Chip Harkness, 99, last living founder of The Architects Collaborative
A famous photo from the beginning of The Architects Collaborative shows the eight founders standing one behind another on stairs that climb to the right. At the curve in the line is Chip Harkness, tall and handsome, neck still muscular from his days as a Harvard wrestling champion.
He stands behind his mentor, Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus school in Germany and hired him to teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Design after Mr. Harkness returned from driving ambulances in Europe as a conscientious objector during World War II.
“We were on a mission to make a better world after the war,” Mr. Harkness told the Globe in 2002. “We all believed deeply in modern architecture. We used clean, simple lines and modern materials. There is no reference to traditional styles, just a desire to create what is appropriate for the purpose at hand.”
Though Mr. Harkness was a designer for buildings including Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, the university’s athletics facilities on Soldiers Field Road, and the National Shawmut Bank in the Financial District, the most lasting legacy he and his partners left was right in the firm’s title. Through its collective approach, The Architects Collaborative inspired subsequent generations and “became a sort of godparent to Boston architecture,” Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell wrote in 1995, when the firm closed after 50 years. “Numerous other firms were started by architects who’d learned the ropes at TAC.”
Mr. Harkness, the last remaining founder of the Cambridge firm he had served as president and board chairman, died after going to sleep in his Vinalhaven, Maine, home on the evening of Nov. 28, two days before turning 100. Family and friends had gathered a couple of days earlier to celebrate his birthday.
“That concept of collaboration, which was new in the profession, really was transporting,” said Howard Elkus of Elkus Manfredi Architects in Boston, who formerly worked at The Architects Collaborative.
“He was a monumental figure,” said Michael Gebhart of Michael Francis Gebhart Architects, who also had worked at TAC. Collaboration wasn’t confined to the office and spilled into lunches at the Casablanca restaurant in Cambridge, where Mr. Harkness might snatch a pencil from a dining companion and sketch ideas on a napkin or anything else handy, including the bottom of a plate. “If we disagreed on a design issue,” Gebhart recalled, “we would fake arm wrestle and he would always win.”
Perry Neubauer, a former president of The Architects Collaborative who considered Mr. Harkness a father figure and mentor, said he was “a collaborator who wanted to bring out the best in everyone, rather than force his ideas, even though he had lots of them.”
With his wife, Sally Harkness, another of TAC’s founders, Mr. Harkness designed one of the houses in Lexington’s Six Moon Hill neighborhood, which became almost as famous as the firm when its architects began building the homes there in 1948. “The name sounds Indian, but it isn’t,” Mr. Harkness told the Globe in 1994. “It came from the fact that we found six old Moon automobiles in a barn on the site. It turned out later one of them was a Franklin, but we liked the name too much to change.”
John Cheesman Harkness was born in New York City on Nov. 30, 1916. His father, Albert, was an architect. Mr. Harkness was 4 when his mother, the former Sara Arden Cheesman, died while giving birth to his younger brother, Livingston, who died a few days later. Mr. Harkness, his brother, Albert, and their father moved their all-male household to Providence.
“Chip used to talk about how, after supper at night, they would clear off the dining room table and get out the fencing equipment, and he and his father would fence,” Neubauer said.
Mr. Harkness also spent considerable time then with his paternal grandmother, who took him to France when he was 9 and to Italy the following year. In a memoir, he said of the museums he visited: “I wasn’t as appreciative as I should have been, but there probably was a residue of appreciation of art.”
He graduated from Milton Academy, where he began wrestling competitively, and went to Harvard College. During his junior and senior years, he spent nearly all his time studying architecture, graduating with a bachelor’s in the subject in 1938 and a master’s in 1941. Mr. Harkness also wrestled for Harvard in the 175-pound class, and in his final year became the team’s first national champion. He was inducted into the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Hall of Fame in 2009, and at the time of his death was one of the nation’s two oldest NCAA wrestling champions.
One summer during college, Mr. Harkness and a friend headed west in a Model A Ford, landing jobs harvesting wheat in Kansas and shoveling blasted rocks from a Colorado mine. Then they sold the car, went to California, and traveled much of the way back east by hopping trains, tying themselves to the roof of a freight car while they slept.
Mr. Harkness met Sarah Pillsbury, who was known as Sally, while attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Marrying in 1941, they initially lived and worked in New York City. The couple had seven children before separating about a half century later. She died in 2013.
During graduate school, Mr. Harkness also met Gropius, and he wrote that the time he spent as his student “was undoubtedly critical in my life as it led later to Gropius asking me to teach at Harvard, and the founding of TAC with him.”
Upon receiving his draft notice in 1942, Mr. Harkness registered as a conscientious objector and drove ambulances for the American Field Service, including during battles in Italy.
“The main thing about him is that he was very competitive, but he was also a pacifist,” said his son Fred of Amesbury.
“His proudest moment, I think, was being a conscientious objector,” said his daughter Joan Harkness Hantz of Rockland, Maine.
In 1988, for the 50th anniversary report of his Harvard class, Mr. Harkness said his decision sprang from “an inner feeling that killing people was not the way to solve international disagreements – or any disagreements for that matter.”
He wrote that “we must turn our backs on war as a solution to international problems,” before adding whimsically that at 72, “I am doing less wrestling than I did at the time of the 25th report.”
A memorial gathering will be announced for Mr. Harkness, who in addition to his daughter and son leaves his companion, Christine Mattson of Vinalhaven, Maine; three other daughters, Sara of Woodstock, Conn., Nell of Arlington, and Alice of Edmonton, Alberta; another son, Jock of Jamaica Plain; 10 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
“One time he talked about God and what is God,” said his son Fred. “He said, ‘Well, we don’t really believe in God, but we believe in spirit, and your spirit travels through people you know and how you treat them.’
“In my mind, he’s still alive through all of us,” Fred added. “Not just his family, but in everyone he did things with throughout his life. And you couldn’t ask for a better life.”