A full house greeted Henry N. Cobb on April 23rd, at the Center for Architecture in honor of the prestigious AIA 25 year Award, this year presented to the John Hancock Tower, designed in 1976 by Cobb and his firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. The acclaimed architect made a rare appearance to discuss “The Skyscraper as Citizen: Reflections on the Public Life of Private Buildings.”
The lecture began with the proposition that skyscrapers owe more to their surroundings than mere façades. Cobb, who has designed over forty skyscrapers (at least thirty of which have been built), has been haunted throughout his career by the status quo office building. His approach to design embraces waging a grand battle against the innate character of skyscrapers and revisioning how civically responsible skyscrapers should be.
Through an examination of the John Hancock Tower, Cobb found that buildings are a physical manifestation of confluent histories or narratives. He told the story of the city, the site, the client, and himself, and how all four narratives intersected in a building design that struggled to pay deference to the site, its history, and the need for interaction with surrounding buildings.
This tower was the first of Cobb’s buildings in his hometown of Boston, although not his first design. He saw this as a major turning point in his career — an initial resistance against some of the basic assumptions of Modernism, and his first attempt toward mediating misguided skyscrapers. To him, tall office buildings are inherently selfish and self-absorbed. They house private industry in huge volume, a tiny percentage of which is given back to the public at the ground level.
Schooled in architectural Modernism, Cobb initially reinforced such ideology in his building design. The modern skyscraper’s outer form was entirely dictated by private interior concerns, so that the façade provided transparency, but no accessibility. Add to that Modernism’s complete contempt for site, place, and total divorce from history, and you have selfish buildings — Cobb’s Royal Bank of Canada tower, renamed Place Ville-Marie, in Montreal included.
The design for the John Hancock Tower was a result of Cobb’s denouncement of selfishness in built form. His deference to the site and surrounding buildings and their histories shaped the tower, so that the exterior was no longer dictated by the interior, at odds with traditionally Modernist structures. He paid close attention to how the building met the ground and how it interacted with the pedestrian space of the square. He traced these attempts to design skyscrapers that give back to their surroundings, that were perhaps less selfish than they otherwise could have been. He formally designed tall office buildings against the grain of a typical skyscraper.
Goldman Sachs Building at 200 West Street, NYC. A mural by Julie Mehretu engages the public with the building. | Photo by Flickr user Andrew Russeth
Cobb spoke of the Goldman Sachs building at 200 West Street and how it was shaped in plan by the convergence of two alternate street grids, acknowledging both the history and future of the World Trade Center site. 200 West Street defers to its surroundings, making it unobtrusive, a very ‘self-conscious’ skyscraper. Security was also a primary concern in its design, which tends to make skyscrapers less accessible and separates them more from the public sphere. But by thoughtfully incorporating these concerns in the design of 200 West Street, the security process was made part of the entry sequence without limiting the structure’s approachability.
A building’s civic responsibility is complex in Cobb’s interpretation of the skyscraper. Due to size and privacy necessitated by function, the skyscraper will only ever be accepted as part of the city if it is designed to be quiet, to hide itself, to construct itself around the history of its site, and to be shaped by the histories of the surrounding buildings. It is surprising that, as someone who has built so many skyscrapers and is particularly known and influential for their design, Cobb has spent the bulk of his career loathing them, and trying with all his might to fight against what he saw as the inherent character of the skyscraper.
Cobb’s vision of what was owed to the city seemed to be more informed by a frustration with privately-interested form and the void between public and tower than a prescriptive advancement of idealistic design. His great success in building responsible and responsive high-rises lends itself to a discourse opened only in response to a typology and framework that has challenged him throughout his long career.
Jessica Cronstein is a designer and writer interested in the point at which the social, cultural and physical growth of a city intersect. She has just completed her M.Arch at Rice University and lives in New York City.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.