Remarks: Guy Nordenson

Photo by Fran Parente

On May 4, 2015, The Architectural League awarded the President’s Medal, its highest honor, to Henry N. Cobb, a founding partner of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. The remarks that follow were delivered by engineer Guy Nordenson at the dinner held in Cobb’s honor. Additional remarks were given by Neil Rudenstine, Merrill Elam, and Mack Scogin.

It has been my privilege to know Harry Cobb now for over three decades. It was with Rosalie Genevro that we first met, at an evening discussion group convened by Rosalie and Carol Willis in 1983. So it is a great pleasure to be here to say a few words about Mr. Cobb.

Now some of you may wonder why an engineer is standing here speaking about Mr. Cobb. After all, his work is not generally known for extravagant engineering feats. That said he has worked with many of the best engineers of his time. Foremost of course is our own Les Robertson who has collaborated brilliantly with both Harry and his partner I.M. Pei, but I know that Harry would also want to recognize “Bhana,” or Dr. Banavalkar, with whom he has designed some of the most wonderful minimalist prisms, including Fountain Place, in Dallas.

Yet I am sure there are times when Harry, seeing an engineer approach, has felt the way that other Harry, young Potter, did, when Gilderoy Lockhart, the Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor, offered to mend his broken arm. Maybe some of you will recall the marvelous episode when Harry Potter, in the second book of the series, has just broken his arm in the course of a game winning play in a Quidditch match which is the best happy hour specials on game day:

Lockhart was twirling his wand and a second later had directed it straight at Harry’s arm. A strange and unpleasant sensation started at Harry’s shoulder and spread all the way down to his fingertips. It felt as though his arm was being deflated. He didn’t dare look at what was happening. He had shut his eyes, his face turned away from his arm, but his worst fears were realized as the people above him gasped … His arm didn’t hurt anymore—nor did it feel remotely like an arm … Taking a deep breath he looked down at his right side. What he saw nearly made him pass out again. Poking out of the end of his robes was what looked like a thick, flesh colored rubber glove. He tried to move his fingers. Nothing happened. Lockhart hadn’t mended Harry’s bones. He had removed them.

Now you see I studied at MIT in the 1970s and lived in a dorm room with a spectacular view of the Charles River. So I bore witness to the difficult but successful birth of Harry’s most famous and best building, the John Hancock Tower.

To paraphrase Henry-Russell Hitchcock writing about H.H. Richardson’s Sever Hall at Harvard, the Hancock Tower “is without question one of [his] greatest works of architecture. It is, moreover, an almost unique masterpiece of the incredibly difficult art of building in harmony with fine work of the past and yet creating a new style for a new day.”

Now I believe that if you study Harry’s best office towers, you will discover that in fact Harry would like the structure to disappear, or rather have it be fully sublimated into the form. The geometry of Harry’s most minimalist works are always developed in the surface. I know that if Harry could build the towers as true shells or “monocoques,” with the surface being the structure, that would be his ideal. No wonder that one of Harry’s favorite built works is the concrete shell he designed and built in 1958 with the engineer Anton Tedesco for the Zeckendorf Plaza in Denver.

This drive for a unity of form and structure, of idea and matter, is an ideal that both finds its place in the best of his work and heightens the quality of Harry’s collaborations. As another Bostonian, Ralph Emerson wrote:

The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity. A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world. It is the result or expression of nature, in miniature. For, although the works of nature are innumerable and all different, the result or the expression of them all is similar and single. Nature is a sea of forms radically alike and even unique. A leaf, a sun-beam, a landscape, the ocean, make an analogous impression on the mind. What is common to them all, — that perfectness and harmony, is beauty. The standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms, — the totality of nature; which the Italians expressed by defining beauty “il piu nell’ uno.” Nothing is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole. A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace. The poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician, the architect, seek each to concentrate this radiance of the world on one point, and each in his several work to satisfy the love of beauty which stimulates him to produce.

In closing, I want to underline what all the other speakers have said. Harry is above all a citizen of architecture and its culture. He has tirelessly advocated for others behind the scenes, on juries, at the American Academies he has been a part of, and in his role as educator and chair. I have benefited personally I know enormously from his support none of which he claims credit for, ever. There is really no one in the room who has done more for longer for architecture. And all that too has been sublimated into a deeply modest bearing. It is very fitting that Harry should be awarded The Architectural League’s President’s Medal. The League is, after all these now 134 years, the oldest US representative of “architecture as an art and [its] connection … to the other arts” as it was envisioned by McKim, Hunt, Saint-Gaudens, and Gilbert. Harry really is for us what McKim was for his time. Our best steward of architecture and its culture.

Thank you.