Posts Tagged ‘Architecture’

What should be done with Boston’s City Hall?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

The first several blog posting covered both public health and urban planning.  The next several will be more focused on one area or the other. They illustrate the range of issues in each of these important domains.

Form follows function, Louis Sullivan famously declared.  So what form  does a dysfunctional building take?  Most likely it would look more or less like Boston’s City Hall.  Designed by Gerhard Kallmann, Noel McKinnell, and Edward Knowles, it opened in 1969 and it has consistently ranked at the top of most disliked buildings by the people of Boston, though it also wins awards from architects.  It is a classic example of Brutalist architecture.  Brutalism is derived from the French for concrete poured into wood forms so that the mold of the form can be seen in the finished product.  The name also reflects the reactions that people usually have to these kinds of buildings.  They feel brutalized by bureaucracies and/or uncaring architects.

I worked in the building and can report that the building is worse on the inside than its exterior suggests.  The main entrance is from City Hall is from City Hall Plaza though the building’s official address is on the opposite side, two floors down.  How is that for confusion from the very start?  Some floors extend across the entire building, others end part way.  Corridors twist and turn, lighting is designed to make people look like residents of a morgue, and rooms are either too hot or too cold – the season is irrelevant.  Have I mentioned the acoustics? The open area on the third (entrance) floor is very loud, the second floor acoustics make the various windows that serve the public – birth certificates, parking tickets, etc., impossible for communication. The brick plaza around the building is cold and heartless despite the efforts to host markets, activities and concerts there.  The brick plaza is a good place for demonstrations, however, because there is nothing to destroy, nothing that can burn.  I probably like the building more than most people.

But what can be done with this building?  Mayor Thomas Menino wanted to sell the building to a private develop as a tear down and move city hall to the South Boston waterfront – a colossal bad idea.  There have been proposals for a café, theatrical productions, wall hangings, and who knows what else.  But nothing has come of these.  The building seems impossible to modify.  In the meantime, City Hall continues to win approvals from architects.  Harvard’s Design Magazine ran a series of articles praising it a couple of years ago.  Any proposal to demolish the building is greeted with rallies by architects filled with as much passion and self-righteousness as must have been spent on protecting Grand Central Terminal.

I am going to propose a truce:  the building will be kept as Boston’s City Hall.  We residents of Boston will simply live with it, much as we live with the cold spring weather, the insane traffic, and the lack of decent Mexican food in this city.  Boston has so many other charms that we put up with the problems.  Let’s be grateful that City Hall is in a perfect location, adjacent to all four subway lines.  It is convenient to state and federal offices, downtown, the North End and the buried central artery.  City Hall Plaza is uncontested space (it was not always so – the famous picture of Ted Landsmark being attacked by protesters with an American flag on the plaza is seared into the public’s memory of Boston’s racial history).  Be thankful that the building has not had a indoor air quality and for all its problems, the building is probably the best example of Modernist architecture in the city.  Cambridge has many wonderful Modernist buildings, but Boston does not.  So given Boston’s great architectural history, City Hall deserves its place in the city.

But architects need to understand that the building is a failure.  It ignores the street (more of the Dock Square Side is given over to an underground parking entrance than to pedestrian access).  It brutalizes its users, it’s energy inefficient and failure to perform its duty as a public building.  The building doesn’t deserve any awards.

We, the people of Boston, will pledge not to tear down City Hall.  But architects should pledge not to build it up, either. Truce?