Native Places

A collection of thoughts and images by Frank Harmon
Chimney Swifts
A chimney swift is a small brown bird that weighs less than a heaping tablespoon of sugar and flies from North America to Peru every winter. In autumn the swifts form flocks to migrate southward, congregating above city roofs at dusk when as many as 5000 birds will spiral downwards into a brick chimney to roost.
Enter the US Navy.

Some far-sighted Navy scientists are trying to learn how these tiny birds can fly so close together without colliding. Why? Because the Navy has its own flock: not boats but drones.

It is a splendid vision the Navy has — unless you wonder how a sky full of drones flying close together might interact with a flock of chimney swifts.

Another splendid vision 40 years ago was a herbicide called Roundup, hailed as the farmer’s friend. Now we learn that Roundup may cause the extinction of another great migration — that of the monarch butterfly.

As darkness settles on Nash Square in Raleigh, a flock of chimney swifts descends tornado-like into a chimney on top of the Professional Building. Sometimes we may be better off appreciating the sweetness and wonder of nature without trying to grasp its secrets.

Chimney Swifts

A chimney swift is a small brown bird that weighs less than a heaping tablespoon of sugar and flies from North America to Peru every winter. In autumn the swifts form flocks to migrate southward, congregating above city roofs at dusk when as many as 5000 birds will spiral downwards into a brick chimney to roost.

Enter the US Navy.

Some far-sighted Navy scientists are trying to learn how these tiny birds can fly so close together without colliding. Why? Because the Navy has its own flock: not boats but drones.

It is a splendid vision the Navy has — unless you wonder how a sky full of drones flying close together might interact with a flock of chimney swifts.

Another splendid vision 40 years ago was a herbicide called Roundup, hailed as the farmer’s friend. Now we learn that Roundup may cause the extinction of another great migration — that of the monarch butterfly.

As darkness settles on Nash Square in Raleigh, a flock of chimney swifts descends tornado-like into a chimney on top of the Professional Building. Sometimes we may be better off appreciating the sweetness and wonder of nature without trying to grasp its secrets.

Gardening with Others There’s been quite a ruckus in our town this summer about building a modern house in a historic garden district. Someone who lives across the street from the modern house sued the architect. The neighborhood is divided, pro and con, and nerves are getting pretty jangled, causing one opponent to say, “If this house is built, it will be the end of the Christmas Candlelight Tour!” It’s time to sit in a garden. A garden such as this one in Charlotte, North Carolina, planted by Elizabeth Lawrence over half a century ago. Lawrence grew several hundred plant species in a space about the size of a tennis court. She loved plants but her floral diversity was criticized. “I cannot bear for people to say–as they often do–that I am better at plant material than design. I cannot help it if I have to use my own well-designed garden as a laboratory, thereby ruining it as a garden,” she wrote. Yet visitors come from around the world to admire her garden. Elizabeth Lawrence could have arranged her garden with plants that looked like her neighbors’. Instead, she spread a mosaic of flowers.

Gardening with Others
 
There’s been quite a ruckus in our town this summer about building a modern house in a historic garden district. Someone who lives across the street from the modern house sued the architect. The neighborhood is divided, pro and con, and nerves are getting pretty jangled, causing one opponent to say, “If this house is built, it will be the end of the Christmas Candlelight Tour!”
 
It’s time to sit in a garden.
 
A garden such as this one in Charlotte, North Carolina, planted by Elizabeth Lawrence over half a century ago. Lawrence grew several hundred plant species in a space about the size of a tennis court. She loved plants but her floral diversity was criticized. “I cannot bear for people to say–as they often do–that I am better at plant material than design. I cannot help it if I have to use my own well-designed garden as a laboratory, thereby ruining it as a garden,” she wrote. Yet visitors come from around the world to admire her garden.
 
Elizabeth Lawrence could have arranged her garden with plants that looked like her neighbors’. Instead, she spread a mosaic of flowers.

Van Gogh’s Window:   The window at the upper right opened from Vincent Van Gogh’s room. From this window Van Gogh contemplated the garden of Asile St. Paul de Mausole, the asylum near St. Remy where he stayed for 12 months beginning in May 1889. He looked out over olive groves, apricot and almond trees, a wheat field and the Apilles mountains. In the evening, shadows lay over the garden. Van Gogh was encouraged by the calmness and understanding of the medical staff at Asile St. Paul de Mausole. Here he painted Starry Night and other legendary works. He left on May 16, 1890, when the apricot trees were blooming and the wheat field was green. He killed himself 71 days later. Care for patients with mental illness continues to this day at Asile St. Paul de Mausole. Visitors to the asylum may be curious about a sign posted at the entry gate, however: “Any exit will be final. Merci.”

Van Gogh’s Window:  
 
The window at the upper right opened from Vincent Van Gogh’s room. From this window Van Gogh contemplated the garden of Asile St. Paul de Mausole, the asylum near St. Remy where he stayed for 12 months beginning in May 1889. He looked out over olive groves, apricot and almond trees, a wheat field and the Apilles mountains. In the evening, shadows lay over the garden.
 
Van Gogh was encouraged by the calmness and understanding of the medical staff at Asile St. Paul de Mausole. Here he painted Starry Night and other legendary works. He left on May 16, 1890, when the apricot trees were blooming and the wheat field was green. He killed himself 71 days later.
 
Care for patients with mental illness continues to this day at Asile St. Paul de Mausole. Visitors to the asylum may be curious about a sign posted at the entry gate, however: “Any exit will be final. Merci.”

A Hymn Without Words

Why do small churches attract us? Why is the image of a chapel so poignant in an era of burgeoning mega-churches?

This modest church may suggest an answer. Resting beside Highway 17 in Jacksonboro, South Carolina, Wesley UM Church sits empty for most of the week. The pastor serves a rural community with pews for a few dozen worshipers. A prayer band meets on Tuesdays. Nearby a billboard advertises No-fault Divorce. A small road disappears into the Low Country woods.

Churches like Wesley UM were bulwarks against segregation and discrimination across the South for over 100 years. They were witness to the value of human lives — lives that Jim Crow tried to throw away.            
Wesley UM Church was also witness to a fundamental quality of belief: quietly being present. It was not necessary to use marble and gilded cornices to make this a place of worship. A door, two windows, and a modest steeple made up the face of the church. Any more would have been superfluous. It was, in the words of Maya Angelou, “A Song Flung Up to Heaven." 

A Hymn Without Words

Why do small churches attract us? Why is the image of a chapel so poignant in an era of burgeoning mega-churches?

This modest church may suggest an answer. Resting beside Highway 17 in Jacksonboro, South Carolina, Wesley UM Church sits empty for most of the week. The pastor serves a rural community with pews for a few dozen worshipers. A prayer band meets on Tuesdays. Nearby a billboard advertises No-fault Divorce. A small road disappears into the Low Country woods.

Churches like Wesley UM were bulwarks against segregation and discrimination across the South for over 100 years. They were witness to the value of human lives — lives that Jim Crow tried to throw away.            

Wesley UM Church was also witness to a fundamental quality of belief: quietly being present. It was not necessary to use marble and gilded cornices to make this a place of worship. A door, two windows, and a modest steeple made up the face of the church. Any more would have been superfluous. It was, in the words of Maya Angelou, “A Song Flung Up to Heaven.

Splendor in the Grass
It’s easy to miss things along the roadside when you’re going 70 mph. Little plants with yellow flowers, for example. Such a plant is Bitterweed (Helenium amarum), which normally grows in meadows but has adapted to growing on roadsides. In a hard world, this little plant will flower where others wither. Like many invasive species, Bitterweed grabs hold in a landscape spoiled by man. It’s a survivor with no time for grief, borne by the wind to flower in places where you’d least expect it. Walt Whitman had plants like Bitterweed in mind when he wrote of commonplace beauty in Leaves of Grass: “Resist much, obey little,” he said. “Do anything, but let it produce joy.”

Splendor in the Grass

It’s easy to miss things along the roadside when you’re going 70 mph. Little plants with yellow flowers, for example. Such a plant is Bitterweed (Helenium amarum), which normally grows in meadows but has adapted to growing on roadsides.
 
In a hard world, this little plant will flower where others wither. Like many invasive species, Bitterweed grabs hold in a landscape spoiled by man. It’s a survivor with no time for grief, borne by the wind to flower in places where you’d least expect it.
 
Walt Whitman had plants like Bitterweed in mind when he wrote of commonplace beauty in Leaves of Grass: “Resist much, obey little,” he said. “Do anything, but let it produce joy.”

Darkness and Hope

Tonight the newspaper was full of world crises. Between global warming and war, children at the border and terrorism, we seemed to be on the edge of oblivion. But then I read this headline in the Washington Post: “New cricket discovered in long-neglected amber collection.” The story was about a cricket that flourished 20 million years ago.

I stepped outside. 

Overhead the sky was a dark ceiling. Lightning bugs fired up and bats flashed by in the nightshade of trees. The visible world had given way to the sound of a thousand crickets, the same species whose ancestors sang so long ago.

“Place before your mind’s eye the vast spread of time’s abyss, and consider the universe; and then contrast our so-called human life with infinity,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in 1580.

It’s not that listening to a 20-million-year-old cricket-song at night makes crises in the news inconsequential. It’s just that there’s nothing in the news than can equal the wonder of the eternal song of a creature no bigger than your thumb.

Darkness and Hope

Tonight the newspaper was full of world crises. Between global warming and war, children at the border and terrorism, we seemed to be on the edge of oblivion. But then I read this headline in the Washington Post: “New cricket discovered in long-neglected amber collection.” The story was about a cricket that flourished 20 million years ago.

I stepped outside. 

Overhead the sky was a dark ceiling. Lightning bugs fired up and bats flashed by in the nightshade of trees. The visible world had given way to the sound of a thousand crickets, the same species whose ancestors sang so long ago.

Place before your minds eye the vast spread of times abyss, and consider the universe; and then contrast our so-called human life with infinity, wrote Michel de Montaigne in 1580.

It’s not that listening to a 20-million-year-old cricket-song at night makes crises in the news inconsequential. It’s just that there’s nothing in the news than can equal the wonder of the eternal song of a creature no bigger than your thumb.

Obscure City Corners at the Golden Hour

Many cities have empty and neglected spaces at their centers. Sometimes these spaces are more interesting than new, completed buildings and malls because they are imperfect, therefore capable of change and promise.

I found this space beside the Ohio River under a freeway in Louisville, Kentucky. Buildings once there had been torn down to build the highway. It was a pleasant place. Breezes flowed across the water from Indiana carrying the scent of prairie grass while cars thrummed on the bridge overhead. Signs of vacancy, destruction, and loss mingled with seeds of change. 

Tangled weeds were growing in this empty space through broken concrete and shattered glass. The weeds were mostly non-native plants: tree-of-heaven, Siberian elm, and river grape, all of which grow in urban wastelands where native plants can’t survive. 

A mom brought her children along a path through the scrub to a parked car. A man in crumpled clothes slept on the river bulkhead.

The fragrance of the breeze and the view of the river were dividends of this neglected place.

Temporary leftover places in cities underscore the persistence of nature and offer glimpses of the beauty of emptiness.

Boardwalk in the CityChicago’s elevated train, known as The Loop, was completed in 1895 to transport “the lunch pail crowd and passengers resembling gentlemen,” according to the Chicago Tribune. Chicago was the churning engine of the Industrial Revolution in 1895, fueled by steel mills, stockyards, grain elevators, and railroads. Trains connected the skyscrapers on Lake Michigan to residential suburbs carved out of the prairie. Chicago was the first modern city. Today, The Loop is a rusty remnant of those furious times. Now there are more high heels than lunch pails on its elevated platforms, which are made of unpainted wood and scuffed with the marks of millions of shoes. Carl Sandburg wrote: "I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.” At 9 p.m. fog and dirt descend upon the elevated train platform at State and Lake. Lights burn in the office buildings nearby as cleaners work through the night. Click here for Carl Sandburg’s poem 

Boardwalk in the City

Chicago’s elevated train, known as The Loop, was completed in 1895 to transport “the lunch pail crowd and passengers resembling gentlemen,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
 
Chicago was the churning engine of the Industrial Revolution in 1895, fueled by steel mills, stockyards, grain elevators, and railroads. Trains connected the skyscrapers on Lake Michigan to residential suburbs carved out of the prairie. Chicago was the first modern city.
 
Today, The Loop is a rusty remnant of those furious times. Now there are more high heels than lunch pails on its elevated platforms, which are made of unpainted wood and scuffed with the marks of millions of shoes. Carl Sandburg wrote:
 
"I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.
I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.”
 
At 9 p.m. fog and dirt descend upon the elevated train platform at State and Lake. Lights burn in the office buildings nearby as cleaners work through the night.
 
Click here for Carl Sandburg’s poem 

Barragan’s Choice

When Luis Barragan (1902-1988) left Mexico in 1931 to study architecture in Paris, he left behind the chickens and paddock fences of the hacienda where he grew up. In Paris he absorbed the tumultuous newness of modern art and architecture. Here, Le Corbusier and German modernists were his teachers. Four years later he returned to Mexico, determined to implement the new architecture he’d discovered in Europe.

Like many returning expatriate artists of his time, Barragan was expected to choose between being a modernist or a traditionalist. Instead, he chose both.

For the next 35 years he created buildings unmistakably fresh with clean lines and planar surfaces saturated with color. Yet their modesty and simple finishes recalled indigenous Mexican houses. At the entrance to Las Arboledas, for example, Barragan reinterpreted a utilitarian aqueduct and watering troughs to create a modern sculpture. He wove magenta walls and water to form a quiet prelude to this equestrian community. “Any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake,” he said.

Today Luis Barragan’s work is revered by traditionalists and modernists alike, and architects from around the world come to Mexico to pay homage.

Barragan’s Choice

When Luis Barragan (1902-1988) left Mexico in 1931 to study architecture in Paris, he left behind the chickens and paddock fences of the hacienda where he grew up. In Paris he absorbed the tumultuous newness of modern art and architecture. Here, Le Corbusier and German modernists were his teachers. Four years later he returned to Mexico, determined to implement the new architecture hed discovered in Europe.

Like many returning expatriate artists of his time, Barragan was expected to choose between being a modernist or a traditionalist. Instead, he chose both.

For the next 35 years he created buildings unmistakably fresh with clean lines and planar surfaces saturated with color. Yet their modesty and simple finishes recalled indigenous Mexican houses. At the entrance to Las Arboledas, for example, Barragan reinterpreted a utilitarian aqueduct and watering troughs to create a modern sculpture. He wove magenta walls and water to form a quiet prelude to this equestrian community. “Any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake,” he said.

Today Luis Barragan’s work is revered by traditionalists and modernists alike, and architects from around the world come to Mexico to pay homage.

Bricks and Civil RIghts in Atlanta A canopy of 100-year-old oak trees shades Myrtle Street in Midtown Atlanta from the broiling summer sun. To many people, the genteel mansions of Myrtle Street suggest a romantic story of the old South. Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind in a house nearby. But for others, these houses were on the frontline of change–change wrought by streetcars, black artisans, and the civil rights movement. Midtown was developed after the Civil War and soon became a streetcar suburb. White men rode downtown to work. Black women rode in the back of the streetcar to Midtown, where they changed diapers and served iced tea for generations of white Atlantans. Black artisans laid the brick, plastered the walls, and painted the columns of Midtown. After the Civil War, craftsmanship gave artisans of color economic independence that often led to civic leadership. As the daughter of an Atlanta bricklayer Mary Beale said in 1920, “My daddy was not afraid of any white man that walked.” This fearlessness would be invaluable in confronting racism. The deep porches, dusky colors, and shady streets of Midtown Atlanta are often highlighted in lifestyle magazines, such as Southern Living. Their social history is left in shadow.An excellent book on the subject is Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 by Catherine Bishir. 

Bricks and Civil RIghts in Atlanta

 A canopy of 100-year-old oak trees shades Myrtle Street in Midtown Atlanta from the broiling summer sun. To many people, the genteel mansions of Myrtle Street suggest a romantic story of the old South. Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind in a house nearby. But for others, these houses were on the frontline of change–change wrought by streetcars, black artisans, and the civil rights movement.
 
Midtown was developed after the Civil War and soon became a streetcar suburb. White men rode downtown to work. Black women rode in the back of the streetcar to Midtown, where they changed diapers and served iced tea for generations of white Atlantans.
 
Black artisans laid the brick, plastered the walls, and painted the columns of Midtown. After the Civil War, craftsmanship gave artisans of color economic independence that often led to civic leadership. As the daughter of an Atlanta bricklayer Mary Beale said in 1920, “My daddy was not afraid of any white man that walked.” This fearlessness would be invaluable in confronting racism.
 
The deep porches, dusky colors, and shady streets of Midtown Atlanta are often highlighted in lifestyle magazines, such as Southern Living. Their social history is left in shadow.


An excellent book on the subject is Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 by Catherine Bishir. 

Thinking large, building small In a world that rewards size, Seattle architect Tom Kundig likes to build small. He designs modest houses to be made of steel plate as thick as your finger and concrete you could sharpen a knife on. The physical immediacy of his buildings is like biting into a lemon. Kundig designed the entire wall of this Idaho vacation house to pivot and open to the sky. Its hand-powered gizmo is so efficient the owner’s eight-year-old daughter can use it to lift the two-ton wall. A gesture like this would go unnoticed in an airplane hangar. In a small house, it is sensational. There is a history of small buildings that have an influence greater than their size: for example, Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas by Fay Jones, the Magney House in Australia by Glenn Murcutt, and the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamps, France, by Le Corbusier. Each has inspired architects to rethink building. Building small doesn’t guarantee great architecture, but it doesn’t prevent it, either. 

Thinking large, building small
 
In a world that rewards size, Seattle architect Tom Kundig likes to build small. He designs modest houses to be made of steel plate as thick as your finger and concrete you could sharpen a knife on. The physical immediacy of his buildings is like biting into a lemon.
 
Kundig designed the entire wall of this Idaho vacation house to pivot and open to the sky. Its hand-powered gizmo is so efficient the owner’s eight-year-old daughter can use it to lift the two-ton wall. A gesture like this would go unnoticed in an airplane hangar. In a small house, it is sensational.
 
There is a history of small buildings that have an influence greater than their size: for example, Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas by Fay Jones, the Magney House in Australia by Glenn Murcutt, and the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamps, France, by Le Corbusier. Each has inspired architects to rethink building.
 
Building small doesn’t guarantee great architecture, but it doesn’t prevent it, either. 

Beauty and Quarrels in Provence

We are drawn to  the sun-bleached  villages of Provence because of their humble beauty. We hope to find stability and peace among their narrow streets, scented with lavender and olives. We come to find tranquility.

The reality can be very different.

In Lacoste, for example, a pair of artists’ eight-year-old daughter threw dog turds at the window of a Breton translator, who had attempted to knock down the walls of a nearby house impeding his view of the valley. A man who called himself the “Count” had so many quarrels with his neighbors that he was called “le merdeaux du village.”

No surprise that the Marquis de Sade lived here.

Quarreling and beauty are among Lacoste’s principal attributes. In some ways it is a prison–beautiful, yes, but confining. Where once Lacostois were indentured to the Marquis, they are now imprisoned by nostalgia and preservation. 

Yet we admire the village on a rock, the scale of its buildings and handmade pavements, the view of the valley on a cold dark morning, and the inventiveness of dwellings tucked into the hillside.

Life is good in Lacoste. Just watch out for what people throw at your window.

Architecture of Slavery

Standing near a cliff on the Potomac River, Stratford Hall is a two-story brick mansion with heirloom-filled rooms and clustered chimneys. It is celebrated in Virginia history because two signers of the Declaration of Independence lived there and Robert E Lee was born there. 

History is claimed by the winners. The losers at Stratford Hall were slaves, convicts, and indentured servants, whose toil made life in the great house possible. Little is left of their history, but a visitor can read the story of their existence by walking down a narrow dirt road connecting the great house to the foot of the cliff on the Potomac.

Thomas Lee (1690-1750) built a wharf on the riverbank where wagons, flatboats, and sailing vessels handled casks of slave-grown tobacco bound for Londons coffee houses. Slaves and mule teams toiled up and down the steep cliff, gouging a dirt road into the earth like a scar.

Today the wharf road is quiet, its bleak history forgotten. Across the mile-wide Potomac the eastern shore dissolves in sunlight. The Potomac flows to the Atlantic Ocean, beyond which lies England, then Africa.

History is a terrible thing to waste.

Faith and Reason in Columbus, Indiana 

As war raged, the First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana was consecrated in 1942. It stood in contrast to the elaborate style of Classical and Victorian churches of the time. It was designed by Eliel Saarinen, who embraced  modern architecture as an antidote to the superstition and close-minded society that led to World War I. 
 
Saarinen’s contemporary Hannah Arendt wrote: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing?”
 
The congregation asked Saarinen to design a church where even the most humble member “would feel at home there and able to worship her god.” He designed walls that were unadorned, windows the proportion of tree trunks, and a sanctuary suffused in daylight. On a recent Sunday morning the sun streamed thru its east windows and bathed the congregation in sunlight.
 
We continue to witness the frailty of reason in the face of war. But if clichés and adherence to conventional forms have served to protect us against reality, as Arendt said, the First Christian Church remains an oasis of self awareness.

Mepkin Abbey

The road to Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery, leads through the billboards on Highway 52 north of Charleston, SC. Turning off the highway, you leave convenience stores behind and continue through a pine forest, crest a slight hill, then arrive at the Abbeys entrance: a gate made of painted steel and mahogany as finely balanced as the second hand of a watch. Inside the gate, the Abbey is built on the site of a former plantation beside the Cooper River.

A retreat center rests in the palm of a shallow valley at Mepkin Abbey, a quiet and reflective building that seems to transmit those qualities to persons staying there. Its courtyard offers a setting for self-awareness — a place to let go. 

Beyond the courtyard, a wedding took place on a recent spring day. Young men wearing tuxedos nipped at pocket flasks, bridesmaids blushed, and children raced between live oaks on a grassy terrace, watched by their grandmothers. The graves of the abbey’s benefactors were visible above the abbey. Down a few steps from the wedding location, the Cooper River continued to flow south as it has for more than 10,000 years. 

For a moment, Mepkin Abbey seemed like the axis around which time revolved. 

(W.G. Clark and Josh Stastny were the architects for the entrance gate
and Saint Francis Retreat Center at Mepkin Abbey. Click here for an image of the retreat center.)