by J. Michael Welton
Chapter 13: Frank Harmon
Expressing the Idea
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, Virginia.
An entourage of fifty 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 branches of a leafy 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. 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.
Le Corbusier died the same year that Harmon toured Greece, but also had 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.”
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. He believes 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 believes that 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 Michael Graves once pointed out, a computer wants the finality of closing the question of problem-solving, where 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 recreation. 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 small feature, 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.”
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 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. 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 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. “Philip 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. “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 easily inked a dozen drawings of the retreat’s interior and exterior, adding them to one of his forty sketchbooks. Since each book contains 200 images, that’s a career total of about 8,000.
He’s left many of them, along with project files and models, to North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) Special Collections Research Center. They’re archived alongside the work of some of Raleigh’s best-known mid-century 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, though, 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 The University of North Carolina Press.
Like much of Harmon’s work, it’s considered a masterpiece.
Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand by J. Michael Welton, a national architecture, art, and design writer is published by Routledge Press/Taylor & Francis and is available at Quail Ridge Books.
Frank Harmon, FAIA
Frank Harmon Architect PA,
The School of Design, North Carolina State University: 1959-61
AA Diploma, The Architectural
Association School of Architecture, London, England, 1967
Fifty-four design awards thus far.
Some specific honors and accolades include:
1995: Henry Kamphoefner Prize for
Distinguished Modern Design over a Ten-Year Period from AIA North
2002: Residential Architect Magazine “Project of the Year,” Taylor Vacation House
2005: Residential Architect Magazine’s “Top Firm of the Year”
2009: Custom Home Magazine Design Awards, Gold Award, Strickland Ferris House
2012: American Institute of Architects, South Atlantic Region, Honor Award, JC Raulston Arboretum Lath House
American Institute of Architects North Carolina, Honor Award, Center for Architecture and Design
Ranked Twenty-first out of Top Fifty First in the Nation by Architect Magazine, based on design, sustainability, and financial performance