With this conversation at his home office on January 31 with Harry Cobb, a founder of Pei Cobb Freed, AN launches a series of interviews with architects from different generations talking about their own day-to-day career experiences with downturns in the past. Cobb, now 82, was born during the Great Depression. He based his decision to become an architect on a trip abroad for which his mother managed to save by entering the real estate market.
The Architect’s Newspaper: What was the economic situation when you first started working as an architect?
Harry Cobb: I graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design 60 years ago and immediately went to work. It was 1948 and I have worked ever since, but
I can’t say I know much about downturns and I don’t think my experience is atypical for an architect.
According to Wikipedia, there have been eight recessions in the years I’ve been in practice—the first one was 1953–54—and those recessions have occupied 12 of those 60 years. But if you ask me what I remember about them,
I’d say not much, because they simply didn’t register in my recollections by comparison with what I would call the vicissitudes, the highs and lows, of practice, which in my case have not even been related to recessions.
When, if ever, did you become aware of the boom-bust cycle in building?
In the early years, our work was driven by our relationship with William Zeckendorf, Sr. He was an imaginative, energetic, and ambitious developer, and I.M. Pei, Jim Freed, and I worked for him as in-house architects for about ten years. (I.M. had been a critic at the GSD when I was a student.) Zeckendorf was an extraordinarily ambitious entrepreneur and risk-taker. He ultimately went bankrupt, but that was after we had already branched off and established an independent practice.
The only period I can recall that the profile of our practice was driven by a downturn was in the 1973–74 recession. It was a big one, and the first to last more than a year. That was the recession that took our firm to Iran. We were active there for four to five years until the revolution, and fortunately, we weren’t working for the government but for private developers.
We were also busy because I.M. was in the middle of the East Building for the National Gallery of Art in D.C., which was a very high-profile project. But you can’t sustain a practice on one project, no matter how high-profile. We considered ourselves fortunate when we were approached by those developers from Iran. But interestingly, what I remember most about Iran is not so much about the projects—none of them got built—but about going to Isfahan and Persepolis to see the splendid buildings. In any case, Pei and Freed were more involved with those jobs, and I was just stopping over on my way to a major mixed-use project
I was working on in Melbourne, Australia, called Collins Place, which was well underway. But don’t attach too much importance to Iran, it just happened to be where we turned when things dried up here.
Did that first experience condition you somehow to try to prepare for the next one?
If you’re asking if we felt at risk, I would have to say architects are always at risk. I’ve never known a time since I came to New York when I did not feel we were at risk. I don’t think you can enter into architecture if you don’t have a tolerance for risk, especially if what you are interested in is the art of architecture, not the business.
How do you cope?
After a while, you realize the sky isn’t really falling and you just live with it. Every practice inevitably has periods of great financial risk—and these may not have to do with recessions. I associate risk instead with projects that were poorly managed, and led us to lose a lot of money—although they might be the same ones that launched our reputation. Sometimes I feel our practice has raised bad management to an art form!
What are the events that have shaped your experience?
This recession is by far the worst since the Great Depression and is undoubtedly going to register. But the other eight I could not describe as very significant events in my life. The significant events—both for good and bad—related more to what was going on in the practice. No recession could possibly leave a mark on one’s psyche as deep as the problems encountered with the John Hancock Tower [in Boston], or when we spent six years doing a complete overhaul of Kennedy Airport and on the day we finished 900 drawings, the project was canceled. And it was not because of a downturn but because of politics. Those disappointments are much more vivid in my mind.
How did the Hancock catastrophe, as you called it, impact your firm?
A few years after that episode we were in a sense blacklisted by developers and corporations. We were aware our practice was badly hurt—it was on the front page around the world with these horrible pictures of plywood on the windows. We were considered not safe and that came closer than anything to jeopardizing our existence. But after four or five years, there was a kind of reversal when people said: If those guys are still around, they must be doing something right because they should be dead right now.
And we retained the confidence of our clients through the whole episode. In a sense that is the most important achievement of my life—getting that building finished in a way that was not compromised.
Did you develop strategies along the way for recovering from setbacks?
We’ve never had a strategy, no one has ever gone out on the road to promote work, we’ve just responded to opportunities. We spend a lot of time, of course, in the process of getting work through interviews and, increasingly, through competitions. We’re involved in three major ones right now. We have been fortunate: I wouldn’t call it luck, and you just can’t tell what’s going to come in over the transom. The main thing we’ve always known—you might call it a hedge—is pursuing diversity, both geographically and in types of work. That has always helped to protect us against the collapse of any one sector.
How do you feel about this time around?
Like all architects, we’re apprehensive, but not in a panic. Partly it’s just a matter of experience. If you live in a profession as long as I have and you are always at risk, you get accustomed to living at the edge of disasters. Someone once told me, or maybe I said it myself: Who speaks of success? Survival is all. And I completely believe that.