Ben Who?

Posted in Vol 14 No 1 by bsaab on February 3, 2011

From the Editor

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In those days, you recognized architects by the colors they wore: anything but black. Purple bow tie? No question: an architect. Purple Marimekko shirt? An architect from Harvard Square. And in those days — we’re talking 1960s and ’70s — there were lots of architects in Harvard Square; one architect remembers taping sheets of paper over the windows so the firm across the street competing for the same job couldn’t see what his office was up to. Among the big names were The Architects Collaborative (TAC), Sert Jackson, Flansburgh, and Cambridge Seven.

One of the best known was Ben Thompson, a former principal at TAC who had moved just a couple of doors away when he opened his own office in 1966. He wore his Marimekko shirts with perhaps a greater ease than everyone else; his store, Design Research (D/R) — the face of design retailing that was to launch a thousand imitators — was the first to import the colorful Finnish clothing and textiles. Benjamin Thompson & Associates (BTA) attracted talented designers from around the country, who worked on an impressive portfolio of projects, including schools, theaters, hotels, and, of course, “festival marketplaces” — the concept invented with BTA’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace. With the opening of the marketplace in 1976, Ben gained public recognition; professional recognition — which was continual throughout his career — was capped by the AIA Firm Award in 1987 and the AIA Gold Medal in 1992.

There are many reasons to consider Ben Thompson right now. Nostalgia is the least important of them.

Ben, who died in 2002 at the age of 84, was a postmillennial architect at heart — a man who in his aspirations, interests, and achievements would have easily passed as an archi-hipster today, but for that pesky 1918 birth date and dedication to bright colors. He readily blurred the lines dividing design disciplines, flattening hierarchies and promoting collaboration. Early in his career, he was simultaneously a practitioner, retailer, and teacher. Known as an urbanist, he was also an environmentalist. A visual thinker, he was media adept — his three-projector slideshows with music tracks were legendary, cutting-edge in their time. He embraced graphic design and typography, not only in architectural contexts but also as a branding strategy: Clarendon was the BTA typeface in a Helvetica world. The co-owner, with his wife and partner, Jane Thompson, of six restaurants, he was a foodie; the “slow” food and “locavore” movements were part of his thinking before the terms were invented. Decades before Etsy, he thought about ways to bring local crafts and products to market. He embraced product design, bringing the best of the era’s furnishings and housewares to D/R and designing furniture for the store and for his projects. And he was at ease in a global economy, both as a merchant and as a designer of large projects in Europe, the Mideast, and Asia.

Ben’s buildings deserve renewed attention, too. Many of his projects have entered that vulnerable phase in a building’s life: neither new nor old enough to demand respect. Sometimes badly or insensitively maintained, in need of updating, energy inefficient, no longer suiting their original purpose, or susceptible to changing economics, some have been demolished, while others are undergoing renovations. They are part of the mid-20th-century architectural heritage that bedevils preservationists today.

But perhaps the most intriguing reason to consider Ben at this time is that his work represents an alternative Modernism. Ben’s was an experiential, holistic, humane Modernism, less concerned with buildings than with the people who would occupy them. If, as ArchitectureBoston suggested in the Winter 2010 issue, we are entering an “Un-Modern” period of questioning the assumptions of 20th-century Modernism and revisiting the roads not taken, then the moment may be right to examine an approach that has long been out of fashion in academia but that was a powerful idea in its time. “Ben was the reason I went into architecture,” a prominent Boston architect said recently. “I’m not sure I would today.”

ArchitectureBoston thanks Philip Loheed AIA and MacGregor Freeman AIA of BTA+ and Jane Thompson AICP of Thompson Design Group for their generous assistance with this issue.

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