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Architecture was always heroic for Harriet Harriss

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Beatrice Galilee

Harriet Harriss, multi-skilled advocate of social architecture, brought no prepared vision to her deanship of New York’s Pratt Institute. For her, leadership starts with her community

Are academics typically a practical people? In my interactions with the world of architectural education, it does seem to be notable, bordering on exceptional, for anyone to have the intellectual and functional elasticity to hold a deanship, an embarrassment of qualifications, teaching awards and scholarships, lead a successful advocacy group for women in architecture and also, say, have been ­ankle-deep in an abandoned Mancunian abattoir, built medical centres by hand and have masters-level training in restoration treatments for medieval belfries. 

Yet as well as being able to put her hand up to all of that, possibly the most interesting thing that the incoming dean of architecture at New York’s Pratt Institute – our very own British architect, Dr Harriet Harriss – is that she is an assured and compelling campaigner and advocate for the civic and social scope of architecture. She has an attitude and world view that will intrigue and hopefully impress her new colleagues in New York. 

 ‘I’d always thought of architecture as a civic project,’ she tells me, one a late august morning in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. ‘Perhaps spending a lot of my early years in council housing in the north, architecture wasn’t theoretical for me. I got an education, I got space for healthcare, I got space to live. So I’d only ever seen architecture as heroic.’ 

We are meeting just a few days before Harriss starts her role as dean at the school’s gleaming Steven Holl-designed campus. I try to share some things I know about being British in New York. (Never order tea in public. Always bring a credit card to the doctors. Radically lower your expectations of the Subway) and learn more than the little I know about Harriss. As head of postgraduate ­studies at the Royal College of Art, she had persuaded, encouraged and ushered through my application to take on a long-distance PhD under her supervision. I remember meeting her – long blonde hair, sharp brown eyes, crisp white t-shirt, black leather trousers with stacked doctor martin boots – cheerfully detailing her own doctorate which she undertook while working full-time as the head of the graduate programme at Oxford Brooks University. Her commitment to supporting and creating space for women in architecture shone through then just as it does now. Although what is easy for Harriss – who as a student was a qualified youth worker, organising rock-climbing and kayaking training classes in her spare time while her friends were probably slumped over a pint in the student union – may not be easy for everyone else. 

Harriss took up her studies in Manchester in the midst of Thatcher’s Britain. One of the advantages of studying as an undergraduate in a northern city was the vast biopolitical divide between the north and the south, giving her a sense of autonomy from the preoccupation of the London-centric architecture world. She says the separation generated a more community-oriented way of working and engaging with building. 

Harriet Harriss, here and above.
Harriet Harriss, here and above. Credit: Daniel Dorsa

In the post-recession era in the north of England, there was not much work for architects. Harriss joined CTAC (Community Technical Aid Centres) where she helped community groups or minority religious groups who operated in substandard conditions to find and refurbish spaces. ‘These centres were created with a commitment to work with communities. We’d find the most unlikely spaces and turn them into usable functional places for these groups. In those days, abattoirs were quite a common sight. I still remember walking on a strangely spongy floor. It looked a bit like black pudding.’

As we chat, the bare-brick-wall Brooklyn aesthetic that surrounds us seems non-ironically appropriate to her history of working on low-budget community projects. ‘One of the great things about coming from a community like Manchester was there wasn’t any money. We reused. Recycling, upcycling, refurbishing, industrial chic. It wasn’t an aesthetic choice. They’re painting the patina in now, which is a bitter irony.’ 

And not only patina – now reuse has an ambiguous social role in New York, one of the most expensive places in the world to live and work and where there is a true and deep tension between civic improvement and gentrification, rising house prices and pushing communities to the fringes.  

After Manchester, she took on a postgraduate course at the Royal College of Art, a place famous for experimental and lateral thinking designers where she produced the architectural magazine Pollen between 2002-2003, then her doctorate at Oxford Brooks, a place that at that time had secured itself with a reputation for the environment. She now laments that few schools now have such a distinctive focus and renown. 

Meanwhile she started her own practice, working mainly on civic projects, designing ‘schools for the future’. Harriss moved quickly and easily through the architectural teaching system as many in practice do, though is very active in academic life in Britain: board member of the London School of Architecture and external examiner for the AA, for instance.  She is also an active member of the Part W collective founded by Zoë Berman in 2018 to fight gender inequality in the built environment. 

Harriss applied for the position at Pratt as a matter of principle rather than ambition. ‘I spent my life campaigning for equality for women, not just in our country but more generally, and I think that one of the problems we have is that many of us will fight for equality, but when jobs come up we don’t apply.’ Most women, she reminds me and looks up sharply to make sure I am also taking notes, ‘only apply for jobs when they’re overqualified and most men will apply when they’re under-qualified’. Point taken. 

The position she took at the interview stage with Pratt was to bring her political and equality agenda to the school, but she said the idea of an overarching vision for the school was itself a design problem, to be solved using her own community-led principles. ‘I presented a slide at the interview that simply said, ‘I don’t have a vision for the school, the vision I want for the school is one I’ll co-design with the faculty, and the students, and the administrators. I want the school to connect itself more profoundly to some of the most emergent and pressing concerns within society and the world at large, and to not answer the question about preparing students for architectural practice as is, but start thinking about what architecture has the potential to be and to do.’

The reputation America has for output in contemporary architectural education is internationally excellent, yet there is a diversity crisis and an equality crisis that Harriss with her personal background and balance of accomplishments in strategic and disciplinary thinking seems uniquely suited to addressing. For Harriss, that is a fundamental issue with the expectations for the profession itself. ‘I think we’re obsessed with producing architecture students to serve an existing practice model that, in my view, is unsustainable, and the reason we know this is because it’s economically in decline. If it can’t pay people properly, if it can’t reward people equally independent of gender or race or LGBTQ status, then it’s not a profession that will survive.’ She reflects on her role in shaping that future. ‘I want to explore the potential of this school,’ she says. 

Given her achievements so far, there seems little doubt that the energetic Harriss will find a great deal of potential worth exploring as dean.