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WALLACE K. HARRISON
 
 
 
 
  Name   Wallace Kirkman Harrison
       
  Born   September 28, 1895
       
  Died   December 2, 1981
       
  Nationality   USA
       
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BIOGRAPHY        
   

Wallace Kirkman Harrison (b. 1895 in Worcester, Massachu-
setts, d. 1981 in New York City) and Max Abramovitz (b. 1908
in Chicago, Illinois) belong to the generagion of architects mark-
ing the transition between Beaux-Arts and modernism in Ameri-
can practice. From large-scale collaborative design and planning
projects for government agencies and universities to corporate
office buildings and private residences, much of their work melds
forms introduced by leading modernists, such as Mies van der
Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Pier Luigi Nervi, and Le Corbusier. Yet,
when free of the restraints of collaboration and client demands,
both produced original and imaginative work, often inspired by
engineering in their innovative techniques and uses of material.

Harrison received his training as a draftsman for architectural
and construction firms, supplemented by part-time study at
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the Boston Architectural Cen-
ter, and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1920-21). A Rotch Traveling
Scholarship (1922) supported two years in Europe and the Mids
dle East. After 1916, Harrison worked for several New York
architects: McKim, Mead and White; Bertram Goodhue; Ray-
mond Hood; and Harvey Wiley Corbett, with whom he studied
and later taught at Columbia University (1925-26). In 1927,
he became a partner in Helmle and Corbett. Theit Roerich
Museum and Master Apartments (1929) in New York and col-
laborative work on Rockefeller Center featured masonry-clad
slab towers that had setbacks characteristic of New York office
buildings between the wars and that prefigured Harrison’s ma-
ture work,

Abramovitz received degrees in architecture from the Univer-
sity of Illinois (B.S., 1929) and Columbia University (M.S.,
1931), where he also taught design. He became a student of
Harrison’s in a housing study group at the New School for Social
Research, New York City, in 1931. A postgraduate scholarship
from Columbia afforded two years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts
(1932-34). In 1934, Abramovitz joined Corbett, Harrison and
MacMurray (1929-35; later Harrison and Fouilhoux). Abramo-
vitz became a full partner in 1941. Following Fouilhoux’s 1945
death, the firm became Harrison and Abramovitz.

Harrison and Abramovitz ran a progressive office resembling
the ateliers and design studios of their youth. Despite conven-
tional educations, both became committed modernists by the
late 1930s. At Yale University (1939-42), they helped rejuvenate

the design and planning curricula. Their design studios hosted
such visiting artists, planners, and architects as Le Corbusier, José
Lluis Sert, Lewis Mumford, Robert Moses, Amedée Ozenfant,
Ferdinand Léger, Alexander Calder, Oscar Nitzchke, and R.
Buckminster Fuller. Their firm soon became a magnet for tal-
ented young designers.

A consummate diplomat, Harrison’s ease in handling the
complex demands of multiple clients for business, institutions,
or government secured a broad client base, resulting in many
high-profile commissions. His genius for forming key liaisons
with powerful, well-placed individuals extended the scope of
the firm’s business both locally and internationally. Harrison’s
friendships with Robert Moses and members of the Rockefeller
family helped him execute important buildings at the United
Nations (1946-52), Lincoln Center (1956-66), and the Empire
State Plaza (1961-77) in Albany. These jobs led to other com-
missions, especially politically sensitive ones, such as the U.S.
Embassy buildings, designed by Abramovitz, in Havana (1951)
and Rio de Janeiro (1952), and the CIA Headquarters (1961)
in Langley, Virginia. Abramovitz attained multiple commissions
for educational institutions: the Law School at Columbia Uni-
versity, 16 buildings (1951—70) at Brandeis University, a library
and student residence (1966-70) for Radcliffe College, and the
Krannert Performing Arts Center (1969) and the Assembly Hall
(1963) at the University of Illinois.

For Harrison, collaboration was typical and successful work-
ing method, but in his work for Nelson Rockefeller at Albany,
it proved a liability. From 1961 to 1977, he was involved almost
exclusively in the design of the Empire State Plaza. Dubbed
“Halicarnassus on the Hudson” by one critic, its angled slab
office towers, egg-shaped performing arts center, and monumen-
tal cultural education center betrayed a loss of artistic control
typical of bureaucratic design. Inspired by Le Corbusier's Mon-
astery of La Tourette and Oscar Niemeyer’s work in Brasilia,
the ensemble lacks subtlety of detail and the originals’ sureness
of form.

Under more favorable circumstances, the firm produced such
highly original structures as the Trylon and Perisphere at the
New York World’s Fair (1939-40) and Harrison’s fish-form
First Presbyterian Church (1958) in Stamford, Connecticut.
Harrison felt freest to explore new ideas in domestic architecture.
His fascination with circular forms emerged in designs such as
his Milton House (1936) in Bermuda, where rooms radiate out
from a circular core. For Nelson Rockefeller’s International Basic
Economy Corporation, Harrison designed 1,500 experimental
low-cost reinforced-concrete houses (1953) for Las Lomas,
Puerto Rico.

Both architects contributed novel solutions to the design and
planning of tall office buildings, often adapting industrial mate-
rials in remarkable ways to relieve the monotony of the slab form.

Two such postwar office towers in Pittsburgh also displayed to
advantage the products of their clients. At Alcoa (1952), Harri-
son designed luxurious modular aluminum cladding for the exte-
rior. At U.S. Steel (1971), Abramovitz supported the triangular
tower with hollow external members providing uninterrupted
office space on all floors. These Cor-ten steel members, filled
with antifreeze and water, created structurally stable fireproofing
at significantly reduced costs. At the United Nations Secretariat
(1950), Abramovitz transformed the Le Corbusian slab into an
Americanized curtain wall heat-reducing glass by Libbey-
Owens-Ford. The firm’s work for Corning Glass over two de-
cades, beginning in 1949, included a Visitors’ Center and several
office buildings with lavish expanses of glass. Links with produe-
ers of key building materials contributed to their role
as one of the leading corporate design firms of the postwar
period.

From the mid-1960s, with Harrison occupied nearly exclu-
sively by his work in Albany, Abramovitz produced the majority
of the firm’s other designs. This long separation eventuated in
the dissolution of the partnership in 1976, Abramovitz retained
the firm as Abramovitz, Kingsland, Schiff while Harrison prac-
ticed independently.

Linpa S. Pxipps


 
 
 
 
 
 
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