Throughout his career Ben Thompson defied categorization. He founded two substantial architectural firms; was a teacher and head of an architectural school; an influential designer, importer, and marketer of furniture and furnishings; a successful restaurateur — and, through all these, often concurrent careers, a fervent apostle of hope for the revival of cities.
Ben characterized his entry into architecture and design as a “lucky chance.” He was raised in an artistic environment and exposed to the vitality of European cities by his mother, a painter, writer, and early collector of modern art, who encouraged his energetic drawing and painting. After initial studies at the University of Virginia, he received a BFA in architecture from Yale in 1941. There he experienced the tension between an entrenched Beaux Arts tradition and an emerging Modernism. As a student, he focused on socially-oriented problems, such as experimental schools: education was to become a crucial concern of his first two decades of practice.
In 1946, after serving five years as an officer in the Navy and participating in the founding conference of the UNO, Ben and some friends from Yale invited Walter Gropius to join them in a new cooperative practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They called it The Architects Collaborative — “TAC.” It was to be a living demonstration of teamwork in the search for appropriate architectural expression. A singularly close personal relationship developed between Ben and Gropius, in whom Ben enjoyed the tutelage of an idealistic, tolerant, worldly mentor.
Ben’s work at TAC reflected an increasing interest in regionally appropriate expression and materials — and particularly in brick as a material which could lend not just texture and color but humanity to a building because its basic module is scaled to the human hand and eye. The texture of brick, sometimes painted, became a counterpoint to the planar logic of plate glass and structural concrete, which was often bush-hammered to a stone-like surface. By the 1960s, Ben had developed a rationalist vo-cabulary based upon the inherent freedom of the exposed two-way concrete waffle slab. It allowed variations in span and configuration in response to demands of program and site without sacrificing tectonic logic. It promoted a freedom of plan, space, and window-wall treatment, with great flexibility in response to uneven terrain, and encouraged a dynamic asymmetry of plan that retained a consistent sense of humanity and scale.
Paralleling his sensitivity to site and context, Ben developed an interest in the adaptive reuse of old buildings. In the late 1950s he renovated the historic dormitories within Harvard Yard — giving them new interior arrangements without visible exterior changes. Shortly thereafter he persuaded Harvard not to raze Boylston Hall, an 1857 academic building, but rather to remodel it. There, however, he subtly juxtaposed new details with the historic fabric.
Meanwhile, in 1953, Ben had entered the world of interior design and, as important, of retailing by opening a shop called Design Research — always known as D|R. By the 1960s D|R would become the most influential showcase of modern domestic design in the U.S. Through it, Ben introducing a generation of Americans to well designed and crafted, and often specially commissioned products — such as the bold Marimekko fabrics and fashions from Finland. D|R added stores in New York (1964) and San Francisco (1965). D|R’s Cambridge headquarters building (1969), which he designed, remains a landmark in his oeuvre and in the Harvard Square townscape. The totally transparent, glass-walled D|R building — five floors of shopping-as-theater — was his first exploration of the marketplace environment and an explicit statements of his belief in architecture as an unobstructive neutral container for the “natural chaos and unpredictability of life.”
Ben was also teaching at Harvard during these years and in 1964 Gropius selected him to succeed Gropius as Department Chairman. Ben’s four-year tenure was devoted to actively relating design education to social needs and to Ben’sconcern for the natural and urban environments. He introduced a “real world” teaching methodology, emphasizing knowledge of materials, respect for the craft of construction, understanding the building's purpose, and recognition of its true users. Teachers from varied disciplines conveyed a clearer sense of the real (as opposed to abstract and academic) tasks of architecture. He encouraged the design studio and working office to intermingle, merging theory and practice, using real issues, people, and design procedures. He also used his position more broadly. Across the country, in academic settings and professional gather-ings, he argued against academicism in architecture and against a sterile impersonal attitude toward planning that was equally hostile to nature and community patterns. He argued for quality, human scale, craftsmanship, compassion, and an elusive quality — joy.
In 1966, Ben left TAC to establish Benjamin Thompson & Associates — “BTA.” He wanted more control over his work, so that it might better reflect his growing concern with the larger implications of architecture for the culture and spirit of cities, and for the diminishing quality of the natural environment. BTA's direction was strongly influenced by the social upheavals of the times. He renounced the intellectualization of “inevitable” urban decay, arguing that there had to be a vision of what a city could and should be. His 1966 essay, “Visual Squalor and Social Disorder,” addressed the effects of the built environment on human behavior and argued for an architecture of “joy and sensibility” as a norm for modern urban life.
That idea became both an ideal, which he called “The City of Man,” and a vital part of every BTA undertaking. The City of Man had to reflect human scale and involvement with social activity, and equally an awareness of nature and of things natural: of changing seasons, of orientation to water, and of places “intimate by day and radiant by night,” where the “lovely unpredictability of life” would be nurtured and experienced on a daily basis. To make the “City of Man” more tangible, he developed a triple-image impressionistic slide show accompanied only by music — a living collage of his favorite urban experiences as a model of a better world. This unique modeling technique became a key component of his design method and encouraged his further exploration of the City of Man ideal.
There also had to be working examples of the City of Man: viable, true-to-life, ur-ban demonstrations. In 1967 he proposed reviving Boston's historic markets with food stalls, cafes, restaurants, and pushcarts, all operated by local merchants. Ben’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace opened in 1976 and was an immediate commercial and popular success — and a model of adaptive historic rehabilitation by an architect of unimpeachable modernist credentials. It demonstrated his theories of the evolution of buildings over time, in response to growth, changing uses, and new techniques, and was a working prototype for part of his vision of a revived urban life. With Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Ben “invented” a new building type, the “festival marketplace.” BTA subsequently designed market-places in various cities — each responsive to its circumstances and requiring a different form and design solution. South Street Seaport in Manhattan (1985), the most complex of these, was also the first of many comprehensive urban waterfront reclamation projects oriented to pedestrian pleasure and amenity.
Beginning the 1960s, Ben’s active and essential partner in all ventures, including BTA, D|R, and the restaurants that they opened in the 1970s and ran for many years — first Harvest in Harvard Square and then several in Faneuil Hall Marketplace — was his wife, Jane Fiske McC. Thompson.
In 1984 Ben built the Ordway Music Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota — the first of two carefully crafted multi-hall performance centers whose public spaces celebrate the communal nature of attending a play or concert.
If Ben may have appeared a less than orthodox modernist in the 1950s and 1960s — sometimes seeming conservative in his concern for existing buildings and contexts — by the Post Modernist 1980s BTA's work seemed equally unconventional because it eschewed explicit PoMo references to traditional styles. Instead, it unashamedly combined modern directness of materials with inspiration drawn from vernacular and contextual sources. Ben’s goals and collaborative method of design — rooted in his early association with Gropius — remained consistent. Having never accepted arbitrary rules of style, having held to the primacy of functional, sensory, and ethical issues, Ben steered a personal course, designing with instinctive regard for the character of the site, the animation of water, the play of light and shadow, while using materials with direct simplicity. For Ben the “reading” of a building — its tale of what it does, how it stands up, its layers of history — was the essence of architectural expression.
In the late 1980s Ben’s ideal “City of Man” was realized on a larger scale through comprehensive mixed-use city scale planning/design projects — most relating to waterside settings. Auckland, Amsterdam, Cardiff, and Glasgow accepted BTA masterplans for revitalizing major sites on neglected river fronts and harbor edges and BTA carried through designs for reclamation of Dublin's historic Custom House Docks. With these comprehensive proposals, Ben explored a new urban genre that integrated multiple uses into balanced city districts combining old and new elements within a carefully controlled sense of scale, and incorporating traditional street and site patterns.
In addition to numerous design awards, Ben has received honorary doctorates from Colby College, The University of Massachusetts, and Minnesota College of Art and Design. In 1987 BTA received the AIA Firm Award and in 1992 Ben was honored with the AIA Gold Medal.Ben retired from active professional life in 1993.