For a building that Henry Cobb, FAIA, says is the closest he’s come in his long career to poetry, the John Hancock Tower in Boston’s Copley Square rose amid a rather inelegant and loud public squabble. For starters, local residents and architects fiercely opposed the idea of situating a 62-story skyscraper directly adjacent to H.H. Richardson’s 1877 Trinity Church, a National Historic Landmark. Relegating that treasured icon to the shadow of a modern office building? Scandalous. And that was before the project attracted international ridicule during construction because of structural issues and window failures: 500-pound panes crashed to the sidewalk during high winds, earning the boarded-up structure the derisive nickname “Plywood Palace.” But the sensitivity and deftness of Cobb’s design—the way the emphatically minimalist exterior and diagonal siting of the rhomboid-shaped tower paid deference to historic Trinity—proved undeniable. In May, Cobb, a founding partner of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, secured the AIA’s Twenty-Five Year Award for the project, completed in 1976. spoke with Cobb, 85, about the Hancock, which has become an unquestioned—even beloved—Boston landmark.
What was so challenging about the project? And why did it inspire such a public outcry?
It’s unlike any other commission we’ve had: the dilemma of being asked to put a skyscraper not only next to a very highly valued historic monument, but also in the most important civic space in Boston. And the general view was that it was impossible as a premise, and therefore it was professionally irresponsible to accept the commission. People generalized the problem: In principle it’s wrong and unacceptable to put a skyscraper next to Trinity Church. It doesn’t matter how it’s done. … I don’t think that I would have done that building if I had not been born and grown up in Boston and really believed that I understood the problem better than my critics did. It’s not a causal thing to do something as universally thought to be outrageous as the Hancock Tower was.
Did you ever question the decision to accept the commission?
No, we never questioned the decision to go forward with it. There were some very difficult periods when it was even questioned whether the project would be completed or abandoned, but in terms of our commitment to the project as a concept, I don’t think we ever lost faith. And, in fact, sometimes when things are extremely difficult, you acquire a kind of strength of purpose, which carries you through the difficulties. It’s difficult for me to talk about these things, because it’s so far beyond what I would call normal professional relationships. … It was such a complete break between us and the professional community in Boston that it was a breach that could not be mended, let’s put it that way. If there is an extreme sport of architecture, the Hancock Tower is an example of it. Would the use of current technology have changed the building’s design? Would it have prevented the window and structural issues?
No. The issues we faced with the project, it wasn’t that the knowledge wasn’t there to deal with them. It’s because the knowledge wasn’t applied. Would the design be different today? The answer is, curiously, no. For example, you may find it strange, but the Hancock Tower recently received a LEED Gold Existing Building rating. One of the reasons that it’s now such a hot property in the marketplace is because of the qualities it has, which is a lot of glass and shallow floor plates, which means everyone has daylight and a view. That is something which is rather rare in American office buildings. … To be sure, there are [now] different technologies of glass and different coatings and different mechanical systems, but the fundamentals of the building would not be different today.
The project marked a turning point—a hinge point, you’ve called it—in your career. How so?
I talk about the contingent skyscraper, and it’s a concept which I think is not only exemplified by, but was sort of invented in, the Hancock Tower. If I was going to say, “What have I contributed as a professional in my life?” I would say the idea of a contingent building. That is to say, a building that is not autonomous, not self-referential, but which is shaped by its place. That’s not such an unusual concept in itself but it’s very unusual when applied to tall buildings. Most tall buildings are self-referential by definition. If there was one singular quality that has made Hancock Tower not only acceptable, but I would say even loved in Boston, it’s that it’s not self-referential. It’s clearly about its place. It doesn’t diminish the quality of the city; it enhances the identity of the city. Now, most people today couldn’t imagine Copley Square without that building. It’s seen as a companion to Trinity Church. That was the goal of the building as a work of architecture.
How would you define the Hancock’s legacy?
I think that the Hancock Tower, if it doesn’t solve problems, it illuminates problems. It illuminates the issue of, for example, the transformation of scale that has taken place in cities in the last century. It says something about that problem, it says something about how you can join memory to invention. … I think to the extent that architecture can provoke that kind of reflection, Hancock Tower does that in conjunction with its neighbors. That’s the crucial thing. Not by itself, but in conjunction with its neighbors, it helps people think about the city.
What was your reaction to winning the Twenty-Five Year Award?
A sense of great satisfaction, because the Twenty-Five Year Award is not about immediate impact, it’s about enduring value. That to me is more important than any lack of immediate impact. … And, of course, it’s very nice to be still around. Lou Kahn didn’t live to see any of his Twenty-Five Year Awards. I’m very happy to be around.