I. M. Pei & Partners, Henry Cobb, Lead Designer, 1972–1975
Harleston Parker Medal, 1983
Sheathed entirely in a light skin of reflective glass, this building is a marked contrast from the Pei firm’s other Harleston Parker Medal winners which all have heavy walls of concrete. But like them, this structure uses minimal means to achieve an elegant fit with a highly challenging urban context. The parallelogram-shaped shaft reflects the shifting street grid at the intersection of the Back Bay and the South End, while creating a stunning object that constantly changes with vantage point, the clouds and the sun. From some angles it is a bright blue slab reflecting everything around it; from others it is a knife edge against the sky – barely there save for its vertical black indented zip strip or the horizontal mechanical grilles crowning the top. Acutely angled walls create perspectival ambiguities that can give it an otherworldly monumentality.
Given the building's undisputed elegance, it is hard to imagine that its creation was "one of the most excruciating fiascos in the history of architecture" (Shand-Tucci), with endless stories of "disasters and tragedies and miscalculations and beauties and wonderful examples of professional conduct by engineers and architects." (Campbell).
Architect Henry Cobb recently provided his recollection of the project. The John Hancock Insurance Company originally engaged I.M. Pei to do the design. He delivered a two-building solution, with a tall round tower on this site and a lower building across Clarendon St., connected by a plaza. Though it gained broad approval from the Boston design community, Hancock reconsidered and returned with a new program calling for the same floor area in just one tower, under a tighter budget. Frustrated, Pei declined to take on the redesign and offered it to Cobb, his junior partner and a native Bostonian.
Cobb delivered the conceptual design for this building in two weeks, declaring: "As a work of architecture, Hancock is dedicated to one purpose and one purpose only, to become a respectful neighbor to Trinity Church.” It met immediate and sharp resistance. Over the following nine months, Ed Logue’s Boston Redevelopment Authority’s distinguished architectural review board unanimously recommended that the project not be built. The BSA established its own blue ribbon commission, and it reached the same conclusion.
The AIA’s National Committee on Design took an interest and visited Boston. Cobb recounts how made his case: “…while Copley Square… and its monuments… clearly embodied the vision of an ideal city, the reality at street level was something very different and very troubling – a public space desecrated by the rupturing of its enclosure in the intrusion of massive commercial buildings that seemed to render the space itself irrelevant and meaningless. The only way you could rescue Copley Square was not by rejecting but by joining the new scale that had engulfed it, and this could best be accomplished by a tower that would acknowledge and celebrate its neighbors, Trinity Church and Copley Square.” The AIA Committee supported Cobb’s analysis, but the BSA succeeded in having their report suppressed - it was never published.
Hancock’s response to this criticism was to remind the locals that they could simply move their company and its 12,000 employees to their new tower in Chicago, which of course only made matters worse. Hancock doubled down on Cobb's design, acknowledging that it addressed all elements of their program, and knowing that if they equivocated the project would surely stall. They even accepted Cobb’s prohibition of any signage on the tower. He decreed: “The silence of this building is crucial. You can’t use it as a billboard.”
Construction moved ahead. Immediately upon the tower’s completion, the glass window panels started to fail, some falling to the street (nobody was injured, miraculously). As more and more missing panels were replaced with plywood, the building came to be known as “Ply in the Sky,” and the building’s detractors felt justice was being served. Several years of analysis and repairs followed, during which the building narrowly escaped having its 5 x 11 foot window panels subdivided into three smaller panes. Cobb: “If they had subdivided the glass, it would have been the end of my life in architecture. I would rather have had the building taken down…” Hancock’s chairman, Gerhard Bleicken, rescued Cobb from that fate with a brave decision to retain the larger panels.
Subsequent review of the structural design led to some later reinforcement of the building’s steel frame, and a “tuned mass damper,” a rolling weight on a film of oil on the fifty-eighth floor to counter high wind stresses.
So how has this catastrophe of a project survived? In the year following its completion, it received an AIA National Honor Award. In 1984, it won the BSA’s Harleston Parker Medal. In 2011, it received the AIA 25-Year Award, one of two that the Pei partnership was awarded. Today, more than forty years later, the John Hancock Tower stands as what many would say is the signature landmark on the Boston skyline, its turbulent genesis mostly forgotten.
Particularly in light of these challenges, the Hancock company deserves credit for their Harleston Parker Medal hat trick: all three of their Back Bay buildings, executed over a span of 50 years, won the award.
Sources: “On the Record with Henry Cobb,” Log 38, Fall 2016; "Built in Boston," Shand-Tucci, 1999.