Architect Frank Harmon believes in learning by sketching

CorrespondentJune 22, 2013 

  • See the sketches

    • Frank Harmon’s website, Native Places, is at nativeplaces.tumblr.com.

    • An extensive collection of Harmon’s drawings, along with photos of the buildings they inspired, can be found at frankharmon.tumblr.com.

  • Architects and the meaning of freehand

    This story is excerpted from a book to be published next year by Routledge Press. Titled “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand,” it’s a work in progress by J. Michael Welton of Wake Forest. The book will feature 26 architects committed to the art of drawing by hand. Besides Frank Harmon, it will feature Durham architects Phil Freelon and Ellen Cassilly, as well as New York’s Bill Pedersen of Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Seattle’s Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects.

    The book seeks to explore the ways that freehand drawing can shape our built environment. Its intent is to trace the tactile sketch, from human eyes to finished product, through words, images and photographs – and from architects spanning every generation practicing today.

    Welton’s work on architecture, art and design has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Dwell and The International Herald Tribune. He also edits and publishes an online magazine dedicated to architecture, art and design, at architectsandartisans.com. It’s a website committed to the concept of thoughtful design for a sustainable world and is syndicated by Architectural Record, Design Bureau and Ocean Home.

  • Frank Harmon

    Age: 72

    Education: School of Design, N.C. State University: 1959-61

    AA Diploma, The Architectural Association School of Architecture, London, England, 1967

    Firm: Frank Harmon Architect PA, Raleigh

    Family: Lives in Raleigh in the modern, award-winning house and gardens that he and his wife, the late landscape architect Judy Harmon, designed together. They have two grown children, Laura and Will.

    Major awards: 54 design awards, including three last year: American Institute of Architects, South Atlantic Region, Honor Award for the JC Raulston Arboretum Lath House and American Institute of Architects North Carolina, Honor Award, for the Center for Architecture and Design. Architect Magazine ranked him No. 21 on a list of 50 top architects last year, based on design, sustainability and financial performance.

On a late spring morning in 2011, a motor coach jam-packed with North Carolina architects nosed into the parking lot at Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s Palladian retreat in rural Bedford County, Va.

An entourage of 50 disembarked, to be divided into two groups. One would follow the estate’s director of archeology and landscape through the grounds surrounding the early 19th-century home. The other was to tour the interior of the house with its architectural historian. After lunch, the groups would switch tour guides.

But one individual, wearing a Panama hat and a white, short-sleeved linen shirt, elected to do neither. Instead, he quietly pulled out his sketchbook and pens, and strategically positioned himself on the lawn beneath the shade of a spreading tulip poplar. Slowly, he began to draw the contours of Jefferson’s octagonal-shaped masterpiece, a lyrical essay on light composed in deep-red brick, cream-colored mortar and limestone-plastered columns. He was working to discern the nature of the building, its site and its landscape, using the fewest number of lines possible.

His name is Frank Harmon, and he’s known to some as the unofficial dean of North Carolina architects. He’s recently begun to share his personal library of drawings with the rest of the world – at a website he calls Native Places.

Born in Georgia, he’s been drawing since the summer of 1965, when he won a travel scholarship to Athens, Greece, as a student from the Architectural Association (A.A.) in London.

“My favorite architect was Le Corbusier, who drew beautifully,” he says of that revolutionary modernist.

Le Corbusier died the same year that Harmon toured Greece, but had also visited Athens as a young man. He viewed the city through a student’s eyes too, making a number of memorable sketches. “He talked about the importance of drawing, and uniting the eye and the hand with the mind,” Harmon said. “I took a sketchbook and spent the summer sketching buildings there, including the Parthenon.”

Le Corbusier kept his sketchbook with him all his life, recording whatever he saw, whether a Turkish living room or a Greek temple in the landscape. Harmon was not far behind, though working on a larger scale.

“At the A.A. we were encouraged to sketch diagrams of our projects, with permission to draw on the walls,” he said. “Every summer the A.A. would give the school a fresh coat of paint, ready for the inspiration of the next group of students.”

Learning by sketching

He believes that every building offers lessons to be learned – and that the best way to absorb them is to sketch. “When you draw, you really have to look at it,” he said. “It’s a way to discover and to remember.”

Harmon was a young man when Frank Lloyd Wright, who died in 1959, was still practicing. Harmon is convinced that Wright’s buildings were heavily influenced by the sketches he made, as was true for most designers of that era. “His architecture has a lot to do with the way he drew it, the way he saw it and the way he touched it with his hands,” he said.

These days, whether Harmon is sketching Poplar Forest in rural Virginia, Oak Alley on the Louisiana bayou or the Center for Architecture and Design in downtown Raleigh, he acknowledges the inherently tactile qualities of the drawing process. He thinks a computer keyboard, by definition, lacks these – and that most good architects will always be found with a sketchbook at hand.

“Which of us wakes up at night with a laptop to make a sketch?” he asked rhetorically.

To be sure, there are advantages to working with a computer. Among them are accuracy, the ability to make changes easily, to transmit information quickly for collaboration, and to store words and images indefinitely.

But, as architect Michael Graves has pointed out, a computer wants the finality of closing the question of problem-solving, whereas a drawing does just the opposite: It leaves the question open – and leads to the next drawing.

And compared to photography, sketching by hand affords the opportunity to study and retain what the eye sees, instead of simply snapping a shutter.

“If I draw the building as I see it, in a way I get to experience its re-creation. Then it’s lodged in my mind forever,” Harmon said. “Unlike a photograph, drawing gives you the ability to capture the essence of a place, sometimes by distorting what you see.”

It also unlocks the creative process, allowing the architect to focus on a detail, then switch scales instantly to the project’s master plan. “The sketchbooks of Le Corbusier include details of a window vent, the interior of a room, and a bird’s-eye view of a house,” he said. “They’re all on the same page and probably done simultaneously.”

A way to communicate

Harmon’s intent is to express the idea. His process in doing that, from hand-drawn image to finished elevation, is a complex choreography of eye, mind, heart, hand and computer. Early sketches are often plan or section diagrams, or a sketch view of a building or landscape.

“Usually, someone in our office takes my sketch and draws it to scale in PowerCAD (a computer program). Then I sketch over it again,” he said.

For details of elevations, he’ll develop several variations of color sketches, also redrawn on the computer. Sometimes he’ll draw a full-size section, as though looking through the building, on a huge black wall at his office, to test scale and proportion. “Part of the magic of drawing is that we discover the unexpected as we draw,” he said.

He finds that sketching with others is not just a means of collaborating, but an enhanced way to communicate – especially with clients, who appreciate being involved in a design. “I often sketch while meeting with them, and they love it,” he says. “They feel like someone’s actually listening to them.”

And just as an effective public speaker uses hands and facial expressions to communicate, the sketch reinforces the architect’s message.

“Phillip Johnson said that his clients loved the drawing more than the building – and they didn’t have to pay the heating bill for the drawing,” he said of the late Pritzker Prize-winning architect. “Drawings are full of promise, because there’s a personal connection between maker and user.”

Jefferson, of course, was both at Poplar Forest, although only a few of the 700 drawings he left behind offer details of his home there.

Harmon will leave a legacy that’s a little more prolific. On that late spring afternoon in 2011, he inked a dozen drawings of the retreat’s interior and exterior, adding them to one of his 40 sketchbooks. Since each book contains 200 images, that’s a career total of about 8,000.

Quantity and quality

He’s left many of them, along with project files and models, to N.C. State’s Special Collections Research Center. They’re archived alongside the work of some of Raleigh’s best-known midcentury modern masters, including George Matsumoto, James Fitzgibbon and Milton Small.

“We wanted them because of his stature in the architecture field,” said NCSU archivist Todd Kosmerick. “He’s known and respected across the nation and internationally, and we thought they would be a great addition to our holdings.”

Their sheer quantity speaks volumes. Of the center’s 1,000 linear feet of archived drawings, Kosmerick estimates that a little more than 250 feet are Harmon’s alone.

Their quality is significant too.

“They make me think of Picasso’s early work,” said NCSU curator Catherine Bishir. “To capture the spirit economically like that, you really have to be good.”

That’s high praise from even higher quarters. Bishir is the author of the definitive and widely acclaimed “North Carolina Architecture,” published in 1991 by University of North Carolina Press.

Like much of Harmon’s work, it’s considered a masterpiece.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications.

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