Place Ville Marie in Montréal (1955-62), Henry N. Cobb in his office (February 2019), the John Hancock Tower in Boston (1967-76)

With the passing away of Henry N. Cobb on March 2nd, 2020, North American architecture has lost one of his most respected professionals—a man acclaimed for his designs as well as for his human dimension.

A native of Boston in 1926, and a graduate of Harvard University’s School of Design in 1947. He was exposed to a new Bauhaus-derived pedagogy at the time of Walter Gropius’ direction, but also to other forms of modernist discourse: from the writings of Le Corbusier to the aphorisms of Mies van der Rohe, who famously saw in architecture “powerful ethics as much as an aesthetic.” Gropius put the emphasis on the social potential of high-rise buildings, as illustrated in Cobb’s diploma thesis for a cluster of housing towers. One of his instructors was Ieoh Ming Pei, with whom he would later create a successful architectural firm in New York.

It was on February 19, 2019 that I met Mr. Harry Cobb in his apartment, on the ground-floor of a prewar building on Manhattan’s East 78th Street in. Although I was planning to interview him specifically about his experience in the making of Place Ville Marie in Montréal (1955-62), and his theories on the skyscrapers, the talk gave way to a comparative analysis of Place Ville Marie and the John Hancock Tower, which was built later in Boston (1967-76), and remained the structure of which Harry was the proudest, as shown by all his writings. If the Montreal tower was left without a single award, the Boston one won no less than five awards.

Throughout his professional lifetime, Henry Cobb was either the lead designer, or part of the team of designers, in 18 cases of high-rise buildings (1). These 18 towers received a total of 47 awards. Among them, not more than 6 have Cobb as the lead designer. For the other 12, he was an active member of the team at work on the design, which included 2 architects, except for Palazzo Lombardia in Milan, for which they were 4 of them. Only 5 buildings among these 18 never received an award: 3 in the category of collaborative design and 2 for which he was a solo designer. In the category of collaborative designs, the Bank of China on Bryant Park in New York (2010–16) received a total of 9 awards. In the category of buildings for which Henry Cobb was the solo designer, the John Hancock Tower has a total of five awards. One wonders why the Place Ville Marie ensemble, which has become one of the most iconic landmarks of postwar modernism in Montreal and in fact in Canada, with its characteristic as first cruciform structure combining several programs, never received any recognition.

These two buildings have undoubtedly become turning point page in Cobb’s carrier. Yet, according to the theory he has proposed, these two buildings cannot be considered as skyscrapers, as they don’t really generate a skyline, and don’t “scrape the sky”. Strangely enough, as Harry Cobb affirmed in the February 2019 interview, Place Ville Marie was only “a very large building,” (2). For him, the Montréal scheme was a self-referential building, an autonomous entity governed by internal systems (3). On the other hand, the John Hancock Tower had been shaped by the contingent determinants of its delicate historic context, in particular Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church.

The John Hancock commission for a skyscraper had been first given to Pei in the 1950s, and he proposed a set of two buildings on Copley Plaza. After the client rejected this scheme in 1966, requesting a single object on the site, Cobb took the responsibility of the design. His initial proposal was unanimously rejected at first by the local community, as it did not address the historical context. Later, it would be submitted to a heated critique of Boston’s public opinion, as the glass façade panels started falling down one after the next. It took complex legal and technical expertise to finally clear the reputation of the architect.

The earliest awards were specifically dedicated to the building itself, but to the materials it used, and to its urban parti. It received the Prestressed Concrete Institute Award in 1973 and the Annual Award on the Highway & Its Environment, for John Hancock Place Garage, in 1976 and its setting in the urban fabric of Boston. In 1983 it received the Harleston Parker Medal of the Boston Society of Architects, dedicated to architects who built monuments or building considered as the beautiful piece of architecture within Boston and its Metropolitan Area. Considering that the reputation of this building had been primarily smeared by the façade fiasco, one wonders whether these awards were not, in the end, some symbolic compensations.

Back to the history of the firm born in 1955, and in which Pei, Cobb and James I. Freed were the founding partners, the Place Ville Marie was unquestionably the first high-rise building erected by the office, under the direct responsibility of Cobb, as Pei was then busy traveling for other urban planning projects. Beyond this division of projects between partners—Freed being particularly engaged in the design of housing—Pei has engaged the building of cultural edifices and of high-rise structures arranged in groups: he assembled for instance three towers framing a plaza at Society Hills in Philadelphia (1964) and University Plaza in New York (1967). It is difficult to ascertain if Cobb was influenced by his senior or whether it went the other way around. It is obvious, however, that the first two designs of Henry N. Cobb had a determining role for the firm at large. The towers for Montréal and then for Boston paved the way for the later award-winning projects of a by now legendary team.

Rest in peace Mr. Henry N. Cobb.

Mandana Bafghinia.

  • 1)
  • 2) Henry N. Cobb, in conversation with Mandana Bafghinia, New York, February 19th, 2019.
  • 3) Henry N. Cobb, Henry N. Cobb: Words & Works 1948–2018: Scenes from a Life in Architecture. New York, The Monacelli Press, 2018.

Rockefeller Center Vintage Travel Brochure (2018)

The city architect can no more afford to neglect the roofs that continually spread out below him than the country architect can afford to neglect the planting about a house.”(1)

There are only three observation decks on the top of skyscrapers in New York—in chronological order, the Empire State Building, which is a cake-stack top, the Rockefeller Center and the World Trade Center – and only the top of the Rockefeller Center has twice received an award, vouching for the acknowledgement of its excellences.

The observation roof closed in 1986 was reopened in 2005 under the name of the Top of the Rock. In 2006, the firm Gabellini and Sheppard Associates won two AIA awards for its renovation of the whole promenade from the top to the bottom of the Rockefeller Center: The Honor Awards for Interior Architecture and the Honor Award for Historic Preservation. The initial architect was Raymond Hood, under the umbrella of the Associates Architects. In order to understand why this building won those two heritage awards, from preservation to renovation, a retrospective look on its peculiar history is necessary.

Built between 1930 and 1939, the Rockefeller Center made a big change during the Depression, thanks to the initiative of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It is not a simple building but “a city under one roof.” In order to understand the strategies and tactics that shaped its image, one has to go from the top to bottom, follow the statement of Harvey Wiley Corbett, according to whom towers should be built from the top down. The timeline also starts from the end toward the beginning, sketching out a set of related events that have produced what is today called the “Top of the Rock experience.”

At the beginning of 2000, Tishman Speyer has launched a competition between two firms for the renovation of the top of the Center. Gabellini and Sheppard won against Disney World. The reason to choose the former was their expertise in a landmark, while the latter were renowned for their touristic attractions. On the day of presentation, Shepard decided to show their panels on the 67th floor of the site itself, which was surrounded by mechanical and ductwork. Also, a boxing promoter had made his penthouse on what is now a weather room on the top.

Surprisingly, despite the well-designed panels presented by Gabellini and Sheppard, Tishman Speyer at first has chosen Disney, but after six months, Rob Speyer, the senior managing director of the firm which co-owns Rockefeller Center together with the Crown family of Chicago, announced to Shepard that they had been selected. The Rockefeller Center is not just an attraction but conveys the grandeur of a family. It could be engaged as an attraction in New-York city, but it is definitely not a theme park in the manner of Disney.

The panels presented by Gabellini and Shepard defined three major zones: the concourse, the mezzanine and the top. “Make the Concourse a destination” (2): the lower decks of the 1930s concourse were like a luxury liner. In arranging the entries to the Plaza and into the building, Hood had created a pin-wheeling motion, which generated a certain rhythmic action. In 2005, Gabellini and Shephard created a new entrance on Fifth Avenue. They carved the offices out to make a lobby, combined with a triple-height atrium. The rhythmic action of the past was translated to an elliptical staircase entrance by the top down crystal chandeliers, as if the building itself were inverted.

“The greatest price of height lies in the requirements of efficient vertical circulation” (3): In 1930, Hood had proposed his “Number 27” theory. As each elevator shaft ended, he wrote: “we cut the building back to 27 feet from the core of the building for eliminating every dark corner” (4). He added: “by doing this, we found the instinctive sculptural shape of the building.” In the design of Gabellini and Sheppard is, at the end of each elevator shaft marked by a blue light. It is conceived as a time capsule shot across 65 floors through the original elevator shaft. (5)

“The roof was unquestionably a business enterprise” (6): Hood recognized it as one of the main elements in the design of the ideal city. Another important aspect of Hood’s design was the creation of views. The roofs of the RCA building, completed in 1933, resembled an ocean liner. The notion of “promenade” was suggested. In 2005, the design the summit turned to different optical devices. The frames were fragmented between exterior and interior sections, shaping, in other words, “Grand Viewing Terraces.” Clear optical glass panels now preserve the building’s original façade.

A “Hedonistic urbanism of congestion” (7): There are two revolutions induced by his skyscraper: first the shape which, according to Carol Willis, has broken the mold of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. The experience of leisure gave place to education. The Top of the Rock doesn’t just provide a lookout enclosed by a fence, like the top of the Empire State Building or enclosed like the World Trade Center. It is an enhanced lighthouse, adorned by crystal to reflect the sky. Its location allows a discovery of Central Park, and a unique view of the surrounding pinnacles of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. In 1939, more than 1.3 million visitors came to the observation roof. In 2019, two million visited the Top of the Rock.

In conclusion, the multiple variable of the economic equation can affect design decisions and tailor the shape of buildings, according to a business logic, but excellence is not a matter of budget and appealing tourist, as the Disney proposal argued, but rather a matter of culture and visual pleasure, as shown by the deck brought to an end. Heritage and landmark preservation are necessary, even when changes are minimal, mentioned Kimberly Sheppard (8) As one sees, sometimes a slight change is worth an award.

In 1939, Hugh Ferriss could stand on the Rock’s parapet at dawn, he saw his “Metropolis of the future” of 1929 rising. (9)

Mandana Bafghinia

  • (1) Raymond Hood, personal writings, quoted by Alan Balfour in Rockefeller Center: Architecture as Theater. New York; Montréal: McGraw-Hill, 1978. p. 49.
  • (2) Daniel Okrent. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. Penguin Books, 2004, p. 354.
  • (3) Carol Willis. Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995, p. 102.
  • (4) Daniel Okrent. Great Fortune, 357.
  • (5) Gabellini and Sheppard Associates. AIA New York State Convention. Grand Hyatt, New York, October 6, 2007.
  • (6) Daniel Okrent. Great Fortune, p. 354
  • (7) Rem Koolhaas. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • (8) Interview with Kimberly Sheppard. 19/02/2019
  • (9) Hugh Ferris. The Metropolis of Tomorrow. New York: Ives Washburn, 1929.