John Hancock Tower, Boston
John Hancock Building

Completed: 1976
Architect: Henry N. Cobb

The Hancock tower highlights the sometimes contentious relationship between form and function in architecture. The building is an artistic triumph: a serene monolith of reflective glass soaring 62 stories over Copley Square. As a functioning, viable space though, it's been considerably less successful.

The Hancock was built on the southeast corner of the square, just behind H. H. Richardson's Trinity Church. The higher ups at John Hancock Insurance intended it to stare down its competition a few blocks to the east: the 52-floor Prudential Center, completed 12 years earlier in 1964.

Architect Cobb, of I. M. Pei's firm, designed the building as a parallelogram angled diagonally across the lot. The result is that the east face fades away from Copley Square, making its presence there more discrete. A v-notch running down the north side further softens the profile.

Planting a skyscraper made up of large windows with only a thin skein of support in Copley Square's spongy landfill—landfill that had defeated the original tower of New Old South Church—would prove to be foolhardy. The building swayed in the wind and windows fell out, necessitating elaborate, expensive fixes. The observation tower was closed after 9/11, and in 2009, the property owners went into default and the building was auctioned off. Yet through it all, its reputation grew: in 2011, it received the Twenty-Five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), an honor reserved for buildings that are 25 to 35 years old and embody, in AIA's eyes, architectural excellence.

Cobb visited the site with writer Marc Myers for a story that appeared in the Sept. 29, 2011, issue of the Wall Street Journal. The architect, who had followed up the Hancock with several other major works, like the oval-shaped Hyatt Center in Chicago, expressed contentment with his building. However, a couple of stories in the comments section—one regarding the wind's effect on the windows and another addressing the construction's impact on Trinity Church—are worth reading for a different take.