Why Architecture Matters: I.M. Pei and Henry Cobb’s Hancock Tower

Why Architecture MattersI’m reading Paul Goldberger’s new book Why Architecture Matters. As you would expect from Paul, it is a smart, well-written work that is designed to help the reader interested in buildings “come to grips with how things feel to us when we stand before them, with how architecture affects us emotionally as well as intellectually.”

I’ve already come across numerous passages and examples that resonate, but last evening I was reading his take on I.M. Pei and Henry Cobb’s John Hancock Tower on Copley Square in Boston and was reminded of my last impression of that building when Andrew, Claire and I were visiting the city in March 2008.

Paul, a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer and a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is describing the Hancock Tower in comparison to New York’s Seagram Building and G.M. Building.  All three are postwar American landmarks.

It was great fun to introduce Claire and Andrew to Copley Square when we visited Boston in 2008.  We toured the great H.H. Richardson-designed Trinity Church, of course, and took numerous photographs – both color and black & white for Claire’s photography class.  We wandered Copley Square to talk about the buildings, spaces and people.  And we marveled at the Hancock Tower and talked about how it fit within that historic yet dynamic space.

Paul describes that fit within the context of Copley Square in his inimitable way, so I’ll quote from him liberally and then add a photo or two from our visit.

This tower has an unusual shape, a slab sliced on the diagonal so that from some angles it appears like a thin wafer and from others, almost like a flat surface with nothing behind it at all.  It is like a piece of abstract sculpture, beautiful but mute…The idea here is to minimize procession and to think of the building as an elegant, sculptural object set within the complex composition of Copley Square….

Once the new glass was put in, you could finally see that Hancock was designed to look as if it had been conceived as a pure abstraction, a cool, elegant piece of modern sculpture.  It appears almost weightless, despite its size….

When you look at the Seagram Building or the General Motors Building or the Hancock Tower, you see not only an object but also a certain vision of the world.  Architecture, among other things, seeks to establish order.  Mies’ order (at the Seagram Building) is easy to see – subtle and understated, but powerful and self-assured….If the Seagram Building has a Zen simplicity to it, the General Motors Building suggests a more garish view of the world, one in which a few eye-grabbing gestures, like the white marble and the bay windows, are expected to create an aesthetic experience and to hide the fact that the building is, at the end of the day, a dressed-up box….

The vision Pei and Cobb suggest with the Hancock Tower is a more difficult and complex one – full of movement and lines of tension.  They did not want to compete head-on with Mies van der Rohe in the category of boxlike high-rises, and they chose to make their skyscraper in another shape altogether, a shape that in its very sleekness suggests that it is pushing the art of skyscraper design forward….The General Motors Building has little to do with its surroundings, an indifference that its original, little-mourned sunken plaza made far worse than it is today, while the Seagram Building, despite being a structure of glass on a street that, at least in the 1950s, was made entirely of masonry buildings, was carefully aligned on a symmetrical axis opposite its classical neighbor, the Racquet and Tennis Club by McKim, Mead and White across Park Avenue….As for the Hancock Tower, paradoxically, even though its reflective glass would appear to signify the ultimate diffidence and aloofness – you can’t see in, and there is no sign of human activity from the outside – the reflected images of surrounding buildings, not to mention the general sense of energy of its crisp shape, make you feel a connection between the tower and its urban surroundings.  The building feels right for its place, almost in spite of itself.


Trinity Church Boston with the Hancock Tower to the right

Trinity Church Boston reflected in the Pei and Cobb Hancock Tower

The Windows of Trinity Church Boston

Just what I would have said…if I had Paul’s depth of knowledge about architecture.

More to come…

DJB