Benjamin Thompson has been presented with the highest honors in the architectural profession for applying the principle of “adaptive reuse” to major urban centers and creating “festival marketplaces” in Boston’s Faneuil Hall and New York City’s South Street Seaport.
A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Thompson received his B.F.A. from Yale in 1941. After serving in the Navy from 1941 to 1945, Thompson and several other young architects joined with Walter Gropius, pioneer of Berlin’s famed Bauhaus architecture movement, to form the Architects Collaborative (TAC). While at TAC, Thompson was responsible for designing Williams College’s Greylock Quadrangle, as well as the Brandeis University Quadrangle and the academic buildings for Andover Academy. Thompson also served as chairman of the Department of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design from 1963 to 1967.
Not long after completing the Greylock project, Thompson founded his own firm, Benjamin Thompson and Associates (BTA). Thompson created more designs for schools and colleges in New England, including Williams College’s Bronfman Science Center. When Thompson’s designs were featured in a 1976 exhibition of Williams College architects, John W. Stamper, the project designer, commented: “Whether at Williams or Andover he has brilliantly deferred to other campus buildings, in many cases more than a century old. His buildings take their place quietly and anonymously, yet purposefully evoking a sense of detailed perfection and meticulous craftsmanship.”
Over the next thirty years, Thompson’s BTA became an influential force in architecture, chiefly through his vibrant urban “festival marketplaces” and landmark Design Research Store, a largely glass structure which offered bright Scandinavian inspired furnishings appropriate for his buildings. Thompson has worked on HarborPlace in Baltimore, Union Station in Washington D.C., the Royal Victoria Docks of London, Ireland’s Dublin Waterfront, and New York City’s South Street Seaport, but his first and most famous revision involves Boston’s Faneuil Hall.
The Faneuil Hall Marketplace was a renovation of three blocks of wholesale markets and warehouses. Through consideration of both architectural and marketing issues, Thompson intended to produce “the variety, color, balance, and constant change of a downtown bazaar.” Featuring places to purchase meat, fish, produce, dairy, and wine, as well as entertainment and a restaurant, the 1976 unveiling of the Quincy Market element of the Marketplace was met with much enthusiasm from the public and helped to revive consumerism in Boston. The completion of the North and South Market buildings brought even more shops, restaurants, and clubs, with Thompson overseeing the overall design of the area.
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) named Ben Thompson and Associates its Firm of the Year in 1987 and presented Thompson with the highest honor in American architecture, the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects, in January 1992. This award has been presented to only fifty architects since 1907, the list of recipients including Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, and I.M. Pei. Thompson’s concerns have always been the responses of people to his architecture and the interaction of the architecture and the environment. Upon winning the AIA Gold Medal, Thompson said: “Joy has been key to my architectural ‘attitude’ since starting in Cambridge (Mass.) with the Architects’ Collaborative in 1946. I believe buildings should bring joyous experience, not just to architects, but to people.”
By Jaime Margalotti (Williams Class of 2000)
Stamper, John W. Three architects at Williams College : photographs and drawings of Benjamin Thompson and Associates, Mitchell/Giurgola Associates Architects, Harry Weese and Associates . Williamstown, Mass.: Williams College, 1976.
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