Harry Wolf: A classic in sustainable design

Harry Wolf

The architect will appear Sunday at Diesel, A Bookstore to discuss his work and sign copies of his new book.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Local architect Harry Wolf, who will be discussing his career at Diesel, A Bookstore this Sunday, likes to describe his architectural philosophy as comparable to a 19th century fisherman’s robe.

“These robes are simply three layers of cotton, dyed the indigo of the sea, and stitched together with coarse thread,” he writes in an introduction to his work. “The stitching serves the purpose of relieving stress and distributing it across the fabric. Where the wear is greatest, the stitching pattern doubles or triples… The result is rational, intelligent and beautiful.”

In other words, the loveliness of it arises out of a practical necessity, and creatively satisfying those needs. Form meets function.

On Sunday, Wolf will sign copies of his book, “The Architecture of Harry Wolf,” and the just-released fourth edition of Kenneth Frampton’s “A Critical History of Modern Architecture,” wherein Frampton cites Wolf as “one of the most sensitive architects practicing in America today.”

Diesel will also be offering a few rare copies of the now out-of -print “Harry Wolf” by Gustavo Gili.

“I thought it was a catchy title,” Wolf said amiably while pointing out models of various buildings he has designed.

The accolades roll off Wolf, who seems more interested in explaining the benefits of a plastic tectonic design feature of a parking garage than cataloguing his many awards from the American Institute of Architects.

“One of the weaknesses in architecture today is that it’s become an expression of the architect’s ego,” Wolf said. “Rather than designing for nature, climate and respect of cultural continuity, without copying the past, it’s all about them. Of course, you want to respond to the client’s vision, but there are different ways to do that.”

Wolf grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina where many of his commercial and industrial designs are found today. After graduating from Georgia Institute of Technology, he practiced in his native south before spending many years in New York City. He moved to Malibu 20 years ago.

“Light is one of the most important aspects of any design consideration,” Wolf said. “Not only do you design to maximize its use for sustainable considerations, it defines a lot of the look.”

He pointed out a round parking garage he did for the campus of University of California Santa Barbara with a “skin” of recycled plastic panels that permits ventilation and allows filtered illumination during daylight hours while capturing a reflective lighting effect from car headlights at night.

One large project he did in Amsterdam was for the ABN-AMRO World Headquarters Tower. Draft sketches in his office show an immense, round tower of windows with a central atrium suffused with northern Europe’s indirect light, giving completely new perspectives of the building, dependent on the time of day.

A Bank of America building in Tampa reflects a central square design feature in the limestone tiling, mirrored in the patterns of sunlight playing across the floors of the lobby. It’s as if graphic artist M.C. Escher riffed on Picasso’s cubism.

“I do lots of glass in buildings,” Wolf said. “But you put it on the north and south sides, not the east and west, so that you modulate illumination and temperature.”

Wolf’s concern for bringing natural outside elements inside is not only for aesthetic purposes. He started incorporating sustainable features into his design work as far back as 1978.

“I decided I wanted to see what we could do in the context of the developer’s budget,” Wolf said about his design of the Equitable Building in Charlotte, which was later copied by others for an EPA facility in Princeton, N.J.

At the time, he was designing embassies in the Middle East and was fascinated with how their traditional architecture accommodated climate demands.

“With their built-in shading and open rooms, they naturally controlled ambient temperatures,” Wolf said. “It was a natural extrapolation. The oldest buildings in the world there are a part of their culture, and I always thought architecture was best when it relates to place, time and culture. That’s where I find truth and reality.”

After 30 years of employing sustainable design into a kaleidoscope of projects, Wolf cannot understand architects who don’t design for the climate.

“In the American south, houses are typically one room deep with open windows for breeze,” he said. “The sealed houses here are crazy.”

Wolf employed this philosophy when designing UC Santa Barbara campus housing units with central courtyards.

“It’s a Mediterranean tradition, and our climate is very Mediterranean,” he said.

Wolf is a strong proponent of environmentally responsible building, using recycled glass and concrete, injecting on-site, gray water treatment systems and even designing one building so that clippings from plants in the atrium could be combined with waste from the food services area for composting.

RenĂ© Sachs, an architectural intern from Frankfurt who helps draft plans for Wolf, fervently admires the architect’s classic respect for line and nature.

“Harry is really strict about following rules of line,” Sachs said. “He’s very elegant. The very first Greek architects designed this way.”

After years of commercial design, Wolf is tackling some local residential design work.

“The climate and geology of Malibu is so wonderful and residential projects are realized quickly,” he said. “This is a very pleasant challenge.”

Harry Wolf will appear at Diesel, A Bookstore June 8 at 3 pm. More information can be obtained by calling 310.456.9961