Remembering Henry N. Cobb (1926–2020): A Letter from Dean Sarah M. Whiting

Henry N. Cobb in 1968
Henry N. Cobb in 1968. Courtesy Pei Cobb Freed and Partners

Dear GSD community:

I write to share the sad news that we have lost Harry Cobb (Henry N. Cobb), who passed away Monday, just a month shy of his 94th birthday. Harry’s long relation to the GSD extends 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.

Place Ville Marie, 1962
Place Ville Marie, 1962. Photo courtesy Joseph Molitor Collection, Avery Art, Architecture Library Columbia University

The last surviving namesake partner at Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners, Harry’s designs were sharp, his output was towering—quite literally—and, above all, his soul was generous. His buildings punctuate cityscapes and our shared canon alike, offering us the enduring legacies of Montreal’s Place Ville Marie (1962), Portland’s Museum of Art (1983), and of course the John Hancock Tower (1971) here in his birthplace of Boston. Harry would go on to contribute other remarkable projects to his hometown, among them the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse & Harborpark (1998) and Harvard’s own Center for Government and International Studies (2005), which many of you can likely see by looking out from the trays. As steadfast as ever, Harry remained active to the end, with recent works like Boston’s commanding One Dalton (2019) and 30 Dalton (2016), New York’s 7 Bryant Park (2019), and Charleston’s International African American Museum (in progress). In 2017, he received the Harvard Medal, the highest honor presented to a member of the Harvard Community and recognition of Harry’s commitment to the university–as an alumnus, teacher, administrator, and architect–over five decades. As the Architect’s Newspaper put it, Harry “seemed to have never considered retirement as an option.”

Among other characteristics, what sets Harry apart from other legends of architecture is his commitment to the discipline as a holistic art. In 2018, Harry joined Peter Eisenman and Rafael Moneo in Piper for an event entitled “How Will Architecture be Conceived?” In his remarks, Harry delicately unpacked each word of that proposition—does “architecture” mean discipline? practice? built form? Does “conceived” imply imagined? or directed? or brought into being? As Harry thoroughly dissected the question, he demonstrated his belief that, in his words, “the discipline and practice of architecture are inseparably comingled.”

Henry Cobb addressing students at the I. M. Pei: A Centennial Celebration
Henry N. Cobb (AB ’47 MArch ’49) addresses students at the 100th birthday of I. M. Pei, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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.