Given Harry Teague’s family background, it would be surprising if he hadn’t become a designer of some kind. His grandfather, the pioneering industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague, penned Art Deco cameras for Kodak in the 1920s and 1930s and served on the design board of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. His father was a car designer. Harry Teague, 66, remembers growing up “in an ambience where everything was judged: Every building, every product, everything.” Amid this ongoing critique of the made world, he was exposed to some of the icons of 20th-century design. “When I was a baby, I was in a hammock on a Herreshoff S-Boat,” he says. In the workshop of his family’s northern New Jersey home, “we restored a Type 37 Grand Prix Bugatti.” But, destined or not, Teague’s career as an architect diverged from the beaten path of his forebears. The difference can be summed up in a single word: Colorado.
As a newly minted Dartmouth graduate in 1966, Teague spent a year working for Aspen, Colo.–based architect Fritz Benedict, a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple who designed the master plans for the Colorado ski towns of Vail, Snowmass, and Breckenridge. “He had a rich sense for the mountain landscape. I learned a ton from him,” says Teague, who calls his internship “more like an initiation.” In 1969, on summer break from architecture studies at Yale University, he returned with some fellow students to build sprayed-concrete domes. “The next summer we found a client and did a house,” Teague says. He made the pilgrimage annually throughout his Yale years, producing experimental work for adventurous clients. “It was crazy,” he says now, “but it didn’t cost much.”
Teague’s Yale thesis project was an innovative design for the alternative Aspen Community School, and after graduation he and group of friends returned to the mountains to build it. “When we came out [of school], people went in some different directions, some to the bigger firms,” he remembers. “And then there were those of us who were perfectly comfortable camping out in order to do what we wanted to do.” Adopting the moniker SLOW (for Society of Loosely Organized Workers), the group lived in camper trailers on the site, where, Teague recalls, the nearest neighbor was the famously erratic journalist Hunter S. Thompson. “He actually shot out the lantern of one of our campers.”
Teague’s approach to architecture reflected the openness of the times. Through his work at Yale, then under the deanship of Charles Moore, “I got a sense that architecture could work in a social context as well as a physical context.” The school design grew out of extensive interviews with students, parents, and teachers. Based on an interactive model of education—Teague used garage doors to open classrooms to a central courtyard—and inspiration from Italian Renaissance architect Francesco di Giorgio, the building made novel use of log construction. It was an immediate success (and an enduring one; some 40 years later, it remains the home of a thriving community institution). Further educational projects were not forthcoming, Teague says, “but we did have wonderful [residential] clients who liked this crazy idea we had with logs—the economy, the exuberance.” While most of his colleagues drifted away after the project was finished, Teague stayed on, adopting the SLOW Construction name for his own design/build firm.
Yale had emphasized hands-on construction experience, and running a design/build operation extended that practice. “I learned a ton and got very confident with materials,” Teague says. But after a time, “my learning curve flattened out. I would design for one month and build for 11. I was anxious to develop my design more.” A turning point came in a commission for another nascent institution, the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, where Teague converted an old barn to gallery space and offices. “That was probably the last job I pounded nails on,” he remembers, “and it was with some reluctance, because there’s something wonderful about going home at the end of the day and having produced something tangible.” But if he lost his calluses, Teague found his groove as a regional modernist. “I developed this vernacular of working with old buildings, and adding things to them that were new—and obviously so—but worked with the old things.” The project also introduced him to the clientele that has supported his residential practice ever since.