Happy 35th Anniversary, Hancock Tower

It pretty much got no play in the Boston media, but yesterday was the 35th anniversary of the John Hancock Tower’s opening in Copley Square.

Luckily, the Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating Cultural Conversation with Henry Cobb, the building’s architect.

Nothing about the project was easy, he told the Journal:

“The tower had to be an exception to everything—from afar and up close,” Mr. Cobb said. “The new design would stand alone in the skyline, meaning it needed a dramatic profile. But in the square, it had to honor Trinity Church.”

Mr. Cobb was given just two months in the fall of 1967 to conceive a solution. The model he proposed was a glass tower that ingeniously used several geometric optical illusions to avoid overshadowing the esteemed church.

For one, Mr. Cobb’s plans called for the tower to be clad in mirrored glass, to appear lighter. For another, it would be shaped like a parallelogram, allowing the tower’s wide expanse to be positioned on an angle, facing away from the square. And third, the tower’s rhomboid shape would enable the slender side facing the church to appear only two-dimensional—like a vertical infinity pool or full-length mirror.

“In Copley Square, you would see only the narrow plane and an eight-story base—not the tower’s massive front,” Mr. Cobb said. “The lightness allowed for a symbiosis to emerge between the church, tower and square.”

Mr. Cobb also added an all-important v-notch to the slender plane facing the square, giving it a sense of weightlessness while emphasizing the building’s nonrectangular geometry.

We all know the Plywood Palace aftermath, but Cobb was adamant about the solution:

“I knew the glass problem could be professionally life-threatening,” Mr. Cobb said. “We survived the crisis by acting responsibly. We didn’t run or hide. We didn’t point fingers. We tackled the problem head-on. As soon as we identified its source, we informed Hancock and city officials. The glass had to be replaced—all of it.”

Thirty-five years later, Cobb came to Boston with a Journal reporter to gaze upon what he had wrought:

At dusk, Mr. Cobb and the writer strolled to the far end of Copley Square. As he turned around for a last look, Mr. Cobb stood staring at the building for what seemed like a full minute. “It’s the closest I’ve ever come to poetry,” he said. “As you can see, the building refuses to say anything about itself—other than reflect on the rich formal qualities of Trinity Church below.”

Luckily, Henry Cobb has plenty to say about the building.

WSJ illustration by old friend Ken Fallin

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