Sunday, February 12, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-4: More about Boston City Hall and the meaning of civic architecture

RTUF Nation knows that we've blogged more than once about Government Center, City Hall Plaza and the edifice that is Boston City Hall here at the little blog that could. Mostly, we've talked about how gainfully using the windswept plaza that replaced tightly-knit though unquestionably seedy Scollay Square has been a problem that the city has grappled with since the day the last brick in the plaza was put down. And now, even as the decades-long effort has taken on new and different forms and finally begins to show some promise, we have yet another defense of Boston City Hall itself, the heart of the problem or the solution, depending on your perspective. This time it's Leon Neyfakh in, where else, The Boston Globe, writing about the building's genesis 50 years ago: How Boston City Hall Was Born. The basic argument in the piece is that the 1962 design competition for the new building and its subsequent construction was, at some level, the precipitating event that announced the New Boston and signaled the end of the old:

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.

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. But the truly remarkable fact is that it was built in the first place. Experimental architecture, after all, is something we expect from museums and universities, not municipal governments. Take a look at other cities — Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles — and you’ll find city halls adorned with columns and arches, domes and porticos. Some are made of marble. Some have giant clocks. Then there’s ours, which looks like a fossilized spaceship.

Yet it wasn’t aliens who brought it here. Surprisingly, it was a group of Boston politicians and businessmen, along with two young architects named Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, who conceived of the building as a dramatic gesture intended to help usher in a new era in Boston history. This year marks the 50th anniversary of a decisive moment in that campaign: namely, an unusual design competition mounted by Mayor John F. Collins, in which architects were invited to imagine a brand-new, forward-looking home for Boston’s city government.

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.

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. 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.

When the winning design was unveiled in the spring of 1962, “It sent a signal that the city was taking itself seriously,” said Keith Morgan, an architectural historian at Boston University. “That the city wanted to be something better than it had been.”

In other words, Boston was on a losing streak and needed to get its mojo back, and the new City Hall was just the object building needed to make it happen. Let's test that theory out a bit, shall we?

Virtually every city in the Northeast and the Rust Belt had to endure the same anti-urban orgy of disinvestment and victim-blaming in the first quarter century after the Second World War. So, in a sense, all of those places were in the same fix, trying to show that they were still viable or, at the very least, weren't going to go down without a fight. There was a need for a new New York, a new Philadelphia and a new Baltimore as much as there was for a New Boston.

Clearly, some cities did better than others in reinventing themselves, and Boston has to stand as one of the great urban success stories of the second half of the 20th century. Neyfakh's article would have us believe that this is due, perhaps principally, to the message sent out by the City Hall design competition and the design jury's politics-free selection of the design proposed by Kallman, McKinnell, and Knowles. The city was demonstrably leaving its past behind and striking out in a different direction. While one can't deny that City Hall and Government Center in general are radical departures from what had been the norm and had to have had a kind of "Did Boston really do that?" effect, we might want to consider instead the city's built-in advantages in the post-industrial American economy, especially the role played by its world class universities and hospitals, which ensured that it would play a major role in the high-tech and bio-tech booms of the last forty years. So, put me in the camp of not being convinced that coincidence is causality in this case. If the region's central core didn't have the Mass General, the Longwood Medical Area institutions, Harvard, and MIT, and all of the supporting institutions and infrastructure in between, I'm not sure that clearing the downtrodden heart of the city and building a modernist monument would have really made much difference. Similarly, I don't know that a renovated, instead of annihilated Scollay Square couldn't have been the heart of the New Boston in much the same way that Times Square is now the restored heart of New York, even though it has much the same physical layout and feel as it did 50 years ago. So, maybe the question is, did Boston really have to tear down some its best, while admittedly ragged, urban fabric and replace it with a buidling that is clearly more interesting as a piece of sculpture and a disastrously failed plaza in order to show that it "wanted to be something better than it had been." Dramatic, yes. Wise? Not so much.

Maybe, in defense of the City's public officials who had to deal with the world as it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, not as we wish it might have been from a vantage point 50 years down the road, there wasn't any other way to make an architectural statement than to go for full-throttle modernist brutalism and hire Le Corbusier disciples. I get that. But it doesn't change the sub-optimal urban fabric that we still have on our hands and it also doesn't change the tragically apt observation of Ada Louise Huxtable, cited in Neyfakh's article, regarding "the architectural gap, or abyss, as it exists between those who design and those who use the 20th century’s buildings." However the building came to be and whatever its intention may have been, there remains a massive difference of opinion and considered judgment about Boston City Hall between most of us here in the real world, and the insular world of architectural crticism. To the former group, the building remains an inefficient and alienating place that we sometimes have to enter when we deal with the City. Rather than admit the building's many manifest faults, the latter group continues to defend even its worst features and the unwelcoming urban environment that results as simply something that the rest of us just don't understand. Fifty years on, you can't argue that this is a knee-jerk reaction in the heat of the moment or that the general public is simply resistant to change in whatever form, regardless how beneficial. If you can't get people to love your building 50 years after it was built, maybe there really is something amiss with what you designed, no matter how monumental.


  1. Matt,

    Interesting post. Having worked in City Hall though it is a horrible place to work :) Heating and air conditioning is abysmal, it is extremely dirty and the pigeons wreak havoc on it.

    Hopefully some day it will find the wreaking ball!

    All the best,


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