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The Summer of 1962: My Memories of the Start of Cambridge Seven

I am beginning to forget the events of the summer of '62 and the order they occurred. It is now more than forty years ago, and I doubt if my writing skills can convey the spirit of the early sixties. Perhaps the joy and heady feelings of the time did not extend to all places and to all people in the country, but they did to a group of us in Cambridge. In retrospect, the fifties feel gray and very respectable. Hard work, climbing the ladder, keeping up with the Jones's, are all phrases that seemed to describe the Eisenhower years without even touching on the big issues of the time - atom bombs, un-American activities, and the like.

But with a new president, in a new decade, much of that seemed to be left behind. Before we knew it newspapers were using words like Camelot and, for the first time in twenty years, it was all right to have a good time without losing the utopian goal of doing good things. Architecture had been driven by its dedication to form and function, serious stuff, and although very commendable, not always too much fun. But, as the sixties dawned, we were ready to allow a little happiness into our pursuit of idealistic goals. Even now the word sixties seems to be yellow and bright, while the word fifties is somewhat drab and dismal.

It started for me a year or so before our kick-off meeting in Ware Street. I was working at TAC (The Architect's Collaborative) on Ben Thompson's projects at Brandeis and Phillips Andover. I had been with TAC for close to four years - four very good years that proved to be the making of me. Before then I had worked in a series of places in England, Canada and Boston, in each being far from satisfied that I had found anything close to what I wanted to do. I had left Edinburgh as both architect and planner, had diplomas in each, and was determined to go out into the world and do some good.

My much enlarged social conscience was an enormous encumbrance and far too big for my skills and abilities. I quickly stumbled over the absurdities of British local government. The great possibilities of the '47 Planning Act had been smothered by the entrenched bureaucrats. At least that's how it seemed to me with my urgent need to do something worthwhile. Dot and I fled to Canada and to architecture where I was able to conceal my lack of experience (at that time I had not worked in an architecture office for longer than a week or two in the summer vacation) by pretending that buildings went together differently in the old country.

I kept quiet and watched and drew and I learned quickly how working drawings were done. I learned nothing about design but I became an absolute whiz at getting accurate and clear drawings out on time. I found that I enjoyed the process and loved putting sections and details down in a way that contractors and workmen could understand. It was fun as long as I did not look too closely at the design my boss was foisting on the fabric of Quebec.

We thought of going back to London (now that I could say I had some architectural know-how) but, before doing so, I thought that it would be wise to work and get experience in one of the great American design offices. And so, after a few hesitations along the way, and after a series of awkward negotiations with the United States Immigration Service, I found myself in 1957 at TAC, able to lead groups doing design and contract documents. The years in the Canadian wilderness had paid off - I found I knew very much more about building methods and contract documents than many of the others in the office, young out of school architects that were full of unrealistic ideas assimilated in college design studios. My experience in Quebec had shown me what was to be avoided but my pragmatic and straightforward approach made it possible to get buildings built and on budget. My design beliefs were still intact and were now based on realistic knowledge of what could be built.

The four years at TAC, working for and with Ben Thompson, were happy years. When I joined Ben's team to work on his two projects at Brandeis, he had not, I believe, done any projects larger than houses. I may be wrong about this but that is what I heard and that is how it seemed to me then. Somehow we groped our way towards completing these projects, getting the contract documents out and construction started. And in so doing Ben found the beginnings of a style that suited him and the university and school campuses of New England.

We all contributed to making this relationship of good brick and carefully poured concrete go happily together. After a few obvious errors and clumsy juxtapositions of materials, the style became more assured. After Brandeis, there was Phillips Andover, and then Chase Banks and, I believe some shops and houses. The teams at “Bensville” (Ben's part of TAC) grew, and among the growing group of hard-working, dedicated architects, Paul Dietrich arrived, and was soon put to working on the Chase branch bank on Long Island. He had worked with Alexander Girrard in Santa Fe and on Girrard's Brussels Exhibition. He helped me a lot on colors, textures and details. I helped him a lot on circulation, construction and on getting the drawings out. We got on very well together. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

In the winter of ‘61-‘62, Paul and I talked a lot. Although we were very different, we found a common belief in the relationship of design disciplines. We both felt that we wanted to do more than straight architecture, which was what most of the offices were doing in Cambridge at that time, and that architecture would benefit from a combined design approach ranging from exhibit design, graphic design, through urban design. A team that had many of these skills, with each member energizing the others and extending their abilities, would produce a different and more exciting architecture. We had dreams and fantasies of a studio that could produce urban settings, exhibits, and perhaps even movies, as well as more straightforward buildings. Paul loved the idea of architecture encompassing exhibits and retail design. I loved the idea of architecture in the urban and regional context. My regional planning and urban design interests and enthusiasms would simply not go away.

So we talked, had lunch together often, wrote memos describing this somewhat elusive idea of many skills in one studio, fed each other ideas and commiserated on our current frustrations. That winter, while still at TAC, we formed a group to enter the Boston City Hall Competition, with Dick White and Morse Payne - a good team and we all had good fun doing it. It obviously did not win. Our entry was a very simple, straight-forward solution - a large, well proportioned cube of poured and pre-cast concrete, nothing like the much more ornate winning scheme by Kallman McKinnell.

I wonder where the drawings of our entry are now? We put a lot of time and effort into it and the lesson learned was that, although we had put in about a thousand hours over two or three months, the odds were still one in four hundred (the number of entries). I remember Paul and I working out afterwards that, if that effort had gone into winning a job where the odds were, say one in six or one in ten (as in interviews for jobs), we would be unbeatable. We resolved that from that point on we would put our energy into competing where we had a much better chance of winning.

My memories of the spring and summer of 1962 are all golden, of sunshine and blue skies. I have not checked the actual weather for that year in case my memories are completely wrong, for I would hate to have to adjust to reality. Perhaps we had the usual share of New England gray skies, fog and drizzle but, no doubt because I was beginning to feel that we were on to something, the trees were greener, the birds were singing and the sun shone day after day.

Paul and I took lunch hours by the river and we talked about "the idea", about the studio with many of the design disciplines all working happily together -a designer's paradise! Among the many ideas and fantasies, one idea kept repeating itself in our dialog - an image of a large, simple loft space, divided in two. On one side architects and designers were producing the drawings necessary to getting buildings built, the other side was completely given over to workshop for the production of design models, full-size mock-ups and anything else that the group felt like trying out. Indeed, we liked the idea that time would be spent on ideas that were not always directly related to contracted projects. After all, the kind of people we wanted in the studio would just be aching to develop new and original ideas.

We were delightfully vague about how all of this would be related to time sheets and how we would meet payroll. But we had visions of people developing ideas for new ways of building, for solar energy, exhibits, and graphics, and even making movies. Eames and Girrard were visions not easily forgotten. It was all delightfully dreamy and no doubt quite impractical. But the visions and images kept us talking and energized. It is good to remember that at that time, Cambridge, although one of the main centers of architecture in the US was full of offices that produced good, straightforward, modem architecture and did not try for much else.

None of the offices had graphic groups, or did exhibits, and we kept coming back to the basic idea for a very wide spectrum of design - urban design at one extreme and exhibits and movies at the other. Architecture in the middle would benefit from both ends. Paul accepted my insistence on movies (I had loved movies of all kinds from my early days with film societies and had some very bad results from attempting to make some). I remember Paul suggesting that, if that was the case, and if liked the idea of film, we should talk to Peter Chermayeff. He had just finished at the GSD, had made "Orange and Blue", and was working on a new movie.

I was a little taken aback at first. The name Chermayeff was big in my architectural upbringing. To me, Serge Chermayeff was one of the "greats", one of those heroes that we had at school who had helped nurse modem architecture into existence. Peter was his son and newly out of design school, but the name was still magic. Although during my years at TAC, I had become at ease in working with Gropius (I had even learned to call him "Grope), I was still somewhat in awe over the big names that were part of the early history or modem architecture.

But here was a young architect actually making movies and, although I was more than a little suspicious of someone so recently from the GSD, it seemed a good idea to meet him. So we went to see Peter. Paul knew where to find him. Paul was good at keeping tabs on people around the Square. He had been through the GSD; Serge had been one of his studio masters. Meeting and knowing people were things that Paul did well.

Peter was renting a small space from Fred Stone and was very busy on an ambitious movie project about the terrible power of nuclear weapons. I don't know if we were very good at explaining our ideas to Peter but our enthusiasms were perhaps every bit as infectious as his. Perhaps Peter, recently out of school, was taken by the fact that these two relatively ancient practitioners of architecture were interested in trying something different (after a11 both of us had slogged around various offices for close to ten years). Perhaps he was intrigued by the possibility that we could help in bringing some of the ideas bouncing around in his mind to fruition. I don't know what he thought then, but at least he did not reject our ideas completely. Nor did he embrace them. We all agreed to go off and think, and get back together soon. He was cautious and we were cautious.

We met a number of times after that in Peter's little workspace. The meetings tended to be in his place and in our lunch hour, when we could be away from TAC. Paul and I did not like spending extra office activities on TAC time so, as time went on and, as we all began to formulate something a little more definite than ideas, more meetings and phone calls were made from Peter’s.

Peter had, it seemed, started to come round to our basic idea of a multi-disciplined studio, and we did not outright reject his great enthusiasm for zoos. During the second or third meeting he had said that one of his ambitions was to design zoos and that zoos required just what we were talking about - landscape and layout design, architecture, exhibits and graphics, and audio-visual shows and movies.

My first reaction had been negative. I hated, and to some extent still do, the idea of wonderful wild animals in captivity. Ever since seeing, during my boyhood, elephants, big cats and seals confined in the Edinburgh Zoo, I had avoided zoos and circuses. But Peter argued that the reason that I hated zoos was the very reason that something had to be done. And, something that I had not given much thought to, animals in the wild were fighting a rearguard battle for survival in the face of expanding development, and well thought out zoos could be a way to protect them. Bad zoos were one thing, good zoos something quite different.

We all agreed that zoos were typical projects that required comprehensive design but that there were many others and that we must not lose sight of those others. We did not actually list the others but, I think, we all had ideas of exhibit buildings, transportation, public attractions, and the like. The important thing is that we kept on talking. The basic idea was beginning to take hold of our energy and enthusiasm.

We decided to explore what was out there in the world of zoos. At that time Boston's zoos were in the care (if that was the word) of the Metropolitan District. We quickly discovered that we had no chance of getting any zoo work without political connections (and all that that implied about political fund raising). In the world of Massachusetts' s politics we were but babes in the woods. But, in the course of conversations with the Zoo Director, we learned that there was talk of a new aquarium for Boston to replace the excuse for one in South Boston and that it would be privately owned and run. There should be little politics involved and no close ties with political fund raising.

We went into action. In retrospect it seems quite amazing that it did not occur to any of us that we might be considered insolent upstarts, elbowing our way into the preserves of Boston's old and established offices.

For Paul and I, this was a project that brought all our ideas together. For Peter this was the chance to design for living animals. For all of us, this was the chance to tell a story that had to be told and was the perfect vehicle for the kind of studio that we all wanted. We started talking to the newly appointed director of the yet to be designed and not yet fully budgeted aquarium. Lou Finneran was a strange man, not the usual type one finds as director of a complex attraction.

Our enthusiasm reached him and he must have recognized that here was a new group, able to bring new and very exciting ideas into the world of marine exhibitry. Until this point the aquarium selection committee had been talking only to the older Boston firms who were given to pointing to a gentlemanly past in the design of big civic buildings, university colleges and other glories; nothing about telling the stories of exciting living things in a way that would give the public an understanding of the complex relationships in the seas. And nothing about making an attraction that could attract crowds of school children and adults.

After incessant phone calls, the aquarium committee decided to grant us an interview. Perhaps they reluctantly agreed to put us on the list and, if my memory serves me, they gave us until the next day to get the letter to them. Perhaps it was two days or even more. All I remember now is that it was a ridiculously short time and, at first, that it seemed almost impossible to meet their deadline.

So there we were a group with an idea, a lot of enthusiasm, no name, no entity, and certainly no letterhead with an official title. All we had was the far-out chance to get an interview for a very difficult to land job. Things started to move fast, very fast, as they had to if there was any chance of winning through. In the next few days decisions were made quickly. They were made instinctively, and many were good decisions, but whether good or not so good, they were decisions that we were to live with for many years. Much of our actions in these few days structured the firm for most of its life until the enormous changes of the nineties.

We decided to call a meeting to investigate the formation of a group and had hurried discussions on just who should be invited. Peter wanted his older brother Ivan, who had been through the mill of starting his own design office in New York, and Ivan wanted to bring his partner Tom Geismar. So that made five. Paul and I worried (he and I worried a lot in those few days) that although we had wanted an office that could do much more than architecture, the balance could swing over to one with far too little architectural know-how. Lou Bakanowsky was suggested, as Paul and I had worked with him during summers at TAC and he had been at the GSD, and was a good friend of Peter's. Peter wanted Alden Christy. He thought that he was one of the best designers at Harvard and Paul and I, on meeting him, discovered his delightful humor and personality. We suggested Dick White who we had worked with on the City Hall Competition.

We assembled for our first meeting at Peter's second floor apartment on Ware Street. It was a hot night, the windows were open to the street and the little room was full. Tom and Ivan had come up from New York. There were seven in the room and here my memory fails me, for I cannot remember if Lou was there or Dick White. One was missing. If all those that had been suggested had shown up there would have been eight. Cambridge Eight Associates? That would not have been right at all and would never, I am pretty sure, have been considered!

As there were seven relatively young and enthusiastic people in the room, the discussion was loud and undisciplined. No one was in charge, no one was a leader but reasonable manners prevailed and decisions were made. The first subject discussed was to confirm if we were to go after the aquarium or not. Was it a project that fitted in with our ideas? What were our ideas? I seem to remember we talked that through quite a bit. Basically we were all in agreement about an office that did more than straight architecture. Did the aquarium meet these objectives? Certainly it did. All liked the idea of a very different kind of public attraction, one that would educate and entertain and provide a good environment for marine animals. So, in short, we decided to go for it.

But who were we? We decided to form an office with the people in the room. Somehow the fact that there might be too many for an efficiently working group did not seem to occur to us then. Perhaps the chances of winning through to an actual working office seemed too remote for us to wonder if we were too clumsy or too heavy. Many names were suggested for the group and many were rejected for many reasons. The word "Cambridge" was often in the suggestions, "design" was often there, "architectural associates" and the like, but little clicked. We checked the Yellow Pages and found that some of our ideas for naming a group were already taken.

It was, I think, Ivan who finally suggested that, as there were seven of us in the room, what would be wrong with "Cambridge Seven Associates"? It took a little time to sink in. At the beginning it sounded awkward and very different from the names of design firms that were known. But it grew on us. "Seven" was a magic number and the fact that it was different made it all the more appealing. It had a ring to it, and as we had to become a definite entity fast, and had to get a letterhead designed and printed, heading a letter that told the aquarium board that we were interested, it was adopted.

So in a matter of an hour or two, we had decided on going ahead with a definite name and a cast of characters. In the next day or so Dick White bailed out and Lou was definitely in. Seven we were and these seven remained for the next year or so until Alden, plagued with medical problems, left and went to work in Baltimore. The letterhead was worked out, we had a few samples printed the next day using his office address and number, a letter was composed quickly, and we waited to see what would happen.

We heard quickly that we were to be allowed to interview the next week. Perhaps my memory is exaggerating the speed that it all happened. Perhaps we were given two or three weeks notice but in retrospect, it seemed no time at all. Paul and I were very busy at TAC on Andover and the Chase Bank, but we did what we could in lunch hours, evenings and weekends. We rented a space in Harvey Street, did a proper letterhead, got a telephone installed, set up old doors and saw-horses for tables (two?) and sat on boxes. Eventually I brought old drawing boards and stools from our place in Wayland, formerly the country office of one of the spin-off architects from H.H. Richardson's office, Frank Irving Cooper.

But first, somehow, we had to put together a presentation to the Aquarium Board. We realized that there was little hope in outsmarting the opposition with pictures of past work. We had none to speak of, and I did not feel good about using TAC slides of the work that I had done there. Our only hope was to do an end-run around the others and inundate the selection committee with ideas on exhibiting fish and marine animals in ways never thought of before. The opposition offices were going to show beautifully bound pictures of important public projects done in and around Boston over many decades. We intended to snow them with ideas for water exhibits, fish tunnels and underwater passages, using glass, water and optics as never before.

First we had to make slides of these ideas, slides of drawings, models and diagrams. Ivan produced a script, Alden did drawings, and Lou and I spent two long weekend days and nights in Harvey Street making models for slide photography. I was amazed at Lou's inventiveness in thinking of ways to show great ideas from very little, using, at one time two or three carousel projectors, back projecting images of fish and marine mammals on to vellum back-drops. The result of all this effort, the drawings, diagrams, models and s1ight-of-hand was a show of ideas very different from anything that current aquarium people had dared to think.

The interview itself was something of a disaster. Ivan, Peter and I were to go. Ivan wrote a script for the presentation and Peter edited a slide show, brimming with the ideas drawn and photographed by us all. I was also to attempt to minimize our somewhat limited experience and abilities in getting projects out, producing contracts and construction documents, and being at ease with consultants and contractors. The interview was in the rather grand conference room of the law firm of one of the board members.

We entered the room loaded down with projectors, screen and boards and hastily produced scripts and handouts. The selection committee had arranged themselves on the facing side of the huge conference table. We were to occupy the chairs facing them; six or seven of them, three of us. It all smacked of a court martial, all very serious and formidable. They had clearly assumed that we would come armed only with brochures and leather bound binders of well-known projects to be passed around from hand to hand We proceeded to rearrange the carefully prearranged layout by setting up a screen and projector, and hunting for an outlet for the projector with the help of committee members, some even on their hands and knees.

When the dust settled, the room no longer resembled a court martial. Some of the selection committee found themselves on each side of one end of the table and we were more or less at the other end near the screen. The formality was broken. The actual interview must have been reasonably successful. Our intention to "snow" them worked and we did indeed dump on them more ideas for marine exhibits than any had bargained for or ever imagined. Ivan read from a very formal script, Peter showed slides with great enthusiasm and sincerity and I think that I attempted to bolster our know-how of the professional side of things. I have no memory of what I actually said although I assume that I did stutter something.

There were, if my memory serves me, few questions from the committee about our ideas of what an aquarium could and should be. They were, I think, quite taken aback that someone should show ideas, good and carefully thought through ideas, instead of pompous, civic architecture. They did seem quite enthusiastic. They raised questions about our abilities to produce and we did try to answer as best we could (I took most of the load here) by talking consultants and drawing schedules etc. and give the general impression that we had we had been involved in complex buildings many, many, times before. We left not knowing whether we had reached them or not, whether we bad a ghost of a chance, or if we would ever hear more than a polite thank-you.

I had been to similar interviews while at TAC, interviews for schools and university buildings, but had never been at an interview quite like this one. It had gone much better than I had dared to hope and I was tickled pink that it had been quite so much fun. But I thought right after the interview that we had only a small chance of winning though.

We were not rejected; neither were we immediately selected. Dialog went forward during the next days and weeks on a cautious basis. We were hearing that the committee and Finneran were very much taken by the very different and very fresh ideas shown. But it was obvious to them that we were a bunch of enthusiasts with no established entity and little capability of getting a complex building done on schedule and budget. We talked a lot about convincing them, of reassuring them that we not only were full of winning aquarium ideas, but were also efficient professionals.

Bill Lemessurier had recently formed a joint venture with Tad Stahl and John Bennett (also a brand new firm with no experience) to make a convincing entity to produce the State Street Bank building downtown. So we approached him and he was willing to do the same for us. He knew me, as he was the structural engineer on the projects that I had done for Ben Thompson. A joint venture was suggested and negotiations continued. Without Bill Lemessurier at that key point, I doubt that we would ever have been able to get off the ground.

Soon it became clear that we had gradually been able to win their confidence, that the talk going on was no longer talk full of doubts and uncertainties, but was now exploring ways for getting outstanding problems solved. Slowly everything began to fall into place. There were meetings with lawyers, and partners and eventually a contract signing. We were officially in business with, for a new and beginning firm, a real, huge and important project.

We were all a little dazed by the speed of it all. After it became clear that we had won though, before the
contract was finalized, I officially left TAC, and Peter and I became the full-time office. Paul, with children to feed, could not follow for close to a year, but Peter and I could take the risk. Claire, Peter's wife, was working, and Dot was a free-lance fashion artist, with variable earnings only just able to support us. When I look back at our tax retums for ‘62, ‘63 and ‘64, I realize just how little C7A was able to pay us. When I left TAC, I certainly did not know just how thin the next years would be. But by the end of 1962, before it dawned on me that we would be eating sparingly for many months to come, I was on a high. We were all on a high.

Very soon we left the rented space on Harvey Street and took space above the Church Street Garage (now a parking lot), which had been used for car storage. It was large, bleak, cold and drafty and had a smell of gasoline and oil. It had an automobile sized elevator. We thought, in a moment of mirth that it would work out well for bringing in clients by car, bringing them and their car up the lift, and opening the car door for them in the conference room. Those old fashioned Boston firms could never do that!

We partitioned off reception space, drafting studio and a conference room, did the framing, gypsum-boarding, taping and painting ourselves, when we were not haggling over fees or going to quickly arranged meetings downtown with the aquarium people. I can't forget sitting in their conference space, having recently changed into suit and tie, realizing that both Peter and my hands were spattered with white from a very recently left morning of painting. For the first few weeks, we seemed to spend more time on top of ladders than on drawing boards. Then quite soon after we were hustling to produce drawings and models and, not too much later, we hired our first employee, Sally Daugherty, as receptionist, bookkeeper, typist and all.

We were becoming quite respectable. We had an employee, an office, a name, an address and a very wonderful project.

Editorial note: G.W. Terry Rankine FAIA passed away March 3, 2013. Read his obituary online

This article is re-published courtesy of Cambridge Seven Associates. Photo courtesy of the estate of Terry Rankine.