Good client/bad citizen
October 1973: I.M. Pei, an architect famous for declaring that "one doesn’t choose projects, one chooses clients," announces that the 10,344 (blue reflective glass) window panes wrapping the John Hancock Tower in Boston (JHT herein with) need to be replaced. In consequence, approximately 5,000 of the original glass panes already installed have to be removed intact (later to be reused by artists). A couple of years before, on an unusually warm February day, hundreds of such window panes had been detached from the building and crashed to the sidewalk hundreds of feet below forcing police forces to close off surrounding streets. During the many long months it took to diagnose (and later repair) the tall office building (TOB herein with) engineering flaws, sheets of plywood replaced many of the missing glass windows of the building, earning it one unique nickname: Plywood Palace.
The announcement marked the turning point of an architectural odyssey with no precedent. The JHT is to this day the tallest building in Boston and of New England. From day one, its name has been associated to hyperbole, scandals and Nation-wide debates because of the odd relationship between its father (the client) and its mother (the architect): Henry N. Cobb (HNC herein with), a born and bred Bostonian for whom the design of TOB has been a permanent preoccupation for over 60 years. HNC usually talks about the TOB as "the preeminent monument of the XX century (American) city, an object that can be 'a troubling and sometimes a very sorry monument." In fact, HNC understands his career as a continuous effort to "humanize the TOB and give it the demeanor of a good citizen." Once compared to all the other TOB he has designed on all continents, it is clear, by all standards, that the JHT represent his most important and convincing success in such battle.
Despite its explicit minimalism/formalism, the JHT does not dismiss the fact that the most important factor of the TOB is the physical presence/form - and its attached place-making urban role - rather than its content. It is precisely within this dialectics that HNC has offered one of the most intense reflections on the potential of architectural form and the role of the architect in revealing the true nature of the relationship between an architect and its client. What is his reflection? For him, the JHT puts on the table an important, often overlooked, question: "Whom do buildings serve?" a question filled with moral consequences, even though his take on the 'moral role' of the TOB differs significantly from what is normally understood.
Zoom back half a century. Post-war Boston (1950-60): a place in which the XX century is still absent, or kept at bay. Big players, like the Hancock company, are dormant, or focused on investing outside of Boston The city is not flourishing as a result of a bad combination of economic and social circumstances: the Irish-American controlled political machine clashing against the Yankee-driven economic community. The socio-political split prevents everyone from investing in real estate. Money is invested elsewhere. Tall buildings, or high-rises are nowhere to be seen. In this stagnant situation, characterized by three declines―the decline of the railroad, the decline of the waterfront and the decline of the downtown―the decision to develop and build (completion in 1964) a high-rise - Prudential Center - drags, kicking and screaming, into the XX century a town, Boston, that was resisting most of its values.
published on SAN ROCCO, the client issue