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Two very different buildings are honored

Awards to Hancock, Cambridge library are long overdue

The John Hancock Tower (pictured) received the Twenty-Five Year Award, while the Cambridge Public Library won the Harleston Parker Medal. The John Hancock Tower (pictured) received the Twenty-Five Year Award, while the Cambridge Public Library won the Harleston Parker Medal. (PETER VANDERWARKER)
By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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Two of the best buildings in Greater Boston have been honored with my two favorite architectural prizes. Both awards were officially announced last week.

The John Hancock Tower is winner of the prestigious Twenty-Five Year Award. That honor is given to just one American work of architecture each year, a building that’s been around for at least a quarter century and proved its merit over time.

And the Cambridge Public Library is winner of the Harleston Parker Medal. The Parker has been awarded annually since 1921 to “the most beautiful piece of architecture, building, monument or structure’’ in Greater Boston.

The Twenty-Five Year is bestowed by the national American Institute of Architects. The Parker winner is chosen by the local Boston Society of Architects.

The Hancock stands in Copley Square, and the library is at 449 Broadway in Mid-Cambridge.

Let’s take the Hancock first. It’s often credited to famed architect I.M. Pei. But in fact it was designed by another partner in the Pei firm, Henry N. Cobb. Cobb believed the owner, the Hancock insurance company, required a building that would be too big for its site on historic Copley Square. So he sought to make it “disappear’’ by creating a building that is a 60-story mirror. It seems at times to merge with the sky and clouds, as those are seen reflected in its glass surfaces.

The Hancock is a work of unforgettable beauty, recognized around the world as one of the greatest of modernist towers. It isn’t perfect — its plaza is famously windy at street level — but as a visual work of art, it’s a masterpiece of architectural sculpture.

An odd fact about this award is that it comes only in the Hancock’s final year of eligibility. A building can’t win the Twenty-Five Year Award if it is more than 35 years old; there’s a 10-year window. The Hancock was completed and dedicated in 1975, so 2010 was its last chance.

But the reason for the delay is obvious. The Hancock, while it was under construction, was cursed by a notorious series of calamities. To summarize:

■ When builders excavated for the basement levels, the walls of their excavation caved in, damaging adjacent utilities and briefly endangering the structural stability of Trinity Church’s south transept.

■When the Hancock was built to its full height, it turned out that the upper floors were swaying in the wind too much for the comfort of office workers.

■Some of the Hancock’s 10,344 glass window panels began cracking or falling out, especially in windstorms. All were removed, to be replaced for some months by sheets of black-painted plywood.

■Lastly it was determined, amazingly, that the building was in danger of tipping over in certain rare but possible wind conditions. It was at risk of falling not on one of its wide flat sides, as you might expect, but on one of its thin edges.

All those problems were corrected. Contrary to common lore, none of them had anything to do with any of the others. Each was independent.

It’s great, now, to see the landmark tower finally getting the credit it deserves. When in 1994 the Globe organized a poll of historians and architects, the Hancock was voted the third best building in Greater Boston (after its neighbors Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library).

I’ll point out one virtue that often goes unnoticed. The Hancock has a rhomboid shape: Its four sides don’t meet at right angles. There’s a reason for that. It stands at the cusp between the Back Bay and the South End, two neighborhoods each of which is organized on a street grid. The two grids meet at an angle. The Hancock provides two sides aligned with the Back Bay grid and two aligned with the South End. Up there in the sky, it’s a visual hinge between sections of the city.

As for the Cambridge Public Library, it may never achieve the international fame of the Hancock. But it’s a gem. Designed by William Rawn Associates and Ann Beha Architects, it survived a meat grinder of public review and controversy over a period of more than a decade, yet emerged as a masterpiece. Much of the credit goes to Susan Flannery, the library director, who held the project on course.

The library is actually two buildings. One is the original library of 1888, a handsome work of Van Brunt and Howe, noted architects of that era, who shamelessly ripped off the style of the great H. H. Richardson, designer of Trinity. It’s been beautifully restored. The other building is the new part, triple the size of the old, sheathed in contemporary glass. Beha took charge of the old library, Rawn handled the new part, with the two firms collaborating throughout.

The award jury’s report puts it well: “The Cambridge Public Library is a magnificent twenty-first century building that seamlessly incorporates the original 1888 landmark. The historic stone building and the new glass building stand side by side as a study in contrast, although they are united by materials and colors.’’

The library is at its best in the evening. The new building glows like an enormous lantern. You can see the indoor activity through the transparent façade. There are two skins of glass, with a wide air space between. It’s a green technology, imported from Germany, that maintains thermal comfort, saves energy, and doesn’t interrupt the view.

Flannery hopes to make the library a community resource. She allows browsing with food and drink everywhere on the ground floor of the new building. She plans eventually to add a café.

There’s a sporting interest to any award program. For the record, there were three runners-up for the Parker Medal this year. They were the MIT Media Center, by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki; Harvard Graduate Student Housing next door to Peabody Terrace, by Kyu Sung Woo; and the Macallen Building, a condo complex in South Boston by Office dA. All will presumably, in future, be candidates again.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.