of horizontal and diagonal lines running across the length of the two arcs provide the primary form of the Center for Human Rights. The spaces between these lines are treated as strips and filled with two to three different widths of windows and three different colored panels. Given the color National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Renderings: FREELON HOKvariations and assembly patterned vertical alignments occur, too. The result is similar to West African narrow strip textiles, formed by arranging and sewing together a set of weft-faced strips, with varying bands running across the width, which are rotated and assembled with other strips to form a broader textiles that have complex rhythmic effects.

National Center for Civil and Human Rights concept photoNational Center for Civil and Human Rights Hand sketch by Phil Freelon, FAIAThese façade aspects are not in the initial sketch, but they reinforce an intention expressed in orange within it—the movement to and through the two arcs. The design is as much about movement as form and the qualities of the façade provides a basis for conveying that movement. When coupled with the arcs, the dynamic qualities of the textile pattern accentuate the variation in the building form as one moves around it and approach it. The center is different at every point from which it is viewed.

National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Renderings: FREELON HOKThere are broader implications here. The organizational sensibilities in the textiles can inform different aspects and scales of architecture in addition to its façades, as can the compositional work of musicians such as Roscoe Mitchell, Lawrence “Butch” Morris, Cecil Taylor, and George Lewis. While not explicitly visual, their compositional works, intended to structure individual and collective improvisation and filled with time-based organizational strategies are notable for qualities they elicit. George Lewis’ “Artificial Life,” an instructional composition for improvisers with open improvisation, organizes the basis for a music that has properties and behaviors indicative of life. Working with similar organizational approaches, architecture can make opportunities for improvisation—and its attendant actions of invention and innovation—more readily available in the world.


1. For further discussion of African textiles in the context of organizations of time and architecture see Sanford Kwinter, “Beat Science” in Michael Asgaard Andersen and Herik Oxvig, eds., Paradoxes of Appearing (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2009), 149-167.

2. For further discussion of the compositional work of Roscoe Mitchell, Lawrence “Butch” Morris, and Cecil Taylor see David P. Brown, “Curious Mixtures” in Michael Benedikt, ed., Center 18: Music in Architecture-Architecture in Music, 2014, pp. 54-63.

David Brown is an associate professor and the associate director at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture. He is author of Noise Orders: Jazz, Improvisation, and Architecture (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), a study of design implications of structures that facilitate improvisation in jazz. Current essays “Curious Mixtures” [“Music in Architecture—Architecture in Music,” Center, vol. 18, 2014] and “Lots will vary” [George Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, eds., Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, forthcoming] advance that study in the context of discussing his current design research, "The Available City," which explores the urban design potential of Chicago’s 15,000 city-owned lots. That design research has been exhibited at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale and the Chicago Cultural Center.)