W. K. Harrison | Quotes

Wallace K. Harrison was born in Wooster, MA, the only son of middle-aged parents. When he was fourteen and a freshman in high school his mother died and his father simply just disappeared. Harrison could not stay in school and needed to find a job. He took a job as an office boy in a construction company making shop drawings. He left after three years to become a junior draftsman with a leading Worcester architectural firm. While there he attended night classes at Wooster Polytechnic and enrolled in the Saturday studies at the Boston Architectural Club studio.

In 1916, with thirty-five dollars in savings, he moved to New York City and applied for work at the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White and took a job as a draftsman. His savings from this job and from his service in the Navy in World War I allowed him to study in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He returned to New York joining another architectural firm and free-lancing with others. Then he won a scholarship allowing him to travel in Europe and study in France and Italy for two years. After his return to New York he became partner in a number of architectural firms and formed Harrison & Abramovitz, the firm that designed the Fish Church.

The Fish Church embodies Harrison’s personal Modernist style. He wanted to use modern technology to produce a new kind of sacred building that celebrates the beauty of being alive. He listened to what Donald Campbell, First Presbyterian’s pastor in 1952 said about American Presbyterian theology. Campbell explained that this theology “addressed a God who was as much a part of everyday life as he was a transcendental being – a concept that the new sanctuary should somehow convey” (1989, Newhouse}.

Major Projects*

  • The Rockefeller Apartments, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, facing the Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden, 1936
  • Trylon and Perisphere for the 1939 New York World’s Fair
  • The Clinton Hill Co-ops, Brooklyn, New York, 1941–43
  • The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York, 1951
  • Sophronia Brooks Hall Auditorium, Oberlin, Ohio, 1953
  • The First Presbyterian Church (»The Fish Church«), Stamford, Connecticut, 1958
  • The Time-Life Building at Rockefeller Center, New York City, 1959
  • The Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 1959–1976
  • Hopkins Center for the Arts, Dartmouth College, whose details foreshadow the Metropolitan Opera House, 1962
  • Lead architect for the United Nations Headquarters complex, coordinating the work of an international cadre of designers, including Sven MarkeliusLe Corbusier, and Oscar Niemeyer, 1962
  • Erieview Tower, Cleveland, Ohio, 1963
  • The New York Hall of Science at the 1964 New York World’s Fair
  • Air traffic control tower, LaGuardia Airport (1964)
  • Hilles Library, Harvard University, 1965
  • Master plan for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, coordinating the work of Pietro Belluschi,Gordon BunshaftPhilip Johnson, and Eero Saarinen, and the Metropolitan Opera House for the center, 1966
  • Master plan for Battery Park City, New York City, 1966
  • The Exxon Building at Rockefeller Center, 1971
  • The National City Tower, Louisville, Kentucky, 1972


* From obituary at http://eng.archinform.net/arch/3417.htm

(1989) Newhouse, Victoria, Wallace K. Harrison, Architect, New York, NY, Rizzoli

Wallace K Harrison’s Quotes from the Journal of the AIA June 1959, A Lay Report on Harrison’s Stamford Church:The Final Question, by Wolf Von Eckardt

“Your starting point is always the human being.” … “The amount of space his rear end requires when he sits, the things he intends to do in the building, his relation to others, his mores et lares, his customs.”

“First we worked for months on the floor plan. The chancel, the choir stalls, the organ, space for 800 seats, the balcony for an antiphonal choir and overflow crowds – the arrangement for all the things Don Campbell and the congregation wanted. I groped for a religious atmosphere. I considered stone columns and beams and even flying buttresses, but soon threw them out. Too expensive.

Also we wanted the acoustics as near perfect as possible. The acoustical people I brought in, Bolt, Beranek and Newman of M.I.T., didn’t want any obstructions to the smooth flow of sound. A square arrangement wouldn’t do. We had to modify and re-modify.”

“Finally we arrived at the shape of an elongated megaphone to spread the sound toward the rear. That determined the shape. The fish symbolism was discovered later. When you are finally done, people will always rationalize.”

“When we finally had the floor plan, came the question: what cover?”

“I wanted to follow Fernand Leger’s concept of contrast: round against flats, contrast in colors. I wanted the narthex dark, the nave light, and the chancel dim again because I wanted to make light and color an integral part of the structure. We have lost the fundamental effect of architecture on the pupil of the eye which the Egyptians mastered.

And I wanted a structure as clear and honest as Gothic. I groped and fussed a year of two. But I don’t think, right off, you should ever know too clearly where you are going.”

“Finally I went to Europe to get away from this thing and perhaps find an inspiration. In Paris I saw two things: Leger’s stained glass windows and the Sainte Chapelle.”

“In the Sainte Chapelle I thought: We could carry the stained glass even higher.” “I was intrigued with folded concrete. It would span the space without supports. At the time nothing of the kind had been done in this country. We didn’t have the engineers and I had to get Felix Samuely, a British engineer, who had done two or three of these things in England. He took two trips here and I went over twice on this job.”

“We had to solve the problem in the cheapest way.”

“There’s no sense kidding yourself. No one in recent times has ever said: ‘Let’s build a monument to God, we don’t care what it costs’.”

“The structure is wonderful.”

“We are only beginning to open up an exciting new world of space construction… of domes and rounded, hyperparaboloid frames to span space.”

“But when you’ve plodded through it all methodically from the beginning—the human needs, the floor plan, the economics, the structure—you still must get an emotional reaction. The answer is to merge art and architecture. At Stamford we did it by bringing in color and the stained glass design.

I would have liked to get sculpture, too. I don’t mean going out to buy it, but sculpture which grows out of the architecture. The future belongs to the integration of architecture, painting, sculpture and landscaping—to what has been called ‘total architecture’.”

“Oh, there are many mistakes at Stamford. But the final question always is: Is the thing beautiful?”

Quotes in Herbert Warren Wind’s article on Harrison in the New Yorker Magazine, December 4, 1954

“Since Cezanne, painters have studied every possible method of intensifying the human being’s reaction to the forms depicted on flat surfaces ‘ … “In architecture we’re dealing with the same problem. What is the effect on the little guy when he looks at a building, or walks through it, or lives in it? How do we intensify his visual experience by simpfying form and color? No architect of the future will be any good unless he’s a painter and a sculpture, too.”

Quote in Architecture in America: A Battle of Styles p.273

“We must approach architecture simply, without fear, without price and with faith in the human being … I believe there are three essential parts of architecture: human, national and technological.”