Conversation Story by Frances Anderton
Let’s Be Frank
“I am not interested in vernacular to be senti-
PHOTOS BY TIMOTHY HURSLEY (PRAIRIE RIDGE), F8 PHOTOGRAPHY (PORTRAIT)
mental. I am interested in what it can teach us.
All vernacular architecture is sustainable. It is
always inherently related to the region. But let
me emphasize that regionalism should not be
confused with parochialism any more than you
would call Faulkner a local Southern writer.”
Frank Harmon (left) is a gentle- an open-air classroom
manly Southerner who favors in Raleigh, North Carolina
regionalism: architecture that (above), operates without
befits its locale and climate. air-conditioning and is made
The Prairie Ridge Eco Station, of locally grown wood.
116 Dwell Dec/Jan 2008
Though many people have recently woken up to You’re an avid proponent of regionalism. I was also influenced by my childhood
the need to go green, for a few, living in harmony with How did you get there? home. I grew up in Greensboro, North
nature has been a long-held ethos. One such person is In my late 30s, I met Harwell Hamilton Carolina, in a suburban development at the
Frank Harmon, a North Carolina architect who has been Harris, who became a very important mentor edge of the city where some very forward-
designing sustainably for almost three decades. His proj- to me. He was the first modern architect to thinking planner had created greenways and
ects—mostly in his home state—include churches, arts fuse modern principles with traditional mate- parks, preserving the streambeds. I grew up
and educational buildings, and houses that embody the rials like wood and stone and to illustrate playing on the banks of those streams, and
ideals of new regionalism. Harmon hews to the notion a respect for climate and region. His thought I can say now that most of what I know about
that a structure should be specific to its place in terms was that every building is a portrait. It’s a architecture I credit to playing by those
of materials and its relationships to geography and cli- portrait of the owner, or it’s the story of the streams. To this day I thank the anonymous
mate. Raised in North Carolina but educated at London’s site or the particular climate or materials of architect who planned those pathways.
influential Architectural Association, Harmon worked a region. In other words, he felt that all great
for Richard Meier, the New York–based architect known That doesn’t sound like the stereotypical
architecture started with the particulars
for his impeccably detailed—if somewhat cold—white, 1950s alienating suburb.
of climate or site or materials. The more I
glassy buildings. So what made Harmon turn toward his thought about that, the more I thought that No, it was built before World War II—some-
warmer brand of regionalism? He had a couple of very was entirely true. time around 1920—and consisted of small
strong influences. Also, as a child growing up, I used to love houses, on small lots, and there were side-
North Carolina barns and farmhouses; but, walks. There was a huge change in suburban
going off to school in England, then working design in the 1950s. One reason for that was
in New York, I felt they were rather provin- air-conditioning; the other was the bulldozer,
cial. Then I moved back to North Carolina which really came into its own after the war.
and realized the inherent intelligence in I never use a bulldozer. Now don’t get me
those buildings. wrong, it’s a wonderful tool, but unfortunately
The Strickland-Ferris House underneath. The copper rain
was built for an artist on a chain, fiber cement rain screen
steep hillside in Raleigh, North on the walls, and standing-
Carolina. Conceived as a “fallen seam metal roof combine
leaf,” the structure is raised to give the house a modern
to allow groundwater to flow vernacular character.
PHOTOS BY TIMOTHY HURSLEY
118 Dwell Dec/Jan 2008
one of the cheapest things that can be done by a third?” So now it is one room deep and buildings, not cars, and our clients get that.
is to level a site, which destroys vegetation cross ventilated. It also has the first green I think there is general unease about how we
and wildlife and causes polluted runoff to roof in Charleston. treat the world, and people want [to] build
flow right into our rivers and estuary systems. in a sustainable way. The pastor at the church
So the church is a kind of modern vernacular?
Prior to [its inception] you had to move earth in Charleston said that building sustainably
by mule, and prior to air-conditioning you Yes, but I am not interested in vernacular is a moral issue. Architecture is arguably the
had to have porches for cooling. My grand- to be sentimental. I am interested in what most important issue of our day.
mothers spent their time sitting on porches. it can teach us. All vernacular architecture
What about suburban development, which
I am sure the storytelling tradition in the is sustainable. It is always inherently related
carpets so much of the country and seems
South comes from sitting on porches. to the region. But let me emphasize that
to be the antithesis of regionalism? Is the
regionalism should not be confused with
How have you woven these kinds of regional message getting though there?
parochialism any more than you would call
traditions, like porches, into your work? Faulkner a local Southern writer. It is, I think. Almost all major builders are
I have just completed a church in historic talking about how their buildings can be
You’ve been building sustainably for decades.
Charleston, South Carolina. It builds on more sustainable. The greatest difference
Does the current green awareness represent
an existing vernacular of Charleston architec- I can hope for is that houses and buildings
a real shift?
ture, a wonderful building type known as can respond to places where they are. In
a “single house,” because they were only Yes, I think it does. I’ve been doing green our country we have the greatest geograph-
one room deep and always had [a] large stuff for 25 years, and over that time I’ve ical difference, so why is it that houses in
porch across the south or southwest side of had to educate my clients, and that has been Washington State look the same as buildings
the house. So for this church, I said, “You very difficult. Today they all come to me in Florida? The most sustainable—and
need hallways, but why don’t we put them and want something sustainable. The single liberating— thing we can do is to acknowl-
out on porches to reduce the heated area biggest impact we have energy-wise is our edge the places we are in.
The Taylor vacation house looks domestic needs. An open-air
out on the Sea of Abaco in the stair leads up from the middle-
Bahamas. It’s sheltered from floor bedroom terrace. The
the intense summer sun by an living room is perched on the
inverted umbrella roof that third floor to catch the breeze
also collects rainwater for all and the best views.
PHOTOS BY JWEST PRODUCTIONS
120 Dwell Dec/Jan 2008