REVIEW: The Architecture of Harry Weese
By William Morgan
Harry Weese is one of the second generation Modernists, like Eero Saarinen, Edward Larrabee Barnes, and Paul Rudolph, whose careers are being reassessed after a generation or more of eclipse. Historian Robert Bruegmann’s The Architecture of Harry Weese sets out to revive the Chicago architect’s reputation. Such monographs are incredibly important to our cultural patrimony and yet, are becoming increasingly rare in an economy that undervalues architectural scholarship.
The book covers Weese’s life (191 5-1998), from a youthful, eye-opening encounter with the Dymaxion car and the Kecks’ House of Tomorrow at the Century of Progress Exposition to the Beaux-Arts rigors of M.I.T. He then studied pottery, textiles, and city planning at Eliel Saarinen’s Cranbrook along with Charles and Ray Eames, Ralph Rapson, and Harry Bertoia. Half a dozen years before Benjamin Thompson’s more famous Design Research, Weese established a pioneering “design store” in 19 47, the chief draw of which was Alvar Aalto’s furniture.
Following a trip to Greece with Eero Saarinen, Weese set up office in Chicago, then the architectural fiefdom of Mies van der Rohe. By the 1960s, the stylistically more adventurous Weese was doing urban design work, office blocks, and buildings at major universities. A chronological review of the most notable of Weese’s 1,000 commissions by Kathleen Murphy Skolnik forms the bulk of the book.
By the 1970s, Weese had additional offices in Washington and Miami and a staff of 140. He served as a juror in the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial competition (Bruegmann claims that Weese discovered and championed Maya Lin’s design—a claim made by other jurors). At the same time, his Washington Metro stations—the “greatest architectural opportunity in the twentieth century”—were also under construction. But like his hero Louis Sullivan (whose Chicago Auditorium Building he lovingly restored), Weese’s weakness for the bottle was his undoing and, by the early1990s, his better employees and his reputation had moved on.
Although forever associated with Chicago, the high point of his career was the design and construction of the Washington Metro (one of its dramatic stations graces the book’s cover). RFQs were sent to 30 firms, 17 responded, and five were interviewed, but Weese was the only architect who had a “seriously detailed understanding of the tasks at hand.” His single-design scheme for entire system was brilliant; the coffered ceilings are both a dignified nod to the classical past and a handsome functional solution. Although since compromised in part and not always well maintained, the Metro nevertheless gives a cosmopolitan demeanor to a heretofore-dowdy capital city.
William Morgan is an architectural historian and critic. As a professor at the University of Louisville, he often took his students to Columbus, Indiana to study the buildings of Eero Saarinen and Harry Weese.