Architect Benjamin Thompson's Buildings Reveal Themes of Joy

BENJAMIN THOMPSON appropriately talked about "the architecture of joy" the night he picked up the American Institute of Architecture's top award, the coveted AIA Gold Medal given only 50 times since 1907.

He looked around the vast, red plush Concert Hall at Kennedy Center and told the audience, "Someone recently wrote that I introduced 'joy into architecture.' That's great to hear - I do feel joyful. Joy is one of my favorite architectural words - joy, optimism, dreams - these are my themes.

"Joy has been key to my architectural 'attitude' since starting in Cambridge [Mass.] with the Architect's Collaborative in 1946 [as founding partner with celebrated architect Walter Gropius]. I believe buildings should bring joyous experience, not just to architects, but to people."

It was a merry talk for a profession that has typically been known for its seriousness. Mr. Thompson has given the world such pleasure domes as the sea-and-sun-scented Harborplace in Baltimore, Boston's Faneuil Hall Market Place, and the South Street Seaport in New York, all innovative "festival marketplaces."

The day after his award, he said in a Monitor interview, "Joy has always been important to me. ... I feel that what you are [as a person] is what you are in the architectural field. I think of the painter - who is the Norwegian who paints a woman almost saying 'Help!'? [We agree it is Edvard Munch's picture, "The Cry."] He explains, "Well, I mean this is not a joyful guy, although his stuff is very interesting, very moving."

The Cambridge, Mass., architect who has just sat for his magazine portrait by a photographer, wears a rather happy outfit: magenta silk scarf over a brown tweed coat, raspberry-striped shirt, and cerise tie with brown trousers. And his acceptance speech keyed again to that same glee: "Joy illuminated the Baltimore Harbor ... and the docks on Dublin's River Liffey ... joy lights a Mississippi River park in St. Paul, Minn., and makes Washington's grand Union Station welcoming and fun."

His wife, Jane Thompson, the brunette architect he praises as "partner in both home and office [Benjamin Thompson & Associates]" stands by her man. She adjusts his tie, and helped edit a minute out of his speech, but she does much more. As he told the AIA, "Jane has always believed, had confidence, and shared the dream - with optimism."

In our interview, he talks about the headiness of actually sitting in one of his newest works on opening night: the Broward Performing Arts Center in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

When it opened a few weeks ago, he says, he sat there, and had "a feeling of exhilaration and also of a certain kind of anxiety. You're hoping the sound is going to work, and that the whole theater will work. And that the audience will love it, and that the players will love it, so [they] will all play better - a whole bunch of thoughts. There's a lot of tension in the opening of a theater. It's like an opening night [for the architecture] if you've lived with it for four or five years, sometimes even lo nger."

We also talk about his strong conviction that "the world needs architects who dare to say no when we know that development is wrong for the environment."

He says, "I think an architect should be responsible for the world of social values and preservation of environmental concerns, and I'm constantly disturbed by what has happened in setting up so many regulations so that architects have to be controlled by so many different kinds of agencies. But I'm not one who says there shouldn't be any regulations....

"So it does get back to whom you work for, so you choose as well as you can clients who are sympathetic and sensitive to the same values, and this does definitely control your architectural practice. In obvious terms, to me, you wouldn't work for a dictator. As far as turning work down, I've certainly done that.... You maintain your integrity as an architect and person...."

Looking back over his career, which building has he loved most?

"I think the most important one in recent years is the Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul [where he was born]. I'm working there right now to make the city future plans for what we're calling a Great Park along the Mississippi River, one that will combine with the music theater at the head of the river. The theme then becomes music, so we call the city a musical city."

It is another part of his credo, for as he told the AIA, "World problems cry out for the healing vision of architects...."

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