Twenty-five Year Award Bestowed on John Hancock Tower in Boston

By Sara Fernández Cendón

Image courtesy of 1981 Steven Rosenthal.(

The John Hancock Tower, in Boston, designed by I.M. Pei & Partners, will receive the 2011 AIA Twenty-Five Year Award. Built on a small site adjacent to some of Boston’s greatest architectural assets, the tower had to be massive enough to accommodate the owner’s requirements, yet absolutely mindful of its delicate and historic surroundings. Thirty-five years after its dedication, the lean, rhomboid reflective glass tower designed by Henry Cobb, FAIA, continues to dramatize this classic architectural question of aesthetic balance. Recognizing architectural design of enduring significance, this award is conferred on a project that has stood the test of time for 25 to 35 years as an embodiment of architectural excellence. Projects must demonstrate excellence in function, in the distinguished execution of its original program, and in the creative aspects of its statement by today’s standards. The 2011 Twenty-five Year Award will be presented at the AIA National Convention in New Orleans.

The charge

Certainly, designing 2 million square feet of office space on a 2-acre lot in Boston’s historic Copley Square would have been challenge enough for Cobb, which is what the Boston-based John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance company asked I.M. Pei & Partners (now Pei Cobb Freed & Partners) to do. But doing it in the late 1960s, on the heels of the dedication of the nearby Prudential Tower, which had just become the tallest building in Boston and was owned by Prudential Insurance – a clear competitor and an out-of-towner – surely raised the stakes. Whether it was stated officially or not, the Hancock Tower had to rise above the Prudential’s 749 feet. The 60-story, 790-foot reflective glass tower eventually built did just that, and to this day it remains the tallest building in New England.

The site’s adjacent architectural landmarks–in particular Trinity Church, Henry Hobson Richardson’s neo-Romanesque masterpiece, and McKim Mead and White’s Boston Public Library–were what made Cobb’s mission exceptionally difficult. How could he apply his firm’s trademarked Modernist rationalism in a neighborhood of revered 19th century architectural icons dripping with rich, wedding-cake details in a way that was neither boastful and overpowering, nor diminutive and timid? And how could he insert such a tall building into the site without fatally rupturing Copley Square’s sense of scale and proportion? Over the years, Cobb has said that solving the relationship between the tower and the adjacent church was such a monumental task that it called for a single-minded solution.

The solution

During a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design delivered in 1980, Cobb explained that context had dictated the minimalism of the design: “In the determined pursuit of our goal – to achieve a symbiosis between the church, the tower, and the square – we excluded everything that did not contribute directly to this end,” he said. “For we believed that only thus could we temper the inherent arrogance of so large a building and endow it with a presence that might animate rather than oppress the urban scene.”

The solution turned out to be a smooth, reflective glass tower with no spandrel panels and minimal mullions – essentially a very large mirror. To minimize its intrusion on the adjacent landscape, the building is rhomboid in shape and placed diagonally on the site, so its shorter, slightest side faces the church and plaza. Cobb has described the design as one in which the tower plays “contingent satellite” to the autonomous church, a nearly absent building to serve as background to its ornate, very present neighbor.

And the tower does seem to disappear against a bright blue sky on sunny days, but judging by the amount of discussion it has generated throughout the years, it is far from absent. In a December 1980 issue of the AIA JournalBoston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell, FAIA, wrote that the building had an unquestionably bold presence. “It’s just too big a tail to be wagged by Trinity Church,” he wrote. “But the goal of making it contingent led to its unique and wonderful form.” Campbell also called the John Hancock Tower is “one of the greatest office towers of the second half of the 20th century.”

The beauty

In light of its minimalism, the Hancock Tower presents itself as a very large mystery. Even the building’s three-story lobby is concealed from the outside, a move Cobb has explained by referring to the design’s overriding priority, which was maintaining the delicate balance between the church and the tower.

The Hancock Tower continues to serve as an office building, though an often-lamented change in function (reportedly for security reasons) was the closure of the observatory on the 60th floor. The observatory was the building’s only public space besides the lobby, and it offered spectacular views of the city. Though the building no longer offers breathtaking views from within, views of the tower remain one of Boston’s greatest assets. The experience changes as one approaches the building, and sees it transform from functioning as a sort of New England town church steeple to a mutable sculpture as one gets closer and closer.

In awarding it the 1983 Harleston Parker Medal, the Boston Society of Architects jury unanimously agreed that the John Hancock Tower met its criterion: to be the city’s “most beautiful piece of architecture.” Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, architecture critic for the The New Yorker, went even further when he wrote recently, “the John Hancock Tower remains one of the most beautiful skyscrapers ever built.”

Past Honors and Awards

The John Hancock Tower received an AIA National Honor Award in 1977. In 1994 a Boston Globe poll of architects and historians rated it as the third-best work of architecture in Boston history, behind only Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library, its two closest neighbors. The John Hancock Tower recently achieved LEED Gold Existing Building certification for energy use, lighting, water, material use, and other sustainable strategies–some of them (such as ample use of natural light) a part of the original design.

In addition to the 2011 Twenty-five Year Award, the firm of I.M. Pei Partners, Architects, previously received the 2004 Twenty-five Year Award for the East Building, National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Founding principal I.M. Pei, FAIA, received the AIA Gold Medal in 1979, and his firm was honored with the 1968 AIA Architecture Firm Award.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: