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National Center for Civil and Human Rights

The Freelon Group, HOK

Project Name

National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Project Status



42,000 sq. feet


National Center for Civil and Human Rights

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Text by Katie Gerfen

Civil and human rights are immense, and immensely important, topics―far too much for one organization, let alone one building, to encompass. Which is why the National Center for Civil and Human Rights focuses on “the understanding and exploration of the individual’s role in civil and human rights,” says CEO Doug Shipman. “We’re not trying to embody every moment or issue, but to tell the stories of individual people who have been involved in these movements, so that visitors can understand their perspective and be inspired by their story.” Which is why, he says, the intimate scale and spirit of the building designed for the institution was of paramount importance.

Enter Phil Freelon, FAIA, then of the Freelon Group (his firm has since joined Perkins+Will). The team of Freelon Group and HOK won a 2008 competition for the center in part because of their conceit of a building representing interlocking arms―a symbol of unity and solidarity. “We believe that architectural design, when appropriate, should be representative of the mission of the institution,” Freelon says.

The design as built responds to both the client’s input and the Great Recession (which put the project on hold twice). The 42,000-square-foot building takes advantage of its steeply sloping site with an exterior stair that joins two public plazas. The main, south entrance is on the second of three levels, through a glass façade between two canted, Trespa panel–clad walls. “The subtle change in the size and tonality of the panels might suggest the diversity of people and cultures coming together,” Freelon says.

Inside, “we wanted the visitor to choose the order in which they view the exhibit spaces,” Shipman says. The second-floor lobby leads to the civil rights galleries on the same level, the Martin Luther King Jr. papers on the lower level (which also has a group and special events entrance), and human rights galleries upstairs. Exhibits are rotated out every three to four months to keep up with national and world events.

Lighting in the galleries is controlled, but the public spaces are flooded with daylight, including an overlook at the top of the central stair that is designed to give visitors a place to stop and reflect. From within, the sloping exterior walls are expressed most vividly in the third-floor human rights galleries, where “the leaning walls add gravitas to the powerful and sometimes difficult stories being told,” Freelon says.

“We hoped that it would be a very authentic experience,” Shipman says. “But the most exciting thing for me is how many notes I get, how many young people come up to me and say, ‘This is the first time I’ve really been interested in these topics―it’s never really hit me. This is the first time it’s been personal.’ ”

Project Credits
Project: National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta
Client: National Center for Civil and Human Rights
Project Manager: Gude Management Group in partnership with Cousins Properties
Design Architect: The Freelon Group, Atlanta . Phil Freelon, FAIA (design architect)
Architect of Record: HOK, Atlanta
Landscape: HOK
Plaza Sculpture: Larry Kirkland Studio
Lighting Consultants/Exhibit Lighting: Fisher Marantz Stone
Structural Engineer: Walter P Moore and Sykes Engineering
Civil Engineer: Long Engineering
M/P Engineer: Newcomb & Boyd
Electrical: Davis Pullen Engineers
Contractor: H.J. Russell & Co., C.D. Moody Construction and Holder Construction, Joint Venture
Cost Estimator: Cost Plus
Exhibit Design: Rockwell Group
Exhibit Fabricator: Design & Production
Size: 42,000 square feet

Cost: Withheld

Update: The photos of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights shown here were all taken by Mark Herboth.

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