Tributes to Henry Cobb

The American Academy of Arts and Letters notes with sorrow the death of its former president, an architect whose humanity and intellect elevated the profession and the discipline. His thoughtful buildings enrich cities all over the world, and his iconic John Hancock Tower transformed his native Boston. It is a masterwork of audacity and restraint.

— American Academy of Arts and Letters

Sadly, the great Harry Cobb has died at 93. A teacher, poet of form, gentleman, longtime partner of Pei, the architect of the Hancock Tower, still producing works of subtlety like the African American Museum in Charleston at the end of his life. A truly humane and generous soul.

— Michael Kimmelman

So well said, Michael — "generous and gracious." A champion of a younger generation of architects as well.

— James Timberlake FAIA

Heartbreaking news. One of the great architects of our time, and a man of decency, generosity of spirit and eloquence that equaled his enormous talent. His quiet and understated manner made him even more unusual in the world of architecture.

— Paul Goldberger

Harry was a great architect, a natural teacher, and a thoroughly decent human being. ... Harry was a craftsman who understood the importance of detail. He designed buildings that both work effectively and bring beauty into the lives of those whom they touch.

— Stephen G. Breyer
Associate Justice
U.S. Supreme Court
quoted by the Boston Globe

Late yesterday afternoon I received a call from Ian Bader, our building’s architect Harry Cobb’s partner, that Harry had passed away quietly on Monday. He would have turned 94 next month.

For the past two or so years except for extraordinary occasions, Harry had effectively limited his travel to New York City following major medical episodes suffered simultaneously by him and his wife Joan, who survives him. In fact, I understand his last public speaking appearance outside New York, was at the program we held to mark the 20th Anniversary of the opening of this building, an event he told us he would — and did — move heaven and earth (and some dubitante doctors) to attend, hiring a car for the journey because he no longer flew.

We used the program to recognize the publication of his book of reflections, “Henry N. Cobb: Words & Works 1948–2018; Scenes from a Life in Architecture.” As the title indicates, his world-wide architectural career spanned over 70 years. More pertinently for us, he captured, enriched and elaborated through his design of the Boston Courthouse the aspirations that those of us engaged in our various ways in the art and craft of justice have, without quite knowing or being able to express it, sought to maintain through our day to day work. He taught us that we should seek through the architectural expression of the building “the qualities fundamental to the work of the courts: probity, clarity, restraint, together with an unequivocal declaration of openness to the public being served.”

At the conclusion of "Words & Works," he adopted the view of his fellow native-Bostonian-turned-expatriate, Henry James, that “a great building is the greatest conceivable work of art. More than any other it represents difficulties annulled, resources combined, labor, courage, patience.” Harry’s building of the Boston courthouse did all that and elevated us in our common enterprise by doing so. The touch of his gentle but determined hand will be missed from our shoulders even as his work reminds us of all that his hands achieved throughout a long and meaningful life.

— Douglas P. Woodlock
United States District Judge
District of Massachusetts

I felt then, and feel more strongly now, that the 20th Anniversary of our courthouse was one of the best days of my professional life. It was a cook’s tour listening to true professionals who love what they do talking about their craft. I am sorry for our loss.

— Timothy Hillman
United States District Judge
District of Massachusetts

Harry Cobb’s long relation to the GSD extended back to 1947 when he began his MArch studies here. His greatest impact on the school was undoubtedly his tenure as chair of the Department of Architecture from 1980 to 1985. In his inaugural lecture as chair, he noted that he brought "to the school a mind burdened with a few biases and a great many questions, but no preconceived answers." That quote captures him perfectly: actively engaged until his last days, Harry always had opinions, but his insatiable curiosity about architecture, pedagogy, the city, and design more broadly, was never curtailed by preconceptions. A great tribute to Harry would be for all of us to carry this attitude forward.

His dedication to a synthesis of pedagogy and practice was at the heart of his GSD teaching and leadership. We are all so very lucky that only a couple of years ago, at the age of 91, Harry published “Henry N. Cobb: Words & Works 1948-2018,” a 548-page tour de force capturing the multifarious manifestations of his extraordinary career — architectural, pedagogical, critical, and otherwise. This thick but small tome has been at the top of my list of recommendations since it first came out. Every GSD student should read it. It captures his talent, his intelligence, and his curiosity, but above all, it gives some suggestion of the deep and generous humanity that so marked Harry Cobb. Many of the tributes that have poured in over the past day have noted Harry’s dedication to teaching, to supporting a new generation of designers. Those of us who had the luck to know him over these many years he had with the GSD can hear the methodical but precise way that he articulated his always relevant observations, occasionally punctuating them with a little chuckle, revealing his delight at talking about architecture, at learning from all of us, particularly the students.

As a community, the GSD stands in admiration of and gratitude for Harry’s manifold contributions and inspirations, and for his thoughtful, generous humanity. He is greatly missed.

Sarah M. Whiting
Dean and Josep Lluís Sert Professor of Architecture
Harvard Graduate School of Design
excerpted from a letter to the GSD community

We have had the privilege of being friends with a man who was distinguished for his wisdom, intelligence and good sense, combined with a very special personal warmth. The unconditional love he felt for architecture has driven his life, both as a practitioner and as an academic. Culture — and by “culture” I mean the society as a whole — and architecture, as the instruments of understanding the world, gave meaning to his life.

— Rafael Moneo

He was a long-time friend of SCI-Arc and a unique, calm, and fierce voice for architecture and education. Harry was one of the discipline’s most curious minds, possessing an extraordinary human intellect and a generosity that was unmatched. Anybody who spent any time with him would remember and treasure it as a special moment in their architectural lives. On behalf of SCI-Arc: Rest well, Harry.

— Hernán Díaz Alonso
Director, SCI-Arc

We are saddened to hear of the passing of our dear friend Henry Cobb. We had the honor of working with him and his team creating beautiful buildings around the world. Our hearts go out to his family, as well as his partners @PeiCobbFreed.

— Gerald D. Hines

The board and staff of The Architectural League mourn the death of architect Henry N. Cobb. Harry loved everything about architecture, including the inescapable need to reconcile the liberating freedom of art and the ethical imperatives of designing buildings for use. Harry served on the board of the League for many years, was a frequent juror, an enthusiastic supporter of promising young architects, the recipient of our President's Medal—and our good friend. With dignity, wit, and a deep sense of humanity, he elevated us all.

— The Architectural League of New York

We are saddened to learn of the passing of Henry "Harry" Cobb '44, the architect whose work reshaped skylines across America and around the world.

— Phillips Exeter Academy

Mr. Cobb was a sophisticated & creative lion of an architect. He embraced our project (International African American Museum) with great respect, thoughtfulness, & virtuosity. My deepest condolences to his family & his wonderful colleagues at @PeiCobbFreed.

— Michael Boulware Moore

I am so grateful that his words about Boston and about this building [Moakley U.S. Courthouse and Harborpark] were my first introduction to the city and to the courthouse that has become my home over the past year and a half. His passion, and yours, for the courthouse changed how I looked at it, and transformed it into a warm, inviting space that truly personifies the idea of genuine openness and restraint. It was, I think, his words during that ceremony that first made me feel at home in Boston, and made me feel like I had a place here in the courthouse. I also think about his words every time I am in Copley Square, that he designed the Hancock building to be silent, so that Trinity Church could continue to speak to the city. It was the first time I thought of architecture as an expressive medium, and as an art rather than as a science, and I feel truly blessed to have been able to receive that wisdom from such a great man.

— Anagha Sundararajan
Law Clerk, District and First Circuit Court

All my friends who were architects loved and admired Harry. He was a great collaborator. He was a great intellect. He was a very warm friend. Usually, you might get one or two of those qualities, but you don’t get all. You did with Harry. He was an architect’s architect.

— Laurie Olin
quoted by the Boston Globe

We are greatly saddened by the passing of Harry Cobb, not just an artful designer but one of the most inspiring and insightful voices in architecture of our time. We are proud to have worked with him on the book that he regarded as the master record of his thinking and making.

— The Monacelli Press

CambridgeSeven is saddened by the passing of our colleague and friend, Henry N. Cobb. Harry was our collaborator on both the Residences at 30 Dalton Street and One Dalton Four Seasons. He was a gentleman, a scholar, teacher and influencer of architecture for over 70 years. His career and the buildings he designed around the world are legendary works of modern architecture that resonate with sophistication, elegant proportions and as works of art. We will forever be grateful and honored to have worked and partnered so closely with him. ⁠

— CambridgeSeven

I am so grateful to have known him, first in his years as Chair of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and then as architect-in-parallel for the federal courts in Boston. He had a towering impact on our profession for decades as a builder, a thinker, an educator, and mentor. He was eloquent in the expression of his beliefs, meticulous in the realization of his ideas, and generous in his support of younger architects. Several generations of architects feel his loss.

— Andrea Leers FAIA

Harry Cobb was one of the most deeply intelligent, self-critical, and humble people I have ever worked with. He also happened to be an extraordinary architect who left a profound imprint on skylines across the globe.

— Mark Pasnik

For me he was the perfect model of an architect: He was a powerful intellect, which he applied so clearly to his work. An intellect which far surpassed his peers and meant he brought new perspectives to architecture all the time. He was a superb writer which is doubly rare in our profession. More important, in a profession known for its egos, his modesty was legendary and so honest. He never talked about himself. He was always trying to learn about others. His generosity was notable: generosity of time; generosity of compliments; generosity of spirit.

And simply, he was a superb architect. He understood the big picture. The urban setting. The essential qualities of design. But he was also passionate about the details of a building. All these professional qualities were fundamental. But in the end it will be his human and humane qualities that I will so miss. That character is what I and so many others deeply admire.

— William Rawn FAIA

Harry Cobb, throughout his 70-year career, built with tenacious care and elegance the landmarks of our cities. For so many of us he also stood as the fulcrum of our culture of architecture. His legacy is everywhere.

— Guy Nordenson
quoted by Architectural Record