The architect Harry Weese, FAIA, is best remembered these days for a grand underground civic work: the vaulted and coffered stations of the Washington, D.C., Metro system. Yet the man was anything but a team player who deferred to authority.

In The Architecture of Harry Weese (W.W. Norton & Co.; $59.95), the first monograph on the architect, author Robert Bruegmann portrays a charismatic, hard-drinking Chicagoan who looked like a handsomer Dan Rather. Harry Mohr Weese (1915–1998) constantly defied common sense in his business decisions and hobbies and sometimes offended everyone around him. He ranted against flashy competitors such as Helmut Jahn (“Genghis Jahn,” Weese called him) and hidebound bureaucrats who rejected his loopier proposals for installing infrastructure on new, manmade islands and stretching glass roofs over avenues to create pedestrian arcades.

Bruegmann suspects that Weese’s erratic behavior and rebelliousness were partly rooted in his childhood. His father, Harry Ernest Weese, a rigid Methodist banker and John Bircher, forbade smoking and drinking at the family’s house in the Chicago suburb of Kenilworth, Ill. The elder Harry frugally ran an “agricultural operation in the backyard, growing vegetables, raising chickens, fattening a turkey, and keeping bees,” Bruegmann writes. Young Harry “would fidget constantly and chew his tie absent mindedly” unless distracted by supplies of pencil and paper. He churned out drawings of pirate hideouts, windmills, boats, and football players. He also blew off steam by building rickety huts and tree houses.

The elder Harry feared that his son “might stray into the low-paying and, to his mind, socially dubious field of art,” Bruegmann writes. But the father did finance young Harry’s somewhat more pragmatic architecture training—first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then at Yale University, and finally at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. At these schools, young Harry befriended fellow future stars, including Charles and Ray Eames, I.M. Pei, and Eero Saarinen.

Bruegmann supplies a few steamy anecdotes about Weese’s school years. At Cranbrook, the budding architect flirted with sculptor Lily Swann, who was about to become Saarinen’s first wife. “Finding Lily and Harry together inside one of the large urns that marked the entrance to Cranbrook, Saarinen challenged Weese to a duel,” Bruegmann reports. “Weese talked him out of it, reportedly suggesting that they instead go for a walk in the woods.” Weese later befriended a wealthy male student from Alabama, Benjamin Baldwin, and soon married Baldwin’s sister Kitty, a psychologist.

After a World War II stint as the engineering officer on a destroyer, Weese set up a retail design store in Chicago and assigned Kitty to run it. She marketed a foresighted mixture of Alvar Aalto furniture, Harry Bertoia jewelry, and Paolo Venini glass, while her husband built a solo practice partly through his school connections. Saarinen’s friend Irwin Miller, a Cummins Engine Co. heir and executive, hired Weese to design a cylindrical church and schools with piers and saw-tooth roofs near Cummins’ headquarters in Columbus, Ind.

Weese became a kind of Postmodernist ahead of his time, reviving arched windows, symmetry, and elemental classical forms in the mold of Louis Kahn and the Venturis. He also pioneered preservation, criticizing urban-renewal projects that were clearing away the kind of humane, jumbled streetscapes that Jane Jacobs had just started documenting. Weese protested Chicago’s demolition plans for the El, Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium and Garrick theaters, and H.H. Richardson’s planar stone Glessner House. As early as 1961, he advised San Francisco planners to restore cable-car networks, stop carving out elevated expressways, and create a registry of “all historic buildings and landmarks.” He sank his own money into preservation, too, buying Chicago warehouses for conversion into apartments.

Old buildings’ shapes and materials influenced Weese’s own designs. He used exposed-timber beams on ceilings and sheltered pathways and outdoor staircases with colonnades. Yet he also sometimes folded building masses into origami points and cantilevered wings that the likes of Zaha Hadid or Daniel Libeskind would admire. Weese took on more than 1,000 commissions over his career, and for this monograph, Bruegmann brought in art historian Kathleen Murphy Skolnik to write 34 mini-profiles of major buildings. They are scattered from Ghana (a 1950s embassy clad in mahogany brise-soleils) to Kentucky (a 1970s Z-shaped headquarters for Fruit of the Loom, with streams running through the skylighted atriums) to Wisconsin (a 1960s Cor-Ten steel lake house bolted onto a limestone cliff) to California (Stanford University’s 1970s engineering center, with timber framing embedded in tawny stucco).

Weese could usually visualize his new building schemes within 20 seconds of first seeing the client’s proposed site. It would then take him perhaps 20 minutes to draw up his ideas on any pieces of paper at hand. Then he would fob off the sketches on young underlings at Harry Weese & Associates (HWA). The firm grew to more than 100 staff, with no signature style. “He feared any kind of rationalization or standardization,” Bruegmann writes. Turnover rates were high, and so many alumni, including Stanley Tigerman and Harry’s younger brother Ben, went on to start their own successful practices that HWA “came to be known by wags in the office as the ‘Harry Weese Academy,’ ” Bruegmann writes.

Weese lived large on his profits. He dressed in silk bow ties, sailed a succession of sloops, drove his Jaguars too fast, sent his children to private school, and kept an apartment in Chicago, a country house nearby, and a ski house in Aspen. The office became “dangerously disorganized,” Bruegmann writes. By the 1980s, Weese was in and out of rehab for alcoholism. “He failed to prepare adequately for meetings and even insulted potential clients on job interviews,” Bruegmann adds. The architect spent his last years sobering up in nursing homes and a Veterans Administration hospital. Bruegmann is more reticent about Weese’s notorious womanizing; the book includes a few references to “attractive women” that Weese met on the job.

Eve M. Kahn has been writing about architecture and design for two decades.
Eve M. Kahn has been writing about architecture and design for two decades.

So, no, this is not the usual hagiographic posthumous monograph. But it does reveal Weese’s protean talent for manipulating forms, angling views and windows in unpredictable ways, and respecting and reinterpreting the past. Skolnik’s building profiles—which, annoyingly, are not cross-referenced with page numbers in Bruegmann’s biographical essay—contain informative floor plans and quotes from positive and negative reviews over the years. (Weese himself considered his Marriott Hotel slab in Chicago “something of a dog.”) Skolnik also notes which buildings have been drastically altered or demolished. Weese’s campus works have proved particularly vulnerable: Beloit College in Wisconsin razed his brick science hall, and similar plans are afoot for a concrete-and-limestone humanities center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and for Williams College’s brick library. His masterpiece, the D.C. Metro, however, seems to have suffered not much worse than deferred maintenance, coats of gray paint, and loudspeakers “installed in visible places rather than behind acoustic panels,” Skolnik writes. Not a bad survival rate for the miles-long work of a complicated, self-destructive man that one co-worker called “the most exasperating person I ever met. Also, the most gifted.”

In next month’s Crit, Roger K. Lewis will consider Bing Thom’s expansion of Weese’s Arena Stage complex, in Washington, D.C.