Skip to content

Remembering Ben Thompson

February 10, 2010

At the time architect Ben Thompson was selected to design the campus for Kirkland College, he was Dean of the Harvard School of Architecture and a member of The Architects Collaborative, known as TAC.  Other members of TAC included modernist Walter Gropius, a Bauhaus leader.

Shortly after being chosen by the Kirkland Trustees, Thompson went out on his own to form Benjamin Thompson Associates, or BTA in Cambridge, MA (Limited Engagement, p.90-91).  Thus, the Kirkland campus was one of this distinguished firm’s first projects.

A Kirkland Charter Class member, Daphne Petri’72, contributed this memory:

Throughout my time at Kirkland I served on the Trustee Committee for Physical Plant. … that committee really did launch my life. On the Physical Plant committee we worked through issues of campus design, construction scheduling and details and programming for spaces. Benjamin Thompson would occasionally attend these meetings.

I think it is fair to say that Ben Thompson was vague, inspired, infuriating, exciting and a genius. He would show us slides of some far off place where people were interacting and would make connections to this campus with young women learning and growing. He would get excited about some new idea that the educational program was presenting that had big implications for the Architecture. He was engaging and excited about our campus. He respected my opinion as one of the members of the committee. He valued the process of design and the people who were engaged in it. He made us see the site as as important for the buildings as the buildings. He loved to talk to the Trustees about the flowers that were growing when they wanted to talk about costs.

We worked through many issues about how big the buildings were going to be and how the dorms would be arranged and what kind of furniture there would be. We interviewed students about how the first dorms were working for them. We debated all issues of size and configuration. Sam would have met with them many times in between, so much was left to be brought up to speed.

Two summers during my time at Kirkland I worked at Ben Thompson’s office in Cambridge. He would give me things to do that were related to Kirkland or to similar projects. I worked on teams in the office and really learned how the whole process of Architecture was completed. Each fall I would return to campus to see how things had progressed. I am sure that all the hours I logged at BTA enriched my whole college experience immeasurably.

For many people the buildings may seem stark and harsh. It was Ben’s attitude that the people and the colors and movement of life activated the spaces and the architecture. He believed in making the buildings have a sense of simplicity and sustainability. I dont particularly like the aesthetic of the campus, but I got the intent and appreciated the full picture he was creating.

There were moments years later when Sam and I talked about Ben and what it was like to work with him. I went on to work in his office for 8 years during and after architecture school. There was so much to accomplish and sometimes he was so much of the artist and so little of the type of person to get things done. But I also learned the strength of the office that he had built where everyone was valued and the team studio collaborative model was used in his office well before that became the norm.

More on Thompson’s career can be found at these sites:

Benjamin Thompson Associates

Williams College Archives

Other Thompson buildings can be viewed at:

Harvard Law School, Griswold Hall

Harvard GSE Gutman Library

Design Research Headquarters

Faneuil Hall Marketplace

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam Babbitt permalink
    February 10, 2010 7:11 pm

    It’s great to see Daphne’s (aka Duffy) comments on Ben Thompson, and I think she nailed his mixture of off-the-wallness and remarkable insight. I retain a momento from a typical Ben flourish. On some occasion – probably a building dedication – he arrived at the last minute and then rushed back to his car and reappeared with an enormous armful of sensational tall flowers (lillies? Something tall and elegant) and a splendid glass cylinrical vase, about two and one-half feet tall. He arranged them carefully so that they lit up the space where we were.
    The flowers are gone, but I still have the vase, and I think of Ben every time we use it.

    • February 10, 2010 9:34 pm

      In writing this, and being together with a dear friend from days of working at BTA recently, other rich memories are surfacing. Ben assigned be to assist Ezra Stoller in photographing the campus buildings. Stoller, a nationally recognized Architectural photographer, arrived with his own van full of equipment and people. I was there to make sure he had the access that he needed. Ben knew that I would learn something from that day.
      Ezra walked the campus with me watching and taking in the light and the landscape and the buildings. He took out his compass. He walked close to the buildings and far off into the fields. He watched carefully as the clouds created patterns in the sky and on the buildings.
      After many hours of walking and him making marks in a small book, he began to set up for photo shoots. I spent the rest of the day admiring how the light and the spaces came alive. I felt the magic in the space that was in between the buildings. I even felt some of the magic that Ben felt about the campus. It was softened by the light and the grass and hillsides.
      I learned to see something different about and in Architecture that day. I still walk and listen and watch before I photograph. I try and be patient like Ezra was that day and probably every time he photographed.

      • February 10, 2010 10:06 pm

        Some of those gorgeous photographs can be viewed (and purchased!) at Stoller’s website: Type “Kirkland College” into the box under “search stock photography” and see what comes up.

        Daphne – do you suppose you could help us get permission to post those here?

  2. joanne papanek orlando permalink
    February 11, 2010 8:03 pm

    I grew up in a suburb of Cambridge. One of my favorite stores was a big concrete building on Brattle Street, a short walk from Harvard Square. “Design Research” had great Marimekko clothes, lots of stairs,big windows and a concrete exterior. The first time I saw the Kirkland campus it was like going home. When I decided Kirkland was the college for me, I packed up my Marimekkos (I think I still own one dress), and went into my stamped concrete dorm , ( one that was actually finished) realizing I had made the right decision. It was only later that I learned Ben Thompson had designed both my college and a building that was a part of my high school years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: