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Obituary: Henry N. Cobb, FAIA, 1926–2020

by SAH News | Mar 05, 2020
Obituary from The New York Times

Henry N. Cobb, who in 70 years as an architect — more than half of them in partnership with I.M. Pei — designed some of the country’s most prominent buildings, including Boston’s blue-glass John Hancock Tower, the tallest building in New England, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by Ian Bader, a partner at their architecture firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.

A Boston native who could trace his Massachusetts lineage to 1626, Mr. Cobb moved to New York in 1950 to begin his career, concluding that his hometown offered little promise.

“I had formed an opinion, not wrong at that time, that Boston was moribund,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2010. “It was, in my view, self-satisfied, deeply resistant to change.”

And yet over the next seven decades he played a crucial role in remaking the city by designing a series of striking buildings, including the John Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse, a catalyst in the revitalization of the South Boston waterfront, and the Center for Government and International Studies at Harvard University, where he was chairman of the architecture department from 1980 to 1985.

His greatest mark on Boston is the Hancock building, an 800-foot-tall glass parallelogram that towers over Trinity Church, a beloved Romanesque edifice by the 19th-century architect Henry Hobson Richardson.

Mr. Cobb covered his tower entirely in mirrored panels, as if to reflect the church’s ornate architecture on a vast screen. The critic Paul Goldberger, in his book “Why Architecture Matters,” described the tower as self-effacing, “a piece of abstract sculpture; beautiful but mute.”

But when the idea of raising a skyscraper next to Copley Square and the venerable Trinity Church was first announced, in the late 1960s, it “provoked outrage,” Mr. Cobb said.

 “People told me to my face that we had prostituted ourselves professionally for accepting this commission,” he said.

Then, as the building neared completion in 1972, glass panels weighing up to 500 pounds each began dropping from its facades, endangering pedestrians. The building had to be boarded up — headline writers called it “the plywood palace” — and some Bostonians saw the debacle as “retribution for overreaching,” Mr. Cobb said.

The bad publicity and the costs of litigation in the crisis nearly put the Pei firm out of business. Even after replacement glass solved the problem, “we were blacklisted from doing skyscrapers,” Mr. Cobb said.

“And then, eventually, people figured that we were still around, so we must be doing something right,” he said. It helped, according to Robert Campbell, the longtime architecture critic of The Boston Globe, that Mr. Cobb remained “an absolute model of rectitude and professionalism” throughout the affair.

As the firm rebounded, Mr. Cobb focused largely on office buildings, as a confidant of developers and corporate executives. With a few exceptions — he designed the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and a museum in Portland, Maine — he mostly stayed out of what he called “I.M.’s territory.” Mr. Pei, who died in 2019, designed many museum buildings, including the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington and the Pyramide du Louvre in Paris.

Mr. Cobb’s notable projects included the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles (1989), long that city’s tallest; the World Trade Center Barcelona (1999), inspired by a boat; and the Torre Espacio (2008), a Madrid skyscraper that resembles a rocket.

In 2009, he completed the Goldman Sachs headquarters, at 200 West Street in Lower Manhattan, which was widely praised for its discreet elegance, and a dormitory complex at Princeton University, known as Butler College, which replicates the intimacy of the campus’s gothic dormitories but in modernist form. (In recent decades, Mr. Cobb shared design credit with several of the firm’s younger partners.)

Mr. Cobb did not have the high profile of contemporaries like Frank Gehry or Mr. Pei. He called them “formgivers” and himself “a problem-solver.” Yet he was “an architect of immense creativity,” Mr. Goldberger wrote, and a major influence on the profession as an educator and mentor. Mr. Campbell said that Mr. Cobb’s “great intelligence and great integrity” — which he wielded with a gentlemanly manner — “were as important to his status as the buildings he designed.”

Henry Nichols Cobb was born on April 8, 1926, the second of three sons of Charles Kane Cobb, an investment counselor, and Elsie Quincy (Nichols) Cobb. He traced his roots to another Henry Cobb, who was born in Kent, England, in 1596 and landed on Cape Cod in 1626. But his family wasn’t wealthy, Mr. Cobb, said, and his mother went to work during the Depression to help support the family.

Read full obituary with images here.

Mr. Cobb joined SAH in 1969 and was a member through 2017.  He served on the SAH Board from 1981 to 1984.

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