Lessons Learned from a Quiet Architect

People / February 9, 2010

Consider the arc and nature of Harwell Hamilton Harris’s career:

Born in 1903, he apprenticed with modernist Richard Neutra in 1928. By 1932, he’d left that firm and built a home for himself and his wife on a lush California hillside. At 600 square feet, it was tiny – a single room communing on three sides with a ravine covered in ferns and live oaks. A miniscule kitchen sat off to the side. Rush mats lay on the floor and redwood beams supported the ceiling.

He called it the Fellowship Park House. It was built of simple means, from salvaged materials for less than a thousand dollars. It was also eloquent and unforgettable.

“It was a shanty on a hillside, but it was the most beautiful shanty I’ve ever seen,” said architect Frank Harmon, who’ll be lecturing on Harris’s legacy on February 15 at North Carolina State University’s College of Design in Raleigh.

By the early ‘40s, he’d designed and built the Havens House in Berkeley, Calif. It was, he told readers of House Beautiful: “…an extension of the sky, the water, the hills…a sky house, more than an earth house.” Man Ray would photograph it, and the AIA would name it one of the two best buildings in the nation – alongside the hallowed Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwater.

From 1952 to 1955 Harris served as dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas, recruiting a posse of modernists known as The Texas Rangers. “They were the most influential educators in the nation,” Harmon said. “They were people like Colin Rowe, who went on to teach and write at Cornell, and John Hejduk, later dean at Cooper Union.”

In 1958, he renovated the 1908 National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna, Minn., the first of Louis Sullivan’s “jewel boxes.” It had been remodeled poorly in 1940, and Harris restored it to its original grandeur.

In 1962 he moved to Raleigh, established a practice and began teaching at N.C. State’s School of Design. He’d retire from State in 1973 but continued to practice. In the eight years before he died in 1990, he, Harmon, and their wives became close friends. The architects traveled together to Texas to look at and discuss his buildings there.

“In person, he was quiet and modest. He said that the architect’s ego needs to be carefully nourished, but not evident,” Harmon said. “He believed that architecture, like delight, is ephemeral, and that ideas often outlast buildings.” That’s unusual talk from a man whose fame was widespread for 50 years, and who was once acclaimed by both Wright and Alvar Aalto as an American genius.

Harmon will deliver the Harwell Hamilton Harris Lecture on February 15 at 7 p.m. in the Burns Auditorium of Kamphoefner Hall at North Carolina State University’s College of Design in Raleigh. The annual lecture is endowed by the Harris estate, for which Harmon served as executor. The lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, call 919.515.8350.

For more on Harwell Hamilton Harris, go to www.trianglemodernisthouses.com/harris.htm. For more on Frank Harmon, go to www.frankharmon.com. For more on the N.C. State College of Design, go to www.ncsudesign.org/content/

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Michael Welton




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