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Personnel File - January 2008: Architects

Frank Harmon, President
Frank Harmon Architect PA, Raleigh

Frank Harmon draws with his ears. The Raleigh architect approaches his projects almost like a journalist, interviewing his clients repeatedly to understand what they need and, just as important, what they want.

He sees part of an architect’s job as coaxing them to voice their desires. “A 4-year-old child, he’ll ask for everything he wants. Part of my coaching is to liberate my clients from designing their building for someone else. You’re always going to get good architecture if you do what you believe in and not what Martha Stewart tells you.”

Harmon, 66, is the sort of craftsman whose work is admired both by his peers and the judges of national competitions. Time named his Rake and Hoe building, which he designed for a garden center in Raleigh, as one of the 10 best in the country in 1988. BusinessWeek and Architectural Record recognized his metalworking studio at Penland School of Crafts in 2004. He has won more than a dozen honors from the North Carolina chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

What marks his buildings is their intimate scale. He shies away from skyscrapers and public edifices. “You can’t have a relationship with the people who use an office tower,” he says. When drawing a house, he’ll spend a day hanging out at a site, watching the course of the sun and the play of shadows. Before doing the Penland project, he enrolled in one of the school’s blacksmith courses. He pulled a proposal to design an elementary school after being told he couldn’t interview the teachers, students and administrators.

Inside his Raleigh studio, he strives for closeness with his colleagues, saying it fosters creativity. They cluster around a big table as they sketch and scheme.

Back in the ’70s, Harmon apprenticed with one of America’s best-known architects — Richard Meier, designer of Los Angeles’ Getty Center and Phoenix’s O’Connor Courthouse — but he found the rigid hierarchy of the office oppressive. “It’s organized like a pyramid, and there ain’t no doubt who’s at the top,” he recalls. “We all worked in little cubicles, lined up like a Roman ship’s galley. Richard would stride around once a day and critique our work.”

Even so, he harbors no regrets. “From Richard, I learned how much fire and determination it took to do something well.”