The box the building came in
With Boston City Hall turning fifty, the Boston Globe (February 12, 2012) decided now would be a good time for writer Leon Neyfakhto argue that somehow the spark that triggered Boston’s revival, and is today its guiding spirit, was this ugly concrete structure:
City Hall design, 1962: you’ll like it better when it’s built – not!
City Hall, 2005: well, nobody can say they were misled about its appearance
Lifting the curtain on its history reveals not just the grand ideals that went into its design, but also that, however it may divide architects and regular Bostonians today, it played a pivotal role in bringing our once moribund city back to life.
Obviously all this has to go? Scollay Square, 1959
The Globe’s claim conflates several ideas:
- The city’s rebound started in the early 1960s.
- Dramatic public-sector urban investment, namely the creation of City Hall Plaza, triggered the city’s rebound.
- Choosing this particular design, Brutalist and ugly, was the key to giving the public confidence.
All of these premises are rickety to say the least. The first is historically false – the city hit bottom in 1974-75 (coincidentally, just as I was graduating from college and trying to find a job).
Kevin White’s 1975 Quincy market marks a more plausible trunaround point
The second is at least partially true – but the third is the real howler, both the building and the brick wasteland that is City Hall Plaza.
Whatever else you might think about it, Boston City Hall is an improbable building. Call it a giant concrete harmonica or a bold architectural achievement, but to walk by this strange, asymmetrical structure in Government Center is to wonder how on earth it landed there.
Long ago, City Hall was dubbed “the box the building came in” and even today it can win polls for the world’s ugliest building.
In the weeks after Kallmann and McKinnell’s design was selected, their model was placed on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, and thousands of curious Bostonians dropped by to take a peek. What they found was like no government building they’d seen: a blocky, fortress-like thing made of gray concrete and covered with curious, geometric protrusions. Some said the building looked like a pigeon cage. Others said it reminded them of an Aztec gas station. The headline in the Globe said it all: “It Will Grow on You, 3 Architects Predict.”
It’ll grow on you, 3 Women predict
Those three architects were wrong.
Boston City Hall has come in for significant criticism over the years. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has proposed selling it and investing in a more conventional headquarters.
Boston was a very different place then. Until the 1950s, it had been a city “dying on the vine,” as US News & World Report put it, and the situation had improved only marginally when Collins took office in 1960. Economically stagnant, notoriously in thrall to political corruption, the city had seen little development for decades. As business owners decamped and residents fled to the suburbs, a fear took hold that Boston would soon be hollowed out for good.
A fear accelerated, or at least accompanied, by a spate of highway building so that new suburbanites could speed their way through or over the dying grimy city.
When in down, demolish
It was in this context that the city decided to demolish the neighborhood known as Scollay Square and build in its place what would come to be called Government Center.
At the time, Scollay Square, like many a warren-streeted urban core, was a honky-tonk heaven and the slum clearance advocates were in their ascendancy.
Scollay Square, 1906: the original sweep of streets
All this activity has got to go
So they leveled it and reseeded the vacated space with a brick plaza to assure that nothing resembling human activity would ever sprout there again.
Don’t worry, we’ll soon round up those scattered pedestrians
Fifty years later, City Hall Plaza is still a useless waste area, always empty, just a swatch of nothingness that you walk across going from somewhere to somewhere else. It is always empty. People do not gather there.
Where would you naturally head?
In the photo above, the appealing curvilinear building at left is Sears Crescent, built in 1816 and 1848 and periodically renovated throughout the decades.
Forceful and bewildering, Kallmann and McKinnell’s Boston City Hall would be the centerpiece of this controversial plan to revitalize Boston’s economy and convince its citizens — and the world — that the city was changing.
In the 50 years since, architects worldwide have declared Kallmann and McKinnell’s City Hall one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century.
Oh? Have they ever been inside it?
No one from the government is here to help you
One could put it into Fahrenheit 451 or THX 1138 with nary a change of signboards.
Montag, Montag, time to go to work
Here to protect and to serve
And yet its relationship with the people of Boston has remained uneasy, even hostile: Many regard the building as unwelcoming, cold, and ugly, while those who work inside complain about its poor lighting, ineffective heating system, and labyrinthine layout.
Those who work inside City Hall are correct. The atrium is chilly, dark, forbidding, and confusing. Instead of welcoming you and helping you find where you are going, it places in an inner courtyard, isolated and wondering something as simple as where the elevators are.
And then all the people died …
That inviting staircase leads to a mezzanine unconnected to most of the rest of City Hall. Few people use it.
“Art is not what pleases you immediately,” said Kallmann recently at his Cambridge apartment, speaking slowly in his faint German accent. “It is not pretty-pretty, easy on the eye.”
City Hall is a building that no one can embrace. It is a building as a dead monument. The naked concrete is meant never to be painted, never tapestried, never decorated. City Hall has the ambience of a parking garage.
If you see a person, be sure he will not help you
“That is operetta stuff. That is Rodgers and Hammerstein…. That is not what we did.”
On the architects’ side are flowery phrases. On the critics’ side are facts.
Even Kallmann and McKinnell’s most passionate defense of their creation might not persuade critics to appreciate its bleak, windswept plaza or maze of concrete corridors.
The plaza is bleak. The corridors are concrete. The building is unwelcoming; everything about it says, go away, the state is important and you are not.
Despite the 20-year gap between them, the two became friends, united in their admiration of European architects like Le Corbusier, as well as their disdain for the “corporate modernism” then dominating New York City: sleek, dull skyscrapers held up by steel frames and wrapped in taut skins of glass.
Within a handful of years Boston had put up one such building, the John Hancock Tower.
How dull, how ordinary?
Today it is much more photographed than City Hall, and the plaza it adjoins, Copley Square, is infinitely more lively than City hall Plaza.
Maybe we should have demolished the church too
By contrast, the buildings that most excited McKinnell and Kallmann adhered to the principles of an architectural aesthetic called Brutalism, whose practitioners favored exposed concrete above all other materials, and prioritized authenticity over gleam and ornament.
Brutal they were, and brutal they are. Brutalism is seen universally – at least, by everyone except a handful of architects – as a horrible misconception of urban space.
McKinnell and Kallmann decided to enter the competition with two somewhat discordant goals in mind: to challenge people’s concept of how a monumental civic building should look, and to evoke a sense of optimism about democratic government.
Honestly, does this building give you a sense of optimism? Or a sense of inclusive government? Take a look at the city council chamber:
The tribunal will now render its verdict
It looks a temporary tribunal borrowing the space until the office tenant actually moves in.
“You must remember this was 1962,” McKinnell said. “John Kennedy had just been elected president. And at least in young people, there was a tremendous sense of faith and investment and trust in the idea of government.” To capture that feeling, the architects sought to make their City Hall accessible and transparent. The design featured an open space in the center of the building that people could enter directly from the plaza, and external features — those large protruding bumps — showing the locations of the City Council Chamber and the Mayor’s Office.
Yet City Hall is neither accessible nor transparent.
But we are potent and opaque
“It really doesn’t work for municipal government,” Mr. Menino said. “The building is unfriendly, cold, and the way it’s structured, it has a third floor only on one side and it doesn’t have a fourth floor.”
It looms like an angular gargoyle over the site.
Why can’t I perch on Boston City Hall?
The overhanging balconies resemble nothing so much as battlements with machicolations.
Got the boiling oil ready?
Through such holes a castle’s defender dropped rocks and boiling oil on their besiegers.
Should have added these to City Hall
On May 3, 1962, a crowd of 300 people, including city officials, journalists, and many of the competition finalists, gathered at the MFA to hear the results. Renderings of the eight designs hung on the walls, but all eyes were on the table in the middle of the room, where the winning model had been placed underneath a white sheet.
A finalist: Darth lego?
No one but the jurors — not even Mayor Collins — knew which it was, and McKinnell and Kallmann peered at it, trying to ascertain whether it could be theirs.
Another finalist: God’s toilet bowl?
When the sheet was lifted to reveal their model, there were gasps in the room. One person reportedly exclaimed, “What the hell is that?” Dazed and elated, the winning architects went to shake hands with a no less befuddled Collins.
When in doubt, smile (Collins is the shortest figure visible)
Under the terms of the competition, the city was under no obligation to actually build the winning design. But Collins wanted to honor the process.
“His attitude was: I told them to do it, they did it, so I’ll go along with it,” said Thomas O’Connor, the Boston College historian and author of Building a New Boston. “And he accepted [it] with the best grace he could under the circumstances.”
Hail, Mayor, full of grace? O’Connor
Though I respect his deference to a fair process, in hindsight they should have built something else.
Reaction from the architectural community was rapturous. That this complex work of modernism designed by a pair of unknown iconoclasts would be built in Boston was hard to believe. Suddenly, said Yale School of Architecture dean Robert Stern, Boston was “seen as the great new urban experimental center, where new work could go side by side with Faneuil Hall.”
In favor of experiment on cities: Robert Stern
After City Hall’s completion, Bostonians commonly complained that the place was an inscrutable, inhospitable eyesore. And yet the broader effort that had led to its construction was undeniably succeeding.
On that reasoning, the uglier the better!
How about this Soviet spectacular?
The sketches and plans for City Hall are now housed in the Historic New England archive. Sitting amid those sketches recently, McKinnell said he hopes City Hall will one day be renovated and improved. “We wanted the people to take it over and make it their own,” he said. “Maybe it was wishful thinking.”
Mr. McKinnell, you designed it with Brutalist architecture, a structure that declaims not for human consumption and noli me tangere.
And no marking the concrete, either
Back at Kallmann’s apartment, I asked the architect what he and his partner had imagined Boston City Hall would be like when it was built — what they were picturing as they worked on their sketches in that basement in New York.
“It had to be awesome,” he replied, gesticulating in a way that made clear he didn’t mean it colloquially. “Not just pleasant and slick.” Great buildings, he said, should “remind you of ancient memories. History. Where you come from. Where your ancestors lived. Profound memories that root you to this planet.”
Nothing about City Hall accomplishes any of those feelings. Nothing in its design is Bostonian.
But how did they want people to feel when they looked at it? I asked. What were they hoping it would evoke?
“A hell of a lot!” he answered. “Man’s existence on the planet. No less. No less. Architecture to me is a metaphor for that. It’s a metaphor for our existence on this earth…. What could be more important and complex? It’s not a department store. It’s not an office building. Come on.”
Actually, it is an office building – and it could hardly be better as a symbol of formidable, impenetrable, domineering, imperious government.