Henry Cobb is a founding partner of New York-based international architecture firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, which he founded in 1955 with I.M. Pei and the late Eason H. Leonard.
Mr. Cobb, 92, has designed cultural and civic buildings around the world, such as the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, the Moakley U.S. Courthouse in Boston and commercial complex Palazzo Lombardia in Milan. Most recently Mr. Cobb worked on the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences One Dalton in Boston, and he is involved in the upcoming refurbishment of the Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles, which will comprise office towers, a hotel and two residential towers.
The firm is also designing the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, which will open in 2020. Mr. Cobb told Mansion Global it’s the smallest building he has ever designed and is on a site where enslaved Africans arrived in the U.S. and were sold.
Mr. Cobb has also lectured widely throughout his career, and from 1980 to 1985 served as the chair of the department of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which he attended. In 1992, he was architect-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome.
We caught up with him to discuss the importance of creating a building with an interior that matches its exterior, the role of an architect and much more.
MG: Describe your dream property.
HC: Generally speaking the most interesting buildings are those being designed by people with more than one site. It’s like life—if your life is dedicated entirely to one thing, it’s not as rich a life.
If I were buying in a luxury high-rise myself, I would be very concerned with the processional and the experience of arrival into the building and the apartment.
My most important contributions to the design at One Dalton are in shaping the building and its windows. But in terms of the interiors, it was to design the elevators so that you get in on one side, and when you get out on the other side, you get out directly into your apartment and are greeted with an amazing view. The person who buys one of the larger apartments in the building has their elevator open to the most spectacular view of Boston, and not onto a corridor.
If you asked me what makes a luxury building, that’s one thing I would insist on. You don’t want to get on an elevator and get off at an upper floor again into a central lobby. Then it feels as if you haven’t gotten anywhere at all.
And to me, the experience of entering an apartment is much more important than rich materials. There’s something fundamentally antisocial about entering an elevator, and you want to overcome that by making it a processional. Very few people would notice this kind of thing looking at a building’s floor plan, but in terms of how the building will be experienced by the people who live there, it’s very important.
And the thing about designing a residential tower is to remember it’s a place for people to live.
MG: What does luxury mean to you?
HC: In the marketplace, it’s about the choice of materials and equipment. When they talk about luxury, they’re talking about rich materials and the latest and fanciest equipment—whether it’s a bathroom or kitchen, or whatever.
All of that is important to the buyer, of course, but it’s not in my job. My job as an architect is to make a building that has integrity, where you feel that its identity on the outside has something to do with its identity on the inside. My job is to give the building character, and not just a superficial decoration on the interior and exterior.
Everything should be there, not for decoration, but to enhance the experience both from the outside and inside.
A luxury building, of course, does normally aspire to have elaborate and expensive materials and finishes, but that’s not of much interest to me. What brings a space to life is the quality of a space and the quality of light in the space.
MG: What’s the biggest surprise in the luxury real estate market now?
HC: I’ve been working with developers all my life, so it’s hard to surprise me. People who buy in residential towers are obviously very concerned about the view, but some want to look at the water, some want to look downtown.
But one trend that is noticeable across the board is higher ceilings. It’s now customary to build 11- or 12-foot ceilings. It used to be 9 or 10 feet.
I’m old enough to remember that in the years after World War II, it was common to build an apartment with an eight-foot ceiling. That would be unheard of now. In California, people want duplex penthouse with ceilings that are 10 to 11 feet.
MG: What’s your favorite part of your home?
HC: My library. It’s a completely book-lined room. My wife and I don’t believe in scattering things around, so all of our books are in one room. There’s a window out to Central Park, and the room has a fireplace. It’s a wonderful place to enjoy being inside, to enjoy being in New York and to enjoy reading,
MG: What best describes the theme to your home and why?
HC: The one element you would notice right away—and what everyone notices—is that the exterior walls are thick. I thickened them because I’m very much interested in the way light falls on surfaces. When you have a thick wall and a canted (oblique] surface, it catches the light and reflects into the space. That kind of reflected light is much more interesting to me than direct light that comes in through a window.
The building is quite ordinary, but the apartment is noticeable since I’ve thickened the walls. It gives you a much richer experience of the space.
MG: What’s your best piece of real estate advice?
HC: Always look for a building where the exterior presence of the building has something to do with the interior of the building. You don’t want to feel like you’re being put in a box.
In a city like Boston, a bay window is an example of a feature that works on the outside and the inside. It’s distinctive on the outside, and gives the interior a lovely quality, too.
Buyers should look at things that way. I think people often feel these things, but they don’t articulate it the way I do.
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