25 October, 2018

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This article was originally published on Common Edge as “How the Quick Daily Drawing Puts Humanity Back Into Architecture.”

Architect Frank Harmon has a discipline: he tries to do a freehand drawing every day. He doesn’t spend much time on them. About five minutes. These short spurts of depiction have the effect of catching lightning in a bottle or, as Virginia Woolf once said about the importance of writing every day, “to clap the net over the butterfly of moment.” To capture these moments you must be fast. The minute moves. Harmon’s drawings feel loose, fuzzy at the edges. You sense their five-minute duration.

Architecture students often are terrified of the quick sketch because of this very looseness, a sense of relaxed attentiveness. They strive to make a “pretty” drawing instead of netting the butterfly. The pretty drawing is evidence of detailed observation, perhaps one’s skill in constructing perspective, the control of the instrument in your hand. But that’s not the point of Harmon’s drawings. Their freeness communicates a different value and goal: to be in the moment, sketching swiftly to seize the scene as it unfolds before you. Harmon’s flickering hand imparts great energy to his drawings, which are less documentary and more like a visual embrace—the kiss of his ink pen and watercolor brush.

Harmon has collected scores of his drawings in a new book, Native Places (ORO Editions, 2018), which is also the title of a website where he offers vignettes of sketches paired with his reflections on the places in his world-wide travels that he captures in words and pen-strokes. Harmon started drawing as a child and has carried a sketchbook for most of his adult life. Drawing led him to architecture, and he describes the act of sketching as “a way to see.” He believes he has learned more about the built environment by personally observing and drawing places and how people engage with them than he could have through architecture school alone (he studied at North Carolina State College in Raleigh and the Architectural Association in London).

As a hitchhiking student, observing the natural and built world around him, Harmon discovered that he would remember a place better if he drew it rather than take a photo. Sketching a barn or a castle, he says, “I remembered that place forever.” Harmon discovered the architecture of a place by feeling it through his fingers and the point of a pen, or via the quick wash of a brush. He recalls that drawing a cathedral made him “recreate the design and construction of stone arches and flying buttresses.”

Harmon doesn’t write about the drawings he creates. More often he writes about the life happening in them and around him, as he quickly sketches. He comments on the weather, the light, the air, scents, the sounds of people. What comes through is great empathy for the human beings who populate the places that he records. The stories are about folks gathered in a place, sharing a moment. The drawings capture the spirit of the place that this architect came upon, but Harmon’s words focus on the personal exchange taking place between the people framed by the architecture. It’s as if the architecture recedes and the human drama advances, shaped and given meaning by the places in which they transpire.

This element is most poignant in Harmon’s drawing of a Rural Studio project in Hale County, Alabama, where Auburn University architecture students have been designing/building to give back to this community ever since Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth started the studio 25 years ago. Harmon comments that even more important than the architecture created by the Rural Studio are the more than 600 young architect/builders who have learned to serve others through their work, “…because the world has many broken places.”

The quick sketch is the perfect medium for focusing on how people might be shaped or changed by the architecture. The expeditious drawing is also well suited to rendering vernacular design and building, which is a particular favorite of this architect. Indigenous buildings are fascinating to Harmon for the information that they impart about the values of the people who fashioned them, and also how they saw the world. This is fertile research for any architect because it offers evidence of the ingenious ways that people who are untutored in architecture engage with the natural and built environment to solve problems.

The architectural historian Sybil Moholy-Nagy described this aptitude for building wisely as revealing the “native genius” of the vernacular (or as she referred to it, “anonymous architecture”). Harmon doesn’t mention Moholy-Nagy as an influence, but he does cite Harwell Hamilton Harris, who taught at North Carolina State, where Harmon began his teaching career in the early 1980s, and was a proponent of architects learning from vernacular building.

It turns out that simple vernacular structures are not so simple after all. Harmon has a gift for explaining why through his sketches and words. One of his favorite topics is the barn. He writes that these agricultural structures can be for the observant architect “…like rocks a geologist picks up. They tell a story about their time and location.” A barn is sited on a rise of land because water drains away from it there. The main elevation is to the south, gathering the warmth of the sun, with windows on the opposite side for ventilation. A porch is on the east side because rain storms come from the west. Wood to build the barn was cut from nearby trees, and to cure tobacco the farmer burned shavings from the sawmill where the boards were made. Nothing was wasted. Native wisdom guided the architecture. The barn fit the land, and the beauty of this structure, writes Harmon, “is a result of this ordinariness.”

As subjects of this architect’s drawings and commentary, ordinary objects take on extraordinary presence: chairs, mailboxes, a screened door, windows, porches, steps, columns, balconies are rendered with a spirit of the place and the people who have used them, sometimes over many decades. Harmon’s drawings are a way to see the human dimension present in all architecture.