The architectural world lost a giant this week when Henry Cobb passed away at 93 on Monday. Cobb was a Boston native who, after attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design, left for New York. From there he joined I.M. Pei, who died in 2019, to form the firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Together they had great influence in shaping the city's skyline. Natasha Espada, the chapter president of the 2020 Boston Society of Architects, spoke with WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu to discuss Cobb's life work. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Natasha Espada: He was very important in shaping not only our skyline, but our waterfront. And he was an amazing architect and he was an amazing person. For many years, he taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and was the chair from '80 to '85. So although he actually left Boston, he was very ingrained in our city.
Joe Mathieu: The story behind his most famous building in Boston must be the John Hancock Tower. It's a pretty interesting one. Can you explain how we got to this large mirror we have in the middle of the city now?
Espada: So in the 1970s, the mirrored facade was initially controversial, not only because it was a modern building, but because it was built next to Trinity Church, which is one of the most beloved buildings in Boston. But he wanted it to be kind of a silent building, designed to respond specifically to Copley Square. And and he wanted the mirrored panels to reflect the church and the city on its facade.
So the building was very innovative for its time. But it also, interestingly enough, had a really difficult construction period. Some of the glass started popping out of the building. The windows were falling out. And eventually they discovered that it was not the design, that it was actually that the fabrication of it. And basically all of them had to be — all 10,000 of them, or more — had to be replaced. The building was eventually completed and won numerous awards, including an award from the American Institute of Architects, but also the Harlston Parker Medal from the Boston Society of Architects, which is for the most beautiful building in Boston.
Mathieu: So the concept for the mirror essentially is to reflect what was around the building instead of creating a new form in the middle of this old architecture.
Espada: That's correct.
Mathieu: He was tasked with designing the Moakley Federal Courthouse, which sits on the waterfront, as you mentioned. And he took up his job before the Seaport was built, sort of a cornerstone for what is our newest neighborhood.
Espada: Yes. An important part of my life was actually visiting that building during construction. I worked for a firm that did a lot of courthouses. And he actually gave us a tour and showed us one of the courtrooms, a mock-up for one of the courtrooms, and took us throughout the building. And it was pretty remarkable. It was the only building in that entire area, and created kind of a context for what now is the Seaport.
Mathieu: I mentioned One Dalton. I've been to dinner there. There's a Four Seasons in there. You can't miss it. This is a massive tower that's right there in the Back Bay. A pretty impressive achievement for someone in the twilight of their career. When did he start working on it?
Espada: I believe he started working on it when he was in his 80s. He was so interested in our city. And that's actually one of the things that I'm doing in my presidency — also working with Boston as a design city and making sure that we, he was really interested in equity and bringing all of these collaboration and communities into all of the buildings and into all the areas that he worked in. And one of the things that we're doing is trying to get into all of the neighborhoods in Boston in a really equitable way.
Mathieu: That's great. How is Boston doing as a major American city, as a major city in the world in terms of architecture? We're kind of known, or at least we used to be, as a boring-looking place.
Espada: Well, that is something that Harry Cobb actually did, is to try to merge history, growth of the city and modernism. And we live in a city, one of the most beautiful cities in the United States, and it is very important city. There's a lot of development going on in the city. It's a very exciting time for the city. And we're really trying to shape the city and in an equitable way that also deals with climate change and social equity and many other pieces that Henry really started putting into place many, many years ago.