Arts & Culture

Frank Harmon builds architects as well as buildings

An interior shot of the Strickland-Ferris House built on a 45-degree slope overlooking Crabtree Creek.
An interior shot of the Strickland-Ferris House built on a 45-degree slope overlooking Crabtree Creek.

His firm may have won more AIA awards than any other in North Carolina, but Frank Harmon credits outside influencers for the way his buildings respond to place and clients.

For starters, there was his late wife, landscape architect Judy Harmon – often a collaborator on his designs. And his mentor, Harwell Hamilton Harris, who injected a California modernist’s sensibility, learned from Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, into Harmon’s way of thinking. And then the myriad teams of structural engineers, fabricators and even graphic designers – all of whom he carefully assembles for each project.

“Architects can’t do buildings alone, so I pool talents,” the 74-year-old, recently retired architect says. “Richard Meier said to hire the best consultants you can – they’ll make you look good.”

Harmon worked for Meier for three years during the early 1970s – a heady time for that New York office, when Meier was busily interpreting the teachings of Swiss/French modern master Le Corbusier. Harmon had graduated in 1967 from the prestigious Architects Association in London, and would return there to teach and practice through the late ’70s. He set up his Raleigh practice in 1982.

The city has not been the same since. Harmon’s work crosses all boundaries. He designs public buildings and private residences, draws prolifically and writes for a weekly website he calls Native Places. His architecture is not only site-sensitive, taking thoughtful advantage of sun, shade and breezes, but thrifty when it comes to materials. He may be labeled a modernist, but he’s also a North Carolina regionalist, taking cues from this state’s agrarian heritage. Moreover, all that he’s learned, he’s shared with his students at N.C. State’s College of Design.

“You can impact the architecture profession in two ways,” says Jeffrey Lee, principal in the Washington, D.C., office of Clark Nexsen. “One is by example, and the other is to teach people to do it by example. Frank is a good model of doing both.”

The best possible way to understand this architect and his lasting impact on Raleigh is to look closely at his buildings here. So let’s take a quick tour of five:

The Rake & Hoe (1988)

Originally designed as a storage center for fertilizer and hay bales, this two-story, 132-by-24-foot structure was Harmon’s first in Raleigh. The roof’s pitch might look like it was inspired by the Tuscan Revival movement of the 1850s, but it wasn’t. “I like it because it looks like the North Carolina hillsides,” Harmon says. “That’s something I learned from Harwell.”

The materials are plywood, corrugated fiberglass from chicken coops and roofing of corrugated aluminum. Taking his cues from architect George Matsumoto, a former professor at N.C. State, Harmon designed it around 4-foot-square modules. “There wasn’t enough waste to fill a pickup truck,” he says. “It took two weeks to build and cost $75,000.”

TIME magazine named it one of the 10 best designs of 1988.

Prairie Ridge Eco Station (2004):

A learning center for the natural sciences, this compact, 1,000-square-foot structure hovers over a creek bottom and a forest beyond. It’s positioned perfectly to take advantage of breezes sweeping up from the valley to the southwest; on a sweltering 95-degree day, the temperature in the screened classroom barely breaks 80.

It’s a zero-energy building with a cistern to capture rainwater for toilet and sink and photovoltaics to keep it off the grid. Its cantilevered balcony, 6 by 20 feet, overlooks a playground to the left, with constant chatter from teachers, mothers and children below. “The single best place for children to learn is outdoors,” Harmon says.

Strickland-Ferris House (2005)

Built on a steep, 45-degree slope in the Raleigh suburbs, this residence rests on concrete pilings rising 5 feet and 12 feet above ground. It’s a 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom home with a butterfly roof that opens it up to grand views of Crabtree Creek below.

The materials are simplicity itself – glass, white cedar, cement panels, aluminum casement windows and a copper rain chain to boot – but this design is a complex response to its place. As he did at the eco station before it, Harmon eschewed the use of a bulldozer here. Its front door is reached via pedestrian bridge, a nod to Harwell Harris’ own studio/residence on Cox Street in Raleigh. “He wanted you to make a transition from this world to another – a crossing over,” Harmon says.

Lath House (2011)

Harmon says he was “volunteered” by his wife to design this pro bono project for the JC Raulston Arboretum, bringing it in at $100,000. It’s designed to protect tender plants from sun and wind damage. Harmon sited it behind two solidly anchored existing pine trees – giving it a floating effect – and tucked it into an existing Japanese arboretum. “It’s peaceful,” he says. “It’s full of wonder.”

Inside, the ratio of sun to shade through 2-by-2-inch wooden slats, attached to steel posts, is 3:1. The result is a delightful play of light, shadow and butterflies throughout the open-air structure. At one end, a stone bench, inscribed “JUDY,” marks his late wife’s favorite place to rest. “She got to see it finished,” he says.

Harmon Residence (1991)

Not every architect gets to design his own home (and office), but here Harmon had plenty of help. Sure, it features pale pink walls with pops of red and yellow for punch, but this house has solid antecedents in the works of Le Corbusier, Richard Meier and Harwell Harris.

But it’s the integration of landscape and structure on a one-third-acre lot near N.C. State that makes this home a stunner. Once again, Harmon’s wife made the difference. “I wanted to put it in the back, but she convinced me to place it here so all the windows face the garden and face north so there’s no direct sun.”

It’s shaded by three 100-year-old oak trees and designed for cross ventilation, so air conditioning is used only in July and August. It may be 50 percent glass, but heating bills are minimal because of 1-foot-square Mexican Saltillo floor tiles that absorb the sun’s warmth. There’s also a working fireplace in a nook that expands out to embrace the living area’s double-height windows, creating just enough space for a teacher and 12 students.

Harmon’s work as a professor may be the most enduring component of his Raleigh legacy. For decades he’s guided architecture and non-architecture students through courses at N.C. State. But he’s also educated those who’ve worked alongside him in his office – many of them on the five projects described above. They were attracted to Raleigh because of his crisp blend of modern design and Carolina regionalism, and stayed here because of it.

“There are numerous firms working in the Triangle that are direct offshoots,” says Clark Nexsen’s Lee. “Tonic and in situ studio both have picked up what they learned from Frank and personalized it – and they do some really exciting work. He obviously had an impact on them in a really fundamental way.”

Or, as Robby Johnston, a 30-something architect here, explained to me a few months back, Frank Harmon learned about architecture from Harwell Harris. Tonic’s Vinny Petrarca learned from Harmon, and then Johnston learned from Petrarca.

“That’s the way it should work,” says Harmon. And surely Raleigh’s built environment is better off because it does.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications and edits a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at mike@architectsandartisans.com.

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