It's a perennial topic of conversation in architectural circles: what to do about City Hall? Both the building and the surrounding plaza draw ire from government officials, citizens, and design aficionados alike. On the occasion of the opening of Design Museum Boston's exhibit Creative Capital: Designed in Boston
on City Hall's 9th floor, we're taking a look at City Hall itself. Today's post is the first in a series on Boston City Hall.
In the past several years, Boston City Hall has been named an "ugliest building
" and chosen
for the Project for Public Spaces' "Hall of Shame." Mayor Menino has even proposed selling the site
and building a new city hall in the Seaport District. (Architects claim
that demolishing the cast-cement structure could be a task too daunting for developers to undertake.)
The building is the product of a 1961 competition initiated by Mayor John F. Collins. The first competition project for a major American city hall in decades (the previous one was San Francisco's, in 1901), Collins and his advisers were inspired to undertake a competition after the success of competitions for such projects as St. Louis's Gateway Arch (1947) and Sydney's Opera House (1955). Entries had to conform to a number of regulations, including a height maximum (so as not to block the view of nearby Faneuil Hall). The jury, made up of architects and captains of industry, ultimately selected a proposal by relative newcomers--Columbia University professors Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell. Later responsible for such local landmarks as Back Bay Station and the DeCordova Museum, Kallmann and McKinnell adhered to a style that, though avant-garde in 1961, has grown dated in the eyes of many. Brutalism, so called after the French term for raw concrete (beton brut
), was in some ways a reaction to the glass-box style that the early modernists pioneered. In Kallmann's words, brutalism "in its physical concreteness and firmness of build, strives for a confirmation of identity and existence to counter the modern fear of nothingness."
Though initially lauded by architects and critics, the building did provoke some negative reactions from the start. According to legend, when the design was unveiled to an audience of government officials, some gasped, and one called out, "What the hell is that?" Collins, however, remained enthusiastic, and in the last days of his administration, he demanded to go to work in his new office in the brutalist structure. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of the building was rather undeveloped--the elevators, clocks, and heating system didn't work--and Collins contracted pneumonia as a result of the building's flaws. City employees still complain about poor ventilation and dark interiors.
In an interview with the Boston Globe three years ago, Kallmann responded to the criticisms leveled at his creation these past 30 years: "You know, City Hall is unpopular just now, but we can wait. At the time, it was shocking to some because it was at the edge of advanced architecture. But my partner, Michael McKinnell, and I wanted something that would last and not be just a fashion of the moment. The nature of public buildings is that they're signature buildings and, therefore, should be of interest over time."
Next in our series on Boston City Hall: a closer look at Kallmann and McKinnell's ideology. Why did they choose the forms they did? How did their design represent a progressive, optimistic, transparent government in a city confronted by urban problems?