When Bill Harrison looks at one of the homes in California he designed, he doesn’t just see architecture. He looks at the earth-colored mansion and watches a dance. He hears music.
The asymmetrical flow of the home unfolds like a ballet across the landscape. The higher arches and smaller arches are like notes on a sheet of music.
“I think if you’re artistic as a person, you relate to all types of arts,” Harrison said.
This year, the nonprofit group Art Sandy Springs honored Harrison’s passion and creativity by naming him its 2012 Artist of the Year. Harrison’s fingerprints can be seen all over Sandy Springs, Buckhead and around the country.
Harrison, 63, dabbles in a little bit of everything. He even briefly considered ballet, but his father quickly squashed that idea. That wasn’t happening in Harrison’s hometown of Macon, Ga. Harrison’s dad gave him a football.
At age 12, he picked up a pencil and a sketch pad and soon found another outlet.
“I like dance,” Harrison said. “I think it’s beautiful. I personally like to dance. I’m a good dancer. Choosing architecture was probably ultimately the right move for me because my talents fall in that area. I’m not athletic enough to be a Baryshnikov.”
Harrison owns Harrison Design Associates, a firm based in Buckhead with an international reach. He recently started a partnership in Shanghai, China. He has six offices, with locations in New York, California, Washington, D.C. and his home state of Georgia. He enrolled at Georgia Institute of Technology when he was 16, the same year he started his own business, drawing architectural models and renderings.
He reads voraciously, 30 books in the last year, all nonfiction. He’s just as likely to discuss the finer points of Parisian architecture as professional basketball.
He talks with a command of subjects, displaying a confidence that is backed up by a list of accomplishments, including medals, awards, architectural magazine profiles and his name on lists of influential people. Locally, he’s worked on Charlie Loudermilk Park and the 675 West Paces development. He doesn’t do many single developments, but Harrison said the individual homes he’s designed in the Atlanta metro area are easy to spot.
He said he tries to design homes that match their surroundings, incorporating elements of the environment into their designs.
“If you see a really nice house and seems to be of its place, there’s a good chance we did it,” he said.
His biggest influence is Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who began as a stone mason and worked his way into designing buildings. Harrison sees a little of himself in Palladio, recalling his experiences wearing a nail bag while building houses.
Harrison said he isn’t beholden by any particular style of architecture and tailors his projects to the client’s tastes. He said his favorite project is always the next one, because he likes to look forward. He does some government work, but it’s pro bono. A notable example is the Chastain Park Tennis Center. Three quarters of it is underground, underscoring his belief that building designs should blend seamlessly into their environment.
About Bill Harrison
Children: Wil 14, James 11
Education: Georgia Institute of Technology
Job: Owner of Harrison Design Associates, established in Buckhead in 1991
Residence: Sandy Springs
Memberships and affiliations: Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, Georgia Institute of Technology, Buckhead Coalition, Southeastern Horticultural Society and Metro Atlanta Rotary Club.
His pro bono work is as much about supporting his artistic vision as his desire to give back to the community. The paperwork required to bid on contracts costs more money than the actual job would pay, he said.
“If they’re not paying you, you can go to them and say ‘This is what you should have,’” Harrison said.
If Harrison could change one thing about architecture in the Atlanta metro area, he would insist developers cover parking lots with trees and landscaping. It would lower the overall temperature and make driving through Atlanta a more pleasant experience, he said. He said the barren patches of asphalt are just plain ugly.
Harrison said he also wants to be involved as Sandy Springs draws up plans for a downtown. While one plan involves building a large municipal complex on Johnson Ferry Road, Harrison said development shouldn’t be centered around a government building. He said that would be a “mistake,” and the city should instead focus on a park-like space, “so the whole thing has a greater purpose to it.”
He said the development should evoke what’s good about the city and use green spaces to connect people.
“It’s a great location,” Harrison said. “It’s a good place to live.”