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 architect Mack Scogin at the dinner held in Cobb’s honor. Additional remarks were given by Neil Rudenstine, Merrill Elam, and Guy Nordenson.
Last Thursday I once again flew into Boston and declared your John Hancock Building one of the best of all time. It was at that extraordinary moment of the day when the sun was low in the sky — a fluorescent red-orange ball simultaneously seared into the vertical fold of the Hancock, transforming the building into a pencil-thin flame rising above the skyline of Boston. Two equal phenomena — a magic ball and a magic line — making one fleeting moment when the world is rendered crystal clear. Every time I see this I am reminded that’s all an architect ever has to do in her or his lifetime in architecture — just make one of those — just one — just one magnificent moment of clarity that erases differences, restores hope, and peaks the imagination of mankind.
Genuine eloquence in architecture is rare — it’s not that hard to create a screaming building that has nothing to say. You have shown us how to make silent architecture that suspends judgment and sustains a discourse — architecture at once all about place and against place. An architecture that solves problems with elegant ease while raising unanswerable yet compelling questions originating from and rooted within disciplinary substance.
As a Boston native you designed the John Hancock building as a catalyst for hopeful futures. It stands as a single-word speech challenging all cities to move forward or gradually expire as an aging relic of an over-invested commitment to passive traditions.
Your Boston Federal Courthouse was the first to finally and rightfully extrovert America’s justice system, opening up and orientating its process to the hands and hearts of the public who made it, and to whom it serves, creating arguably one of the most radical architectures of our time without sacrificing the integrity of the institutional dignity it represents. In doing so, you were instrumental in establishing new standards of creative expectations for the design of one of our society’s most important building types. Expectations that many architects since have greatly benefited from — including Merrill and myself.
Several years ago when I saw pictures of your Allied Bank Tower building in Dallas, I thought you had lost your mind and jumped on the form-follows-frivolous train to irrelevance. Only to find myself a few weeks later with Merrill riding around and around the Dallas freeway system circling downtown just to see your building seemingly rotate on its axis. I swore it was actually moving like it was one of those circular models you build and put on a Lazy Susan. And when we finally got close to the building, its aggressive form melted into a surprisingly humane and fun urban context, within a city at that time not well known for its connection to human scale.
By the way, Merrill and I will be at The Architectural League’s President’s Medal dinner honoring your contributions to the discipline. I know you well enough to realize all this attention will make you a bit uncomfortable — I say just suck it up. Actually, you are great at squirming then rising above all the preening with elegant, measured intelligence and wit that could dry a 30-pound load of Ritz Carlton towels. I hope the event makes you laugh; you have a great laugh. Just enjoy the moment as we celebrate ethical behavior and authentic ideas. You have earned the attention and there are a lot of people who will love seeing you receive the recognition you have earned.