John Harris, In Memoriam

Phyllis Lambert, CC, GOQ, CAL, FRAIC
Founding Director Emeritus
Founding Director (1979–1999) and Chair of the Board of Trustees (1979–2013)

Even a small image shows John’s vast intelligence, his controlled energy that took many routes, his fun-loving, mischievous humour, his great appetite, decisiveness, and immense capability in all that he touched. There is no one I will ever miss more.

Self-taught—with some mentoring by his highly respected architectural-historian wife Eileen—and with an innate capacity for knowledge, John Harris wrote major scholarly works, fearlessly championed the myriads of deteriorating and disappearing country houses in Britain he knew intimately as a snooper, and was curator of the RIBA drawings collection, which he catalogued with only two others in those few years when no one else knew how to do such work with architectural drawings. At RIBA, he began bringing in the archives (no one was currently using the word then) of many twentieth-century architects, adding them to the peerless nineteenth-century, eighteenth-century, and earlier masters’ works the collection held. At Portman Square, where he moved the drawing collection in 1970, John made exhibitions in the small room for which he had cases made so that drawings need not be framed (he had hardly any budget), made publications and hosted small luncheons full of jokes and discussion and news in the kitchen. All of this made the RIBA Drawing Centre the lodestar for International Confederation of Architecture Museums’ members. Of course, John was the first president of ICAM.

It was in that kitchen that I learned that the first meeting of ICAM was to take place in Finland in November 1979, the same time that the CCA had obtained its letters patent on the way to becoming a registered museum and research centre. John and I met some twenty years earlier, when I searched out architectural drawings for what would become the CCA. My curiosity about the kinds of drawings made at other times and in other places was whetted by the studies and drawings made by Mies and members of his office during the process of designing the Seagram building in New York City. John and I became friends, and with John’s passion for advancing the field, he was immensely important in advising me on drawings coming up at auction. With Robin Middleton, John and I met with Ben Weinreb at his offices, where we stepped through a warren of books to the inner sanctum of rare books; every few months I sat there in a high-backed A.W.N. Pugin chair and we ate smoked salmon sandwiches and talked about the books necessary for building the CCA’s library.

The CCA will soon make accessible a full description of John’s nonpareil contribution to the forming of the institution.

Phyllis Lambert and John Harris walking on the street during the International Confederation of Architectural Museums meeting in Helsinki, August 1979. Photograph © Kari Hakli

Excerpts from a Speech by John Harris

On the occasion of the CCA’s Ground-Breaking Ceremony, 13 May 1985

It is now six years since Phyllis and I assisted, in Helsinki, in the birth of the International Confederation of Architectural Museums which we call ICAM. Today, ICAM is the body deputed to represent such museums the world over and our growth is a phenomenon. We have recently seen the Deutsches Architekturmuseum opening in Frankfurt. We know of the impending completion of the Musée du XIXe siècle at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris and hear of plans for a French National Architectural Museum, from France to… for a Dutch architectural museum in either Rotterdam or Amsterdam.

Now we might ask why, why now, why so late after museums of art, or industry, or air have long since been a reality being established. It is all to do, I think, with events that have mushroomed as recently as about 1972, events that concern the vox populi, the people demanding a vote on their environment. Of course, there have been protests in the past but always elitist, always by small groups. The explosion of popular protest, the grassroots response to what is happening to our environment is quite modern. Helsinki, Moscow, Stockholm, Washington have their architectural or building museums. Generally, they are state-supported and their functions vary considerably. Indeed, so much of a variance that we in ICAM use that word “confederation” to imply something loose-knit, as embracing not only the museum idea but architectural libraries, representatives of professions, national architectural photographs archives, teaching institutions that proselytize, or national libraries with large architectural resources.

In Helsinki, we long debated as to what properly constitutes an architectural museum. We all imagined ourselves guardians of what we thought were inadvertent comas, architectural museums. We dreamed of the opportunity of making buildings especially designed to accommodate all the tasks that this ideal museum should perform for the community, to improve the quality of the new built environment, to act in the conservation of the historically old, to advance the study of architectural history, to be a powerful educating force for both public and private good, and to assist in all this, to have the best library, archives and collections. Now in Helsinki I noticed a hard right gleam in Phyllis’s eye, as if to say: if I have my way, Canada, Québec, Montréal will have the first proper new built architectural museum to accommodate all these functions and ideals. I think it is interesting it should be here in Montréal, for here is a city that serves as a case study as to how we should treat our habitat.

Yet at the same time, through the powerhouse that the CCA will become, the lessons learned here will be applicable the world over…in Budapest, in Singapore, Buenos Aires, Lisbon. Indeed, I could use John Evelyn’s words written about 1650 when he described the English country house as “an epitome of the whole world.” So will CCA be an epitome of the world of architectural museums.

In addition to his inestimable contribution to the forming of the CCA, John Harris (1931–2022) curated The Palladian Revival and contributed to An English Arcadia, 1600–1990


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