Today the values of modern and historic architecture are widely debated in Raleigh, often acrimoniously. We live in a city where change is constant. Yet learning to navigate change is part of life. Respectful debate about architecture is necessary and healthy, but supporting historical architecture does not equal hating contemporary architecture, and vice versa.
It is instructive to consider the work of a master architect who lived and practiced in Raleigh from 1962 to 1990, whose work was a case study in relating contemporary buildings to our place.
Harwell Hamilton Harris (1903-1990) was a native Californian who embraced the movements in art and architecture that arose after World War I. His work was deeply rooted in his native California landscape, just as it would become rooted in the landscapes of Texas and North Carolina where he would later work.
No less than Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry and the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto greatly admired Harris’s designs as architects worldwide closely followed his work.
Harris moved to Raleigh in 1962 to teach at the acclaimed School of Design at North Carolina State University. He taught his students that the most important assets of a region such as North Carolina “are its free minds, its imagination, its stake in the future, its energy, and, last of all, its climate, its topography, and the particular kind of sticks and stones it has to build with.”
An example is St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Oak Park, begun in 1967 for a fledgling congregation on the outskirts of Raleigh. Harris observed that Southern churches tended to start out with a small chapel then add buildings over the years in a hodgepodge manner. For St. Giles, he designed a family of buildings that could be built years apart yet the ensemble would always have an air of completeness. He knew that Raleigh would grow, so he placed his family of buildings around a grove of pine trees. There, the church would be a sanctuary surrounded by change. “Besides,” he said. “who ever heard of a revelation indoors?”
Harris built his own home and studio on Cox Avenue near N.C. State in 1968, a gentle masterpiece of fitting into place. Here among the jumble of buildings – including a Romanesque Revival church, a multistory concrete hotel, wooden bungalows, parking lots and brick apartments – Harris built a quiet stucco box that caught the shadows of the day. He positioned a wooden light like a sentinel in front of the house. From both floors of the house he could see the trees of nearby Pullen Park and he could walk through the park to teach at the School of Design.
A visitor entered the house and studio from the street under pollarded sycamore trees and across a bridge. Inside, light suffused the space from translucent glass windows that obscured views of parking lots and dumpsters. “If you stand next to a translucent window,” he said, “you can imagine you’re at the sea coast.” Yet an immense glass window, 20 feet tall, overlooked a garden court and Pullen Park – a completely private view.
I visited Harwell Harris frequently, often in late afternoon for tea. To sit in his living room as the light faded was to be in another world, far from the drab surroundings outside and more akin to paradise. His house showed me the value of design and creativity in a changing world.
We need that spirit of innovation in Raleigh today as we migrate toward downtown since millennials as well as baby boomers long to live closer to the center of things. We need architects and builders who respect our past and nourish our imagination, just as Harris did at St. Giles and on Cox Avenue.
A few steps from Harris’ house is the former home of another great North Carolinian, the gardener and writer Elizabeth Lawrence. Her garden was a patchwork quilt of color, texture and shape. Rarely were two of her plants the same, yet the prospect was pleasing. Like Harris, she had a profound thirst for the unique. Like Harris, she was comfortable with diversity.
As Raleigh grows can we be like gardeners, cultivating our place and respecting the differences that unite us?
Frank Harmon is an architect and an adjunct professor at N.C. State University’s College of Design.