Architecture Isn’t Fun Anymore

Posted in Vol 14 No 1 by bsaab on May 11, 2011

We are all subject to nostalgia. My nose has strange flashbacks of the stinging scent of ammonia when I walk in the room that housed my firm’s Ozalid printer until 2002. As an architect for almost 30 years, I still have lots of paper stuffed in the attic and basement of my office building. I sense those piles glaring at me like a spouse spurned simply because of the ravages of time.

But ammonia and paper are merely the touchstones of a professional world that has left the building.

Those totems are the tip of a much bigger iceberg of professional evolution in architecture. Gone are people who practice in the mode of Charles Moore, Ben Thompson, and a younger Robert Venturi—architects who didn’t think of designing buildings as acting on the insights of an inner qi but rather as engaging an open, messy, and often humorous process of interaction among clients, communities, and any number of proudly bourgeois design criteria. The term “Postmodern” is used derisively, an era of a temporary infection of infectiousness, when the designer of a Glass House came to create a Lipstick Building.

During the 1960s through the 1980s, a lot of awful buildings and details burst onto the scene (I gag at every Palladian window and knife-cut molding profile), but there was a sense of inclusiveness of popular culture, humor, and experimentation that seems verboten today.

I am struck by the solemnity of today’s architecture offices, silent venues where an occasional click is heard. This quietude is complemented by the enlivening variety of genders and races, and a complete absence of the alcohol and layers of smoke that were present when I broke into the profession in 1978.

Architecture has indeed cleaned up its act and scrubbed itself to a luster of high intent. In the last 30 years, the majority of “serious” practitioners do not revel in the hustle and bustle of commerce as Thompson did and seem to absent themselves from the bourgeois hubbub to create work that has a universalist intent and outlook. Lost is a connection to popular culture, neighborhoods and, sadly, people. Unlike the inherent spontaneity of the Pre–High Modern era, the work that receives the most attention today—the highly sculptural, distilled, and abstracted work that dominates the lion’s share of journals, museum walls and lecture-hall topics—is pretty serious stuff.

Forty years ago, when Thompson, Moore and Venturi were at their productive peak, the variety of architectural expression was extreme, with High Modern works being done by the remaining great masters: Louis Kahn and I.M. Pei; Paul Rudolph’s and Alison and Peter Smithson’s Brutalism; the “next generation” of James Stirling; the “messy play” work being executed by Charles Moore and his disciples; the beginnings of “sustainable” work being done after the first oil crisis in the mid ’70s by Malcolm Wells; and the nascent drumbeat of Neoclassicism à la Allan Greenberg. Does anyone remember the extreme enthusiasm that Thorncrown Chapel received when it debuted as a pitched-roof building made essentially of expressed dimensional lumber?

Additionally, books such as Creating Defensible Space by Oscar Newman; The Place of Houses by Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, and Gerald Allen; and Body, Memory, and Architecture by Moore and Kent Bloomer were not monographs or academic jargon-filled arcana but dealt with truths about architecture beyond aesthetics. In contrast, what we have now is essentially an Orthodox religion of High Modernism—with the rest of built expression being treated as products of “sellouts.” The common touch is heresy—despoiling of a higher purpose of designing work for the approval of those who design work of a higher purpose.

This is what happens when the radicals age and become the rulers. Dogma and canon become the truth when competing realities are deemed to be (for reasons that are unclear to me anyway) illegitimate. Just as coolly intellectual atheism has swept Europe, much of the messy liveliness of ’60s and ’70s architectural cacophony has been purged from our universities, journals, and professional recognition.

As usual in the arts world (that includes architecture), the status quo is inevitably challenged and used as a foil for more disenfranchised “sects.”  Outlanders from our present orthodoxy are popping up left and right on the Internet. A YouTube video, "So You Want to be an Architect," went viral and mocked the pretentious stereotypes that have crystallized in this High Modern era. A blog called Architecture Addiction bewails the obvious insufficiencies and hilarious irrelevance of much of architectural education. Burning Down the House, an Internet radio program hosted by architect Curtis B. Wayne, has a weekly explosion of discontent over the thin gruel of what passes for architectural diversity.

The responses to my own writing have led me to believe that there is a growing and growingly angry drumbeat of discontent against what is perceived to be enforced consensus within our professional community. It is not just an aesthetic consensus – there have always been “in’s” and “out’s.”  The odd score of years between the mid ’60s and the mid ’80s when there was stylistic eclecticism is the exception, not the rule. But what seems to most irk the profession is the artificial and often disingenuous universal “truths” about the architect’s role in society that is now offered up as being the only legitimate attitude for serious professionals. We are leaders by isolation. We build a truth that often seems untouched by human hands. We preach a self-congratulatory environmental/new urbanist ethic that frequently ignores its bottom-line economic impact on those who work for a living.

Recessions inevitably force architects to look in the mirror. This decade’s version has had an extreme impact (possibly 40 percent unemployment). More realize that the profession has emphasized far too much aesthetic consensus and far too few design inputs beyond the fine-arts imperative of personal expression. Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our sense of humor about ourselves. Many drank the Kool-Aid of couture eyewear and embraced an aesthetic vision untroubled by context, craft, or cost, and maybe it’s time we just got over ourselves and lightened up a bit.

Obviously, the majority of unremarkable work continues on, despite the patrician nobility of the work our profession focuses on. Perhaps in this dire new decade of professional despair, we can see our way to lifting up the elements that have been banal, predictable, and pedestrian to an invigorated resurgence of whimsical experimentation—versus deadly serious posing. Maybe the same kind of opportunities for expression that seemed to flicker brightly a generation ago will pop up to contrast with the humorless posturing that defines how we are often perceived.

But then again, I admit to being nostalgic….

Related material

Posted in Vol 14 No 1 by bsaab on February 23, 2011

Essays, discussions, interviews, and reviews from the archives

A Marketplace of Ideas—Jane Thompson talks with Mildred Schmertz (PDF), 1976, July/August 2006

From Moon Hill to Macallen: Searching for Purpose in the New Modernism by James Hadley (PDF), New (Again), May/June 2008

Hipsters in the Woods; The Midcentury-Modern Suburban Development by David Fixler (PDF), Neighborhood, Spring 2009

Moving Forward: The Future of History (PDF), Preservation, Spring 2002

The Modern House in New England by David Fixler (PDF), Preservation, Spring 2002

The Thompson Sampler

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

Five buildings, five views of an architectural legacy.

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Architectural legacies are unpredictable. For one thing, there are no guarantees that a physical legacy will endure. In the first half of the 20th century, as the profession of architecture grew in stature, the field had appeal for anyone with an immortality complex: a significant commission had staying power. In the age of the tear-down, however, there are no assurances of permanence when even office towers and museums can be demolished to make way for the next new thing.

Even those structures that do survive are subject to changing interpretations, passing in and out of fashion. A few buildings are so extraordinary that their iconic status endures, their initial innovation still apparent. Some suffer from the flattery of imitation, blanderized by their own success. (How many visitors to the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta know or care that it was the first atrium hotel, designed by John Portman in 1967?)

But an architectural legacy is not necessarily a constructed legacy. Some buildings launch ideas that are more fully or more successfully developed later in other projects. Some lead to a new direction in the architect’s career and work. And some serve as reminders of a road not taken — an architectural direction abandoned due to economic, political, or cultural forces.

The projects included in the following sampler of Ben Thompson’s work suggest the range of his considerable influence and represent different aspects of his architectural legacy. What they have in common is a more ineffable legacy — their influence on the people who worked on them, who have occupied them, and who have delighted in their generous contributions to the communities in which they were built.


40 Moon Hill Road—Lexington, Massachusetts (1949–1950)

It was perhaps the worst building Ben Thompson ever designed. The roof leaked. The house was drafty. There was no privacy. Form did not follow function. I should know. I grew up there.

My parents, Ben Thompson and his first wife, Mary, built the house in 1949 and 1950. There they raised five children: my sisters Debby and Marina, brothers Nick and Ben, and me. Despite my current views of the design, it was a magical place to spend my youth. I loved living there.

The time was the post–World War II baby boom, when Walter Gropius (everyone called him “Grope”) was mentoring his seven young partners in The Architects Collaborative (TAC). Driving up Moon Hill Road, past the common land and swimming pool, were the homes of TAC founders Chip and Sally Harkness, Norman and Jean Fletcher, and Bob McMillan. The road swarmed with children biking, roller skating, playing capture-the-flag. At the end, just off the cul-de-sac, our house sat perched on a rock outcropping with an expansive view south across woods and meadows. This was my father’s first experiment in residential design.

The house felt like one big room — a big flat-roofed box made of Philippine mahogany and glass. Inside the front door was an expansive two-story space, which served as the dining room and sometime drafting studio. From there, you could see into almost every room in the house, including bedrooms and bathrooms. Noise carried unimpeded throughout our home, upstairs and down.

A floating teak stairway, without risers or handrails, was the first architectural element to greet you, launching dramatically (and perilously) toward the second level. At age two, I tumbled head over heels down those steps, prompting the babysitter to pronounce me dead.

The two-story space was illuminated by an Akari paper lantern hung from the ceiling; a huge freestanding fireplace was the focal point of the house, showcasing modern sculpture and paintings. A Calder mobile swung silently in the air between stairway and chimney. You could reach out and touch it as you walked down the steps.

Often on Thanksgiving, Grope and his wife, Ise, drove from Lincoln for dinner. At Christmas, they returned bearing gifts and watched my brothers chase each other around the fireplace on tricycles. Debby, Marina, and I hung by our knees from the underside of the stairs, feet and legs threaded through open risers. These were wonderful times for our family on Moon Hill.

In 1953, when my father and Spencer Field started Design Research (D/R), the store’s purpose was to meet the furniture needs of Modern architecture. But D/R expanded into a lifestyle, while our house became its testing lab, changing with each revolving crop of chairs, tables, beds, and colorful textiles. My parents traveled regularly to find new inventory, returning to Moon Hill with suitcases filled with beautiful products from around the world. Dad designed furniture as well: tables on wheels, butcher-block benches, and his well-known Haitian-cotton couch. In the late 1950s, they came back from Finland with Marimekko. They immediately built a sauna in the basement, and this began a grand family tradition of bathing together. It shocked our friends, but we enjoyed it.

Eventually, my father’s strong entrepreneurial spirit and individualism took him in a direction different from that of his TAC partners on Moon Hill, who dreamed of a world of communal housing and social responsibility. Dad, though he continued to practice the full scope of architecture, had discovered a lasting inspiration in retail and commercial design. In late 1965, he departed Moon Hill and moved to Harvard Square; he left TAC the following year and formed Benjamin Thompson & Associates (BTA). Although he went on to design more residences, he never again created a house like ours on Moon Hill. Perhaps he ultimately found, as I do now, that its striking but minimally utilitarian design was better left to the past.

Above: Ben Thompson at 40 Moon Hill Road, photographed with an Albini chair for a 1962 Look magazine story on Design Research. Photo by Phillip A. Harrington.


Boylston Hall, Harvard University—Cambridge, Massachusetts (1958–1959)

When Ben Thompson, then a principal of The Architects Collaborative, remodeled Harvard’s Boylston Hall in 1959, it had already undergone a century of expansion and renovation. But none of the previous modifications was as startling or influential as his thoroughly Modern approach.

Originally designed by Paul Schulze as a chemistry laboratory and museum, Boylston Hall was built in 1857 in an Italian Renaissance style. In 1871, Peabody & Stearns topped the Italian palazzo base with a Second Empire mansard story, providing an additional floor. Over the next 50 years, the building was renovated several more times.

In 1959, Harvard hoped to build a center for the study of modern languages on the site of Boylston Hall but was constrained by the terms of the donor’s bequest from razing the antiquated building. Charged with remodeling the structure, Thompson faced an ambitious task, requiring a 40 percent increase in floor area.

Unlike Peabody & Stearns, Thompson and his team intended to transform the building from the inside. The solution was to insert new floors into the monumental floor-to-floor heights of the original building — in effect, inserting a new office building into the historic structure. Two principles of European Modernism were well suited to this problem: the “free plan,” a floor plan that serves as a neutral canvas; and the “free façade,” a building enclosure that is untied to the organization of the interior space. But the Boylston “free façade” was not a Modern construction at all; it was instead the historic granite mass.

The architects showcased their Modern interior through sheets of glass fitted to the stone openings with minimal steel frames, inventing a new window system incorporating a spandrel panel to accommodate the new floor level and a minimal vertical mullion to allow office partitions to be framed to the center of the window openings. This treatment radically transformed the architecture of the building.

The appeal of the design was immediate. First, in an environment in which tradition was revered, it had a refreshingly subversive quality: the new design brilliantly opposed the restraints of the building’s history and multiple styles. Second was its utopianism. New office floors replaced the historic stair hall and chambers with neutral space; people animated the building. Third was its assertion of flexibility; its repetitive elements offered an aesthetic of systems design that was synonymous with the Modern Movement.

Thompson’s solution is still powerful because of its unspoken connections to the traditions of American Modernism. Providing views to the interior was a generous act of openness unique in Harvard Yard, where buildings were typically shuttered by the grilllike character of historic windows; it continues to be an invitation to engage in the building. The drive to reduce and simplify, dramatized in this design through the geometry of wall and void, is a fundamentally American impulse at the root of this country’s embrace of Modernism; here was a historic building that was suddenly spare and abstract. Finally, Thompson’s precise aesthetic reveals a reverence for craft as a fusion of beauty and usefulness; historic granite and modern glass are valued equally and brought into a harmony independent of traditional styles.

Ben Thompson’s work evolved from these qualities of engagement, abstraction, and craftsmanship by always transforming problems into aesthetic opportunities. His was the anti-authoritarian world of the craftsman and artist who builds with material fact, speaks of common life, and invents from necessity. Thompson’s work was cool in the ’60s because it reflected the aspirations of its time. The lesson of Boylston Hall today is a vision of tradition invigorated by modern life, of past and present beautifully joined in the contrast of the abstract order of its architecture and the emotional impact of stone and glass.

Above: Boylston Hall after its 1959 renovation. Photo courtesy Harvard News Office.


Design Research—Cambridge, Massachusetts (1966–1969)

The Design Research building has won architecture’s highest honors, yet it is rarely discussed purely as an architectural icon; conversations usually include a stew of memories from the D/R retailing story that birthed it: loving Marimekko; watching the people, products, and activity from the outside in; discovering a store that felt like a party everyone was invited to.

Ben wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Any architecture must be secondary to people.” When I worked at BTA, I was swept up by Ben’s humanist approach to design. To him, architecture was a backdrop for the living of a joyful and dynamic life; he had little interest in the creation of architectural masterpieces. D/R was designed to serve other passions: the seduction of “must have” merchandise, the buzz of a bustling market, the poetry and energy of movement.

A “non-building” (Ben’s term), D/R was the quintessential product of that approach: a showcase for beautifully designed merchandise that didn’t compete with its surroundings. Its ethereal design consists of floating minimalist concrete slabs cantilevered from raw concrete columns, enclosed by a totally transparent glass skin. Its open corners invite the world in, and the faceted façade combines reflection and transparency, in what Ben described as a “kaleidoscope of people, shadows, buildings, and clouds.”

“If you can see it, you want it.” Ben loved the products he sold, believed in their ability to enrich life and home, and understood how to showcase them.

“If you can see it, you want it,” he would say, and the D/R building embodied that philosophy as one large, multifloored display window. We see all-glass design in today’s Apple stores, but in 1968, it was a revolutionary retail concept. The building’s transparent skin erased the distinction between interior and exterior, leading the 1971 BSA Honor Award Jury to note that “the life of the building extends to the life of the street.” The brick sidewalks continue into the interior, which Ben described as a “high, airy lobby, not unlike the plaza where a festive street bazaar is in progress.”

The interior kept shoppers moving through the store: Staggered half floors beckoned upstairs — the climb up short stair runs seemed inviting, not daunting, thus solving an eternal challenge for retailers. On every floor, an open, wall-less plan, enhanced by natural materials — brick, wood, sisal, and cork — complemented the merchandise and the building structure, creating an endless showroom.

Ben’s worldview shaped a design philosophy that valued research and experience over intellectual theories. I remember working on a handrail design and being sent out into Harvard Square to find and feel well-designed handrails. Ben always strived for excellence and enjoyed researching new ideas. D/R’s famous glass skin itself is an example. It began as a conventional storefront system with mullions but, when the design team discovered a new technology allowing glass to be engineered as free-floating unframed panels with silicone joints and metal clips, Ben approved the innovative system, which was new to the US market.

“Markets depend on movement.” What is Harvard Square without window-shopping, and what is the D/R building if not window-shopping on a grand scale? It mined the connection between products and people, magnifying the activity inside.

“Good markets and fairs thrive on movement and action,” Ben said. “They don’t happen in architectural ‘masterpieces,’ but in lively spaces that mix people and functions.” In its visible, marketinspired bustle, the D/R building glowed out to the street, particularly at night.

It still does. Now on its third retailer and fourth decade, its faceted glass box endures, and I can’t imagine Harvard Square without it.

Above: D/R building in 1969, before the 1970 construction of 44 Brattle Street (to left of photo) by Sert, Jackson and Associates, which, with buildings by TAC and Earl R. Flansburgh on Story Street, constructed for their own offices, formed “Architects’ Corner.” Photo by Ezra Stoller © Esto.


Faneuil Hall Marketplace (Quincy Market)—Boston, Massachusetts (1966–1979)

It is easy these days to dismiss Quincy Market — as the Faneuil Hall Marketplace is commonly known. The whole idea of an urban “festival marketplace” is now so familiar as to be uninteresting; an idea exhausted by multiple, unworthy imitators across American cities, (while still influential and being discovered across rapidly urbanizing Asia). Still, although the activities of shopping, dining, and people watching (not to mention juggler- and clown-watching) are commonplace, the place itself remains, well, distinctive, special, venerable. Whereas the Design Research building (as Cantabrigians still refer to Thompson’s other landmark of retail architecture) is about the display of the things inside, and so is dependent on being full, the Market is about a place in the city and the appeal of a promenade.

The appeal of the Marketplace has never been primarily about the stuff being sold there, as critical as sales are to its financial stability. Ben Thompson was among the first Modernists to figure out the power of intertwining history, commerce, and leisure in the cause of contemporary urbanity. Even as the enclosed, “atrium-ed” suburban shopping malls were gaining popularity, Thompson foresaw that a simulacrum of a traditional street was ultimately unlikely to be as satisfying as the real thing. Yet he understood that the traditional street required modernization, not to accommodate cars, but to rev up the attributes of promenading for a modern society. The magic of Quincy Market lies in the seductions, encounters, and small pleasures experienced along a walk.

A certain urbanistic alchemy was required to revive the downtrodden downtown in the mid-1970s. Saving some parts of the city’s heritage from the prowling imminent wrecking ball of urban renewal was key. To come upon these reimagined long-shuttered warehouses when they first opened was to experience something short of a miracle. The setting seemed at once modern yet historic, unprecedented yet traditional, certainly new but somehow also familiar, and now meant to be enjoyed! It was uncanny to discover that these utilitarian, everyday structures — in a Bostonian’s memory forever grimy, decrepit, and inaccessible — could be marvelous porous containers capable of accommodating goods and people in equal measure. Faneuil Hall’s restored presence and historic status surely added to the aura, but it is precisely the casual embrace of a national landmark, not its dominance, that resonated for a modern culture of flaneurs. The Market also reintroduced suburbanites to the pleasures of visiting downtown and reassuring them that it was safe to do so.

What’s more, a long civic corridor had materialized, tying the newest urban-renewed parts of the city to one of its oldest precincts. A connection was made between the then recently completed, heroic yet somewhat unsettling Government Center and Boston’s ancient, fitfully reawakening waterfront. This was a gift. City Hall and its Plaza had tried their darnedest to turn their back to the old Dock Square and its dilapidated structures from a bygone era. But here was sprung a “bridge” from the present to the past, with the bridging elements themselves being old and new. City Hall Plaza, not often loved, would surely be less visited, and less tolerated, were it not for the adjacent marketplace serving as its counterpoint. And the waterfront, too, would be less often reached were it not for the funneling outward from the Market.

No matter that Bostonians take Quincy Market for granted these days. Thanks to Ben Thompson’s intuitive understanding of the importance to cities of experiential, tactile, visual, olfactory connectivity, the Marketplace revived the pulse of the city, once again becoming the fulcrum of the city center’s public realm. Though largely ceded to a visitor economy, and perhaps overprogrammed, the Marketplace reminds us well of the primal pleasures of city life.

Above: Photo © 1977 Steve Rosenthal.


Ordway Music Theater—St. Paul, Minnesota (1981–1985)

It was the early ’80s, and Ben Thompson’s design practice was at its height of productivity following the resounding success of Faneuil Hall Marketplace. The focus of the practice was clear: seeking the perfect balance between Modernism, which represented the firm’s true roots, and the very essence of what makes a building or a city livable and vibrant.

Then along came a new commission for Ben and a new building type for BTA — the Ordway Music Theater. With it came the beginning of a new era in theater design.

The design effort on the Ordway began, as always, by learning all we could of recent precedents for this particular building type. The discovery startled us: architectural Modernism had not been good for the performing arts. Actors, directors, musicians, and conductors all largely reviled the results. The theater design giants of the time, Kevin Roche and John Dinkledoo, Caudill Rowlett and Scott, and Max Abramovitz, to name but a few, had seemingly fallen victim to too much “form follows function,” too much acoustical engineering, and too much architectural democracy.

The theater and concert hall work of the 1960s and ’70s represented a large body of publicly funded structures, each aimed at reaching maximum audience capacity, efficiency, and acoustical perfection. The structures were monumental in scale — sometimes scale-less. Auditoriums featured “acoustically shaped” walls and ceilings. Floor plans emphasized crowd management: continental seating, with seemingly endless rows of identical seats, swiftly moved patrons to and from their adjacent parked cars. The buildings were grand, with soaring lobbies and gigantic staircases, but something just wasn’t right. The patron experience had been boiled down to the bare essentials of functionality. The ceremony and celebration of attending a live performance with others had been designed out of the overall experience.

Equally distressing was the experience of the performers onstage. They looked out into a venue with overwhelming scale, a sea of human bodies. The actor, the musician, the conductor — still the same size as ever — suddenly seemed diminished and unable to artistically or emotionally connect with the blur of anonymous faces.

So our design-precedent search rolled back the clock and largely skipped the latest decades of design. We looked at venues across the globe, some hundreds of years old. After months of slideshow immersion, we began to define the essentials of why these historic buildings worked so well and were so revered: We needed aisles — for it is in the aisles that we meet friends and share in the common enjoyment of the arts. And why not have people “on the walls”? Not only is it great to see other happy patrons smiling back at you, but the proximity of those very patrons also connects the performers with their audience.

Once we discovered that acoustician Larry Kirkegaard shared these observations, we soon learned that boxes, balconies, aisle railings — all the elements that served our humanistic goals — made a positive contribution to the natural acoustical qualities of the room. Somehow these attributes had been lost.

And so the Ordway Music Theater design journey began, combining a new understanding of performance spaces with BTA’s experience with urban theater, pulling the excitement of the performing arts into the city itself. After its heralded opening in 1985, the design community took notice; a new paradigm had been set. Hardly a performance hall has since been built, regardless of its signature style, that does not populate the walls with people, gather them in aisles, and foster a celebration of the arts. That’s the legacy of the Ordway.

Above: Photo © 1977 Steve Rosenthal.

Site Work

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

Websites of note

American Architecture Now. In the 1970s and ’80s, Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel conducted a series of interviews with architecture’s Who’s Who. Her video archive is now online, all streamed to YouTube, featuring luminaries such as Edward Larrabee Barnes, Louise Nevelson, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and — of course — Ben Thompson.

Project for Public Spaces. So you want to create a great public space? This internationally renowned organization, founded in 1975 and based on the work of urban planner and sociologist William H. Whyte, can help, with blogs, books, workshops, and photos of great places. The Hall of Shame features strong opinions and lively discussions.

Marimekko. Ben Thompson introduced Americans to Marimekko, the Finnish maker of clothing and textiles that are equal parts attitude, pattern, and color. Founded in 1951, it’s still going strong.

The Harvard Square Business Association. Since 1910, the HSBA has “cared for the Square.” From daily events and current news to photo archives (including thoughtful explanations of significant spots such as D/R) and “Eye Level Tours,” this practical website guides you to the best of the past and present of this favorite Red Line destination.

Boston and its Neighborhoods. This Boston University research guide is an extraordinary, annotated list of links to online image databases that deal with Boston. Note the citation for “Reviving Boston’s Marketplace,” an illustrated publication by Ben and Jane Thompson about the redevelopment of Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Whether conducting scholarly research or simply curious, start here.

Mass Modern/Modern Mass. So you want your own Six Moon Hill or Five Fields abode? Or maybe you already live in one and wonder what others look like? This blog by a Lexington-based real estate agent includes an interesting array of current photos, as well as historical ephemera.

Faneuil Hall Marketplace (Quincy Market). “Experience a festival every day!” A rule to live by.

Typology Redux: Revisiting a Theoretical Framework for New Modes of Practice

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

Northeastern University (October 16, 2010)

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Typology is the study of building types — the classification of buildings by their form or use. With large-scale masterplans proliferating in the developing world and the increased densification of cities closer to home, should typology be reintroduced as a central focus of architectural theory and practice? This was the question posed at the recent symposium Typology Redux. Like many conferences Northeastern has sponsored in recent years, it focused on the architect’s role in a market-driven economy.

The symposium featured three panels: pragmatics; history and theory; and hybridization of contemporary practice. The first discussion, led by conference chair Tim Love and Matthew Littell (both principals at Utile and professors at Northeastern), provided an argument for type as a legitimate focus of research, practice, and academic study. June Williamson, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, outlined suburban types and showed examples of how they have been reconsidered through adaptive reuse — as in the case of big-box retail stores transformed into libraries and even churches.

In the second panel, Alan Plattus provided a comprehensive historical overview, and K. Michael Hays delved deeply and poetically into the role of Aldo Rossi in expanding the theoretical implications of typology. They were then joined by moderator John McMorrough and Roy Kozlovsky for a lively discussion that wrestled with the architect’s relationship with type.

The last session was led by Ed Mitchell, and included Xavier Costa, the founding dean of Northeastern’s new College of Arts, Media and Design, Ivan Rupnik, and Marshall Brown. While intended to shed light on how — or whether — typology can again serve as a springboard for innovation, the session asked more questions than it answered. A more comprehensive view of how newer tools (e.g., landscape urbanism, performative building systems, and parametric modeling) have launched new ways of structuring form and space — and the ways in which these could be used to reinvigorate type — might have been a useful avenue of exploration.

Nonetheless, Typology Redux was a timely conference, echoing calls made by a growing chorus for a refocus on architecture, not architects. Typology, and its radical pragmatism, indeed deserves redux.

Journeys: How Travelling Fruit, Ideas, and Buildings Rearrange Our Environment

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

Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal (October 20, 2010–March 13, 2011)

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Bijlmermeer petting zoos share a gallery with EU-regulated cucumbers. One wall frames (literally) definitions of “bungalow” from 1855 to 1986. A few feet away, a digital slideshow documents transnational migration between Senegal and Italy. Japanese farm tools used to cultivate crops in Bolivia encroach upon Google Earth projections of the Arctic, cross-sections of buoyant wild coconuts, and stunning Max Belcher photographs recording the translation of architecture in the American South to Arthington, Liberia.

Journeys is an ambitious investigation of the flip side of global migration — a look at its impact not on people but on places. The ideas and themes are intriguing and provocative: Soon the visitor begins to understand that maybe there really are connections between cucumbers and petting zoos.

But Journeys is also a far-reaching, perhaps over-reaching, exploration of exhibition-making. A collaboration among curators, authors, a graphic designer, and an artist, the project includes a website and a book. Which is appropriate, as the most experimental aspect of the installation is not its objects or images but its text.

Fifteen narratives take a cue from creative-writing teachers: Construct your essay by beginning with a concrete object and then bridge out toward the larger philosophical questions. And although each story has the potential to germinate thoughtful discussion on migration’s transformative consequences, the exhibition’s overall setup and multimedia mishmash (albeit well-designed mishmash) provokes ADD-like agitation in the way of an ad-ridden, dataclogged website. Has the time already come for art museums to mimic the contemporary method of frenzied information intake? Is there a novel way we can mitigate sensory overload while providing loads of new data? I want more white space. I’m reading the book.

Above: Pulling a structure across the ice to Conche, Newfoundland. Resettlement Collection, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University, PF-317.488.

2010 Bulfinch Awards

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

Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, New England Chapter—State House, Boston (November 1–5, 2010)

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The 2010 Bulfinch Awards are the ICA&CA’s first attempt to celebrate the classical tradition in architecture. Sixteen projects, mainly residential, were recognized. Big carried the day, with residences ranging from 5,500 to 30,000 square feet. The behemoths marched over their sites with an “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” air.

Still, there were gems. Ivan Bereznicki’s orangerie-like “Pavilion” house is a disciplined exercise in classicism. The “Champlain’s Bluff” house by Polhemus Savery DaSilva presents a human scale to arriving guests. The S/L/A/M Collaborative’s Church of the Sacred Heart introduces new ideas of ecclesiastical architecture with a traditional vocabulary. And Keith LeBlanc’s landscape for the Lowder Brook house is a marvel of refinement.

The Bulfinch Awards program deserves applause for promoting historical precedent in architecture. But for the standing ovation that surely awaits, it must recognize more projects that embrace proper scale, siting, and the use of regional materials.

Above: Greek Revival residence by Dell Mitchell Architects. Photo © 2008 Richard Mandelkorn.


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

Other Voices

Ben and Jane Thompson’s entrepreneurial spirit spawned several restaurants around Boston. The most influential of these, Harvest, opened in Harvard Square in 1975. Some of the city’s most famous chefs have passed through its kitchen — and many credit its early days with almost singlehandedly sparking the culinary revolution that led to Boston’s vibrant food culture.

Lydia Shire
Chef and owner of Boston’s Locke-Ober and Scampo, as well as Blue Sky in York Beach, Maine; culinary director, with Jasper White, of the new Towne Stove and Spirits in Boston.

Julia Child used to dine at Maison Robert in the Old City Hall regularly, where I was the chef of the dining room. When Ben and Jane Thompson asked Julia to recommend a chef for their restaurant, she told them they should talk to me. I was hired by Harvest’s general manager, Henry Ball; he was a genius and I learned so much from him.

I spent nine months at Harvest in 1975. I did it all: ran the kitchen, cooked on the line, wrote the menus, did the daily specials, hired, fired, you name it.

What I loved the most about Harvest was Ben and Jane Thompson. They were such forward thinkers, and they brought out the best in me. They challenged me to be creative and cook from the heart. They simply wanted the best for the customers who walked through the door every night. Jane would bring in vegetables from her garden; I remember the recipe for blueberry syllabub she gave to me.

A James Beard award-winning chef, Lydia Shire attended London’s Cordon Bleu Cooking School before going on to become the head chef of Maison Robert’s prestigious dining room in 1974. Shire was asked to open the new Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California in 1986—making Shire the first female executive chef in the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts Company to open a luxury property. A few years later, she returned to Boston, where she was named “One of America’s Top Ten Chefs” by Food & Wine for her restaurant Biba. Shire sent a shock through Boston’s culinary scene in 2001, when she took over the venerable Locke-Ober—making history as the chef and owner of an institution that had prohibited women from its dining room for 97 years. Shire’s kitchens have been a training ground for some of the city’s finest culinary talent, including Jody Adams, Dante de Magistris, Gordon Hamersley, Amanda Lydon, and Susan Regis.

Frank McClelland
Chef and owner of L’Espalier in Boston, Apple Street Farm in Essex, Au Soleil Catering, and, with Chef Goeff Gardner, co-owner of Sel de la Terre in Boston and Natick.

Harvest was where I first learned to be a manager and to lead a team. Everyone was so young and everything was so new there. It was amazing for my career and helped me develop such a passion for that type of atmosphere.
I worked at Harvest between 1978 and 1981, beginning when I was a young lad of 22. I was the youngest person in that kitchen when I started, but by the time I left Harvest, I was its executive chef. I led the brigade during very busy lunches and dinners. I started the rotisserie and spit grilling out in the terrace and, boy, did we cook everything: wild boar, lamb, shanks of veal. We cooked steaks out there at lunch.

The restaurant was way ahead of its time. We were so experimental. We made our own pasta and bread. We bought from small farmers. We grew herbs in the windows and did our own pickling. We wrote menus that ran for two weeks, including recipes for each dish; we called this the playbook and put it out in the kitchen to maintain continuity. Of course, there were also multiple specials every day for each lunch and dinner. So we all learned how to create.

I must have read every book in the world on cooking. We were all over the guys in Europe and what they were doing. I worked a million hours, then went home, slept for five hours and came straight back to work—every day. Some days, I had a few too many at Casablanca [restaurant and bar], which is right across the alley.

Ben and Jane were in and out all the time. I really enjoyed my talks with Ben; he was a nice gentleman. Harvest had a reputation for developing really great cooks, because of the creativity Jane and Ben allowed there. I’m sure there were some hits and some misses, but a lot of Boston chefs cut their teeth there.

I loved the design of the restaurant, particularly the horseshoe bar. And the Marimekko fabric was cool—that was all the rage in the ’70s.

It was a really cool period in the city. Julia Child would come in and give us advice on making and hanging sausages. John Irving, the author, was in all the time. Harvard Square was smaller and kind of wild. It was really abuzz with life—we felt it and really lived it.

McClelland’s L’Espalier has been a perennial “best” of America’s restaurants for three decades—earning top accolades from Zagat, Forbes, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Frommer’s, Wine Spectator, and Condé Nast Traveler. It also is New England’s most decorated independent restaurant with 12 consecutive AAA Five Diamond Awards (the only one in Boston) and 12 consecutive Forbes (Mobil) Four Star awards. A James Beard chef and cookbook author, McClelland draws inspiration and ingredients for his menus from Apple Street Farm, his organic farm in Essex that is the primary source of heirloom produce and proteins for L’Espalier and his trio of Sel de la Terre bistros. Many of Boston’s best-known restaurants are populated with chefs mentored under McClelland’s tutelage.

Barbara Lynch
Chef and owner of Menton, No. 9 Park, Sportello, Drink, B&G Oysters, The Butcher Shop, Stir, and 9 at Home.

I worked at Harvest 24 years ago for about four months when I was 21 years old and came back a couple of years later when Chef Patrick Bowe took over. It was a great experience! I loved making the Irish soda bread and learned how to make pates and terrines. I was garde-manger, and it was essentially a great start to my cooking career before I went to Michaela’s and worked under Todd English.

Barbara Lynch is regarded as one of the country’s leading chefs and restaurateurs. As the CEO of Barbara Lynch Gruppo in Boston, Lynch oversees the operations of eight restaurants and employs more than 200 people. Her talents have garnered numerous accolades over the years, both locally and nationally. In 2003, The James Beard Foundation named Lynch “Best Chef Northeast” and Travel & Leisure proclaimed No. 9 Park one of the “Top 50 Restaurants in America.” In 2009, she received the Crittenton Women’s Union’s Amelia Earhart Award; past recipients include Doris Kearns Goodwin and Julia Child. Lynch’s first cookbook, Stir: Mixing It Up in The Italian Tradition, was published by Houghton Mifflin in fall 2009 and received a prestigious Gourmand award for “Best Chef Cookbook” for the US. Her newest restaurant, Menton, was named one of Bon Appetit and Esquire magazines’ best new restaurants in 2010 and received a four-star review from The Boston Globe.

Sara Moulton
Cookbook author, TV personality, and former executive chef of

I have fond feelings for Harvest. There were other well-known restaurants in Boston that were old-school French or steakhouse places, but only Harvest was really cutting-edge. It is interesting how many great chefs have come out of there. They weren’t all there at the same time either, so you can’t assume that one chef influenced the next. Harvest just happened to be a very good place to work that also apparently knew how to hire very good cooks. For me, it is also notable in that it’s the only restaurant where I worked that’s still standing.

I went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, for a two-year program that started in 1975 and finished in 1977. My now-husband and then-boyfriend moved to Boston from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be nearer to me while I was living in New York. I had to do an externship—a three-month restaurant gig in-between my two years at the Culinary Institute—so I applied for jobs in Boston. Basically, I just opened the Yellow Pages and then pounded the pavement with my résumé. I did not have all that much experience, other than a year of cooking school and some experience cooking at bars before that. I applied to many places—Maison Robert, a couple of restaurants in the North End and so many other places that it became very discouraging—and the one that hired me was Harvest.

For my externship, I was hired to work on the cold station at night. The job involved opening up an awful lot of oysters and clams. To this day, I have a dread of opening up oysters and clams. You would think I would have gotten very good at it, but au contraire!

The chef who originally hired me had been fired by the time I started my externship. The person who succeeded that chef—Lydia Shire—took me on anyway. This turned out to be a very good moment: one of the most important things that happened to me in my career. While I was working the cold station at night, Lydia, being a very hands-on executive chef, was working the line. She could see I was hungry to learn more. When my shift ended before hers, Lydia would ask, “Do you want to come over and hang out with me and watch what I do?”

She was wonderful to watch, because back then Lydia was a rarity. At cooking school, all of the [male] teachers and many of the [male] students kept constantly saying to us women students: “You don’t belong in the kitchen. You can’t stand the heat. You can’t lift the pots. You can’t handle the pressure.”

It was great not just to have a woman mentor, but also to get a one-on-one tutorial from one the very best chefs in the country. Lydia would say, “This is how hot the pan needs to be before you add the protein. This is the sound it should make when you add the protein to the pan. These are the four elements you are going to add to make the pan sauce.”

I graduated from cooking school in the spring of ’77 and came back to work at Harvest. Lydia had left by that time, and the woman who had been second-in-command, Laura Boehmer, hired me back as her sous chef—which was crazy. I was in way over my head, but I worked very hard. A friend who was a year behind me at the Culinary Institute joined the Harvest that summer and that was a lot of fun. We’d work lunches together, which was intense because the Harvest did a huge lunch business. We’d just bang it out: I remember having four omelet pans going at once. That was my best experience in terms of line cooking and coordinating everything.

What was great about working for Laura was that, unbeknownst to me, she had been reading Gourmet magazine for years—which was ironic, because I would later go on to work for Gourmet for 25 years. As a result, Laura was very forward-thinking in terms of ingredients. For example, she used sumac, which is only just now starting to enter the mainstream. Her recipes were just extraordinary in their sophistication—way ahead of her time. Years later, when I started working at Gourmet and was reading back issues, I realized she must have been inspired by many of the travel pieces in the magazine.

When an eye injury sidelined Laura from work, I had to step in as executive chef—only three weeks before Thanksgiving, which was nuts. I managed to muddle through somehow. I remember being very proud of my food costs and for keeping the place together.

One time, the management, including Jane and Ben, cooked for us staff. They threw us a huge dinner party, complete with a menu and toasts, in the dining room.

Another night, Boston was snowed over by a blizzard, but there were still tables and chairs out on the patio. So a few of the staff shared a candlelight meal in the snow.

I remember liking everybody at Harvest. We all got along, and it really felt like a family. When you’re working in a restaurant, it feels like you are fighting a war; some nights you win all the battles, some nights you lose a few and other nights you lose them all. But it was great fun: We were young and had the energy.

As the host of “Cooking Live,” “Cooking Live Primetime,” and “Sara’s Secrets,” Sara Moulton was one of the Food Network’s defining personalities during the outlet’s first decade. In addition to her work on the Food Network, Moulton was the executive chef of Gourmet magazine for 23 years — right up until its closing in October 2009. She is the author of Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners, Sara Moulton Cooks at Home, and Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals, which served as the basis for a series on public television that launched in 2008. Moulton is also the food editor of ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America.” She co-founded the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance, an “old girl’s network” designed to help women working in the culinary field. The Alliance is approaching its 30th anniversary.

Photo courtesy of

Chris Schlesinger
Chef and owner of East Coast Grill in Cambridge.

If you took Harvest out of my career, I’d lose not just a bunch of friends whom I still hang out with today, but also a tremendous cooking experience. Harvest was a watershed—one of the restaurants that started everything in Boston.

I worked there in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I had just graduated from culinary school and worked a variety of jobs there. Ben Thompson’s missive to everyone was that he wanted the food to be avant-garde and influenced by the nouvelle movement in France. Still, the Thompsons gave the kitchen free rein. For better or worse, the chef at Harvest got to do his or her own thing; nobody was going to tell them what to do.

There were a lot of young people at Harvest taking food very seriously. We were all under 25 and running the restaurant. It produced some of the best food of the times and also some of the worst. There was a pasta of the day, a fish of the day, a sandwich of the day, a buffet of the day. After I had been there for a week, I came in and was expected to just get it all together.

It was the beginning of a re-energized trade. The cooks and bartenders hung out with servers after work. After service, we’d go out to talk about food and wine. We’d go to the library to read and research. That was kind of the first generation of young people in Boston taking food seriously—pioneers.

Ben Thompson had sent the chef then—Jim Burke—to France for a couple of months. We were excited about baby vegetables. We’d call France and order a bunch of stuff, drive out to the airport to pick it up and then, back at the restaurant, lay it all out on the table and try to figure out what to do with it.

Until then, a food scene wasn’t really happening anywhere in Boston. Harvest helped people discover there was cuisine other than traditional “snotty” French food. And that food found an audience of young people who enjoyed and could afford it—and the local food scene just grew from there.

The customers were a classic Cambridge mix. You had Harvard professors and young people. Some were from Boston. But Harvest had it all going on. In the early 1980s, it was named one of the best pickup bars by Playboy magazine.

Harvest has gone through its ups and downs and is not at its peak now, but I still go there all the time. I’ve lived here for 30 years, and it is still one of my favorite restaurants—for the scene and the way it interacts with the neighborhood.

Chef and owner of East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Chris Schlesinger is the co-author (with John Willoughby) of five cookbooks: The Thrill of the Grill; Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys, and Chowchows; Big Flavors of the Hot Sun; Lettuce in Your Kitchen; and License to Grill. Schlesinger was the winner of the 1996 James Beard Award “Best Chef of the Northeast.” He is a founding member of the national organization Chefs 2000, and works with local farmers to preserve agriculture in New England.

Top: photo © 1976 Steve Rosenthal.

Covering the Issues

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

Periodical Roundup

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The gold in copper… Ben Bayntern’s “The Wire,” the cover story of Bloomberg Businessweek (November 29–December 5, 2010), reads like a police drama. Since 2001, metal theft has spiked in the US, increasing as much as 1,000 percent. Bayntern reports that “gangs use foreclosure lists like treasure maps” as they hunt for pipes and wire. Copper is easily recycled and difficult to trace; international prices have quadrupled in this decade. The even larger problem is that $1 in stolen copper causes $10 to $25 in associated repairs. Typical targets are small churches (often empty) and boarded buildings, while more industrious thieves mine infrastructure such as cell towers and municipal irrigation systems. Cities are trying to crack down, revising scrap recycling laws while creating new police undercover metal-theft units. These officers operate as construction detectives and display an increasingly impressive knowledge of pipe fittings.

Sea the future… In one of the more interesting annual summaries, Popular Science features its “100 Best Innovations of the Year” (December 2010). From an uncomplicated bucket that helps trees grow in inhospitable places to extreme engineering that allows skyscrapers and airports to be unimaginably taller and earthquake resistant, there’s lots to gawk at here. But the coolest award winner draws inspiration from humble ocean creatures. In the 1980s, marine biologist Brent Constantz learned how to mimic the way sea coral grows. Recently, he has developed a bioengineered coral-like product that can replace limestone in building cement mix by using sea water and the byproducts of existing power-plant smokestacks. A California demonstration plant is underway, making 1,800 tons of coral cement daily. The US Department of Energy reports that cement’s conventional production — which requires extreme heat to prepare limestone — is the second largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions in the US after fossil fuel. A Google search shows that Constantz has his skeptics, but the potential impact of coral concrete is stunning.

Inside story… In a fascinating essay disguised as a book review, James Fenton (“The Age of Exuberance,” Harper’s, January 2011) provides thoughtful, detailed musings on the Gilded Age and late-19th-century residential interiors. He paints a picture of what these living spaces were and what they meant, with their excess of dark paint, textures, and patterns. Ceilings were heavily timbered and colored, for example, a reminder that they provide shelter. A number of these interiors still exist in Upper Manhattan (read: Harlem) brownstones, protected, in a way, by decades of poverty. Yet as this neighborhood undergoes its own renaissance, the future of these Gilded Age interiors is in question. Fenton argues that the whole interior ensemble — ceiling, rugs, drapery, decorated walls — is important and emotionally powerful, as he laments their inevitable destruction. Lofts are nice, he suggests, but they don’t belong in brownstones.

Chia Pets on the loose… If it’s in Time, it must be a trend, right? In “Upwardly Fertile: The Rise of the Vertical Garden” (December 13, 2010), Tim Newcomb discusses the growing popularity and one-upmanship of “vertical gardens” — exterior walls covered by a hanging carpet of plants, like the widely published one at the new CaixaForum in Madrid, Spain. Purportedly demonstrating environmental awareness (or at least a “green” company image), installations are getting bigger as they crisscross the globe. The current North American title was captured by Philadelphia’s Longwood Gardens in October with a 3,600-square-foot wall, while Santiago, Chile, unveiled a 17,000- square-foot wall in December. Yet these walls are less energy efficient and more expensive than a green roof. Newcomb touches on the inherent contradiction of the “green-ness” of these planted surfaces, suggesting that their ongoing maintenance requirements mean that a vertical garden should be considered a “very large and thirsty pet” rather than a building material.

A Life in Architecture

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

How the boy from Minnesota became the man who reshaped cities.

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Benjamin Thompson entered the Yale School of Architecture in the fall of 1938. Had he chosen Harvard instead, he would have been among the first American students to meet and learn from Walter Gropius, who had become chairman of the department of architecture in 1937. Ben and his colleagues in New Haven surely knew what the Bauhaus founder and master was up to in Cambridge, yet it was not until 1944, near the end of Ben’s World War II service as a lieutenant on a US Navy destroyer escort, that Ben finally met him. Ben’s ship had docked in Boston. It was the custom of Gropius and his wife, Ise, to gather students and friends at their home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, on Sunday afternoons, and one of them took Ben along. “I found Grope very warm and interesting,” he remembered. “We walked about and discussed the design of his house. I think I hit it off with him right from the start.” Ben soon began to see more of Gropius, to whom he brought his own world of experience and learning as well as his hopes for what a life in architecture could ideally be.

Ben was to the manner born, although his family life was difficult and complicated. His life began in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 3, 1918, and he had some early advantages — a prosperous land-owning father and a mother who was an artist and collector of art. He left the Midwest for a New England prep school and then the University of Virginia. Travels in Europe with his mother opened the world of architecture to him and led him to Yale, which was, at that time, still under the influence of the Beaux Arts system. Wallace Harrison, whose own architecture had begun to break with this conservative tradition and move in the direction of Modernism, was Ben’s most influential teacher.

Ben’s circle of friends and colleagues soon included architects Norman and Jean Fletcher, Sarah and John Harkness, Robert McMillan, and Louis McMillen. This young group, all of whom had been in architecture schools before the outbreak of World War II, were looking for a new way to practice architecture in the postwar world. In 1946, they founded The Architects Collaborative (TAC) and invited Gropius to form a partnership with them. At the beginning, Ben and the rest of the TAC team were inspired by youthful idealism. As could be expected, such high purpose didn’t survive the realities of practice, such as getting and keeping work. Ben, however, brought in many desirable commissions, most from New England’s academe, that allowed and supported his own idealistic beliefs. His best work while at TAC included campus buildings at Amherst, Andover, Brandeis, Harvard, and Williams.

“I want to make young people realize how inexhaustible the means of creation are if they make use of the innumerable modern products of our age, and to encourage these young people in finding their own solutions.” — Walter Gropius

In his years at TAC, Ben was a merchant as well as an architect and continued this activity for the greater part of his life. In 1953, he created Design Research (D/R), a retail store that occupied the ground floor of a modest 19th-century wooden house on Brattle Street. Appropriate furniture, rugs, fabrics, and housewares for the private houses TAC was designing had been hard to find. In the late ’40s and ’50s, there were very few stores anywhere for clients to buy what suited the way they wanted to live. Said Ben, “I have always believed that because the experience of living and working occurs inside a building, our best efforts should go into creating a stimulating and sensual interior environment that should be as special and personal as each owner could make it.”

Ben’s achievements as the architect of choice for elite New England academic institutions, combined with his successful entrepreneurship in the home-furnishings market, did not offset his increasing concern about the continuing loss of idealism at TAC. For him, the types of commissions the firm accepted told a sad story. He strongly opposed the master planning and design work for US Air Force Air Defense Command bases from which to bomb other countries because it served a purpose that Ben found morally questionable. The Pan Am Building (now MetLife) at New York City’s Grand Central Station, a commission that Gropius brought to the firm, was too big and out of human scale to ever have been allowed to happen. The clients who wished to build the University of Baghdad were a military regime with little time for their architects, nor did the Iraqi academics bother to pay attention to TAC’s ideas about what the content of a Westernbased university education might be. Ben believed that the firm should never have taken on Baghdad to begin with and had no justification for continuing the work. He saw the commission to be so poorly conceived as to cause TAC to abandon all that was left of the higher goals the firm once had. At the same time, he was chafing against TAC’s compensation structure, which penalized him for outside income from D/R and teaching. It was clear to him that it was time to go. In January 1966, after 20 years, he left TAC to establish Benjamin Thompson & Associates (BTA).

An early initiative at BTA was the development of a revitalization plan for Boston’s old Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, a nine-year effort beginning in 1967 that would eventually shape the direction of the firm and establish BTA’s international reputation. The celebratory opening of the first phase of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, coinciding with the 1976 Bicentennial, marked not only an innovative design but also an innovative collaboration with the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Rouse Company. BTA was to design four more marketplaces with the Rouse Company: Harborplace in Baltimore, South Street Seaport in New York City, Bayside Marketplace in Miami, and Jacksonville Marketplace in Jacksonville, Florida. The success of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace also led to the firm’s rehabilitation of Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and Union Station in Washington, DC.

Ben always had more to say about the beauty of the sea and sky around their home, and the ease of life there, than about the buildings. In his world, architecture was life.

When Ben spoke or wrote of his life’s work, he had much to say about the joy of it, but like all good architects, he dealt with the tough realities — namely the often unforeseen contingencies that shape the always messy process of design and building. Fortunately, Ben also had the energy, drive, and resources to be his own client. In 1970, he opened the new headquarters of D/R in Cambridge, a glass-sheathed building of great beauty over which he had complete design control, simply because it was his. He also designed the restaurants he and his wife, Jane, owned: Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge and, at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the Landmark Inn, Flower Garden Café, Thompson’s Chowder House, the Wild Goose, and the Bunch of Grapes. He recalled that “our pleasures, our horizons, our identities became more clearly defined as we created the interiors, the menus, and the hospitable ambiance of these places. We also provided some of the vegetables from our kitchen garden on the Cape.”

Ben is best known for D/R, his academic work, and the marketplaces; yet, in later years, BTA engaged in urban redevelopment planning for many cities and towns in the United States as well as in Great Britain, Ireland, and Japan. Although he did not make a practice of designing for the performing arts, he created two outstanding concert halls: the Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Broward County Performing Arts Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The planning of luxury hotels worldwide was never a specialty of the firm, but InterContinental Hotels commissioned and built two BTA designs, one in Cairo and the other in Abu Dhabi. In 1987, BTA received the AIA Firm Award and, in 1992, the AIA recognized Ben’s life achievement with its Gold Medal. His health declined in the following years, and he died in 2002.

Scudder Lane, the Thompson summer home on a high bluff, overlooks Cape Cod Bay and a salt marsh. It is a collection of simple wooden structures that had once been a hunting camp. Before Jane joined his life, Ben had been devoting himself slowly to its repairs and new uses. He admitted that “my effort, on behalf of myself as client, might have continued to be a bit too relaxed were it not for Jane, who helped me make the old place work truly well for ourselves and our respective families.” When he spoke of their home, Ben always had more to say about the beauty of the sea and sky around it, and the casual ease of their life there, than about what he and Jane actually did with the little camp buildings. BTA people were frequent guests, and Ben liked to think that being there helped deepen their understanding of architecture and life. In Ben Thompson’s world, architecture was life.

Above: A holistic view of life, design, and architecture. Images (left to right, top to bottom): Portrait of Ben Thompson at nine years old on family farm, courtesy Jane Thompson. Massimo Vignelli dinnerware at Design Research, photo by Elizabeth Malko. Sketch of Japanese dinner setting by Ben Thompson. Detail, Cape Cod landscape, photo by Ben Thompson. Concept sketch for Harumi Island, Tokyo, by Ben Thompson. Portrait of Ben Thompson © Carol Harper. Thonet chairs at Design Research, photo from Design Research Archive, courtesy Jane Thompson. Portrait of Ben Thompson from BTA Collection, courtesy Jane Thompson. Drawing for the Ordway Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, by Ben Thompson, courtesy Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

Editor’s note: An interview of Jane Thompson by Mildred Schmertz about the development of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, “A Marketplace of Ideas,” appeared in the July/August 2006 “1976” issue of ArchitectureBoston, available here.