Collaborative Building: Harwell Harris and the All-Electric House
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, USA
In 1954, Harwell Harris launched an experiment that challenged other models of architectural production at mid-century. General Electric had commissioned Harris, a noted modernist and Director of the University of Texas School of Architecture, to design an exhibition of “all-electric living” for the Texas State Fair; at that same moment, House Beautiful selected Harris to create its 1955 Pace Setter House. Harris boldly combined the two commissions into what he termed a “collaborative problem” to be solved by a select group of Texas architecture students under his direction. For Harris, the State Fair House – initially conceived as an ephemeral exploration of the life-enhancing technology – evolved into an enduring architectural statement (and a Pace Setter speculatively built and sold after the Fair). With this project, Harris offered a prototype for architectural education, for building processes, and for industry alliances. As the architect of record, Harris became the nexus of an unprecedented partnership between the University, the State Fair, House Beautiful, General Electric, Dallas Power & Light, the Dallas Home Builders’ Association, McFadden Interior Design, Berger & Berger Landscape Architects, and scores of resource suppliers (from the Southern Pine Association to Armstrong Cork to Nu-Tone). Though each partner had an individual goal – whether pedagogical, didactic, promotional, financial, or even philanthropic – this design group united to create a cohesive house that truly “set the pace” for domestic architecture. In this paper, I examine the All-Electric State Fair House as a crucial moment in which Harris, in concert with his partners, sought to reform both the process and product of building in the postwar decades. This case study – with its emphasis on architectural experimentation and industry collaboration – broadly captures the larger story of shifting paradigms in American building culture.