Q&A with Author Frank Harmon, FAIA
Q. When did you first start sketching and why? Speaking of why: Has sketching been a vital aspect of your work as an architect?
A. I’ve always learned from what I can walk to. The pitch of an eave or a fold in the land means infinitely more when seen in person. And by drawing a shed or a flower I am better able to understand it. I can take a photograph of these things and I’ll probably lose it. But when I make a sketch, I’ll remember it forever. Sketching allows us to see what we might not have noticed. It allows us to be present. When I make a drawing I am totally in the present. How many times, in our distracted lives, do we get to be in the present? Sketching can also give us a notebook of design ideas. In 1910 Le Corbusier sketched a light well at Hadrian’s Villa near Rome. Forty years later he retrieved that idea in his design sketch of the Chapel at Ronchamp, one of the greatest buildings of modern architecture.
Q. What medium/media do you prefer and why?
A. A few years ago, a friend showed me a watercolor brush about as long as my index finger that had a water reservoir in its handle. It changed my life. The water-filled brush allows me to make a watercolor sketch in five minutes or less. I create an outline with a Pilot 005 water-resistant pen, then color. I also use water-soluble Caran d’Ache pencils. I mostly use a 5”x7” Moleskin watercolor sketchbook. The main thing is to keep it simple. Sketchbook, pens, and watercolors fit into a small bag that I carry everywhere.
Q. When did you begin writing “Native Places” and why?
A. I’ve kept a sketchbook in my pocket since I was 18. In the spring of 2013, I was looking for something to do. I decided to write a brief essay to accompany a sketch.
Q. Where did you get the idea?
A. I was impressed by the beautiful photographs and concise text of Carl Kurtz, a naturalist, photographer, and farmer in Iowa. Carl periodically posts a photograph of a dragonfly or a thunderstorm paired with short text. I noticed that I read his email first before reading any other. I thought, Maybe I could do something like that with a sketch. I also admired Verlyn Klinkenborg’s essays on the editorial page of the New York Times. They were musings on country life (no illustrations), and whenever one appeared on the editorial page, it was the first thing I read.
Q. How much has your subscription list for Native Places.org grown since the beginning?
A. In April 2013, I sent the first Native Places essay and sketch to 300 people on my mailing list. I have posted Native Places every two weeks since then and the list has grown to over 5000 subscribers.
Q. How do you decide what you’ll sketch? Then, how do you decide which sketches to complement with prose?
A. I try to make a sketch every day, especially when I travel. Usually, I sketch something I’m curious about, like the shape of a Provençal plow, a Georgian townhouse, or a church revival shed. Then I’ll choose a drawing at random to write about. Initially, I have no idea what I’m going to say. But by writing, I discover something I hadn’t thought of, such as how the plow has shaped and is shaped by, the landscape, climate, and civilization of Provence.
Q. Why only 200 words? How long does it take you to write a 200-word essay?
A. Two hundred words seemed to make sense in a digital age of short attention spans. The sketch is done in about five minutes; writing 200 words can take five hours. Abraham Lincoln is said to have replied to a correspondent, ”I’m sorry I’ve written such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” I know what he meant. EB White and William Strunk, Jr. in The Elements of Style, advise us to “omit needless words.” That appeals to me. In architecture, I believe you shouldn’t use six materials when two would do.
Q. What have you wanted to accomplish with Native Places — the blog, not the book?
A. First of all, I enjoy doing it. I can muse on the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met. Most of my life has been very active — teaching, raising a family, building architecture. Native Places [the blog] gives me a period in which to reflect. In a larger sense, I’d like to enable people to notice what’s in their backyards. And finally, it’s satisfying to give people something quiet in their morning inbox amongst the deluge of emails.
Q. Why did you decide to turn Native Places.org into a book?
A. Because so many people kept asking, “When are you going to make Native Places into a book?”
Q. Who was your editor, and how did you and he determine which pieces from the blog to include in the book?
A. Charles Linn, FAIA, edited Native Places, the book. Charles, Mary Donovan, and I met in the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, one of the grandest spaces in America, in December 2016. There we laid out 125 card-sized copies of each Native Places piece on the splendid reading table. After an afternoon’s discussion, we left the library with 64 Native Places pieces arranged in chapters.
Q. Considering the book’s design, what was your vision or concept? Who was the designer?
A. AnLe Banh designed the book. AnLe is a gifted designer with a sense of color as perfect as a musician’s sense of pitch. At first, we wanted the layout to resemble a 5”x7” sketchbook But AnLe suggested a larger format. Working with AnLe was like opening a Christmas present.
Q. Will there be a Volume II?
A. I hope so!
Update on August 21, 2021: Frank is currently working on a second book with architecture critic/author J. Michael Welton. Stay tuned for further updates!
[PHOTO ABOVE BY WILL HARMON]