Brutalized in Boston
Boston City Hall
Sledgehammers would be satisfying but
it would take a million Red Sox fans swinging a million
sledgehammers a million years to erase this building,
and then you'd have a vast pile of broken rocks and race
of super-strong Red Sox fans on your hands. That's
poured concrete, of course, tough concrete and masonry.
It took five years from groundbreaking (September 18,
1963) to dedication (February 10, 1969) to pour this
rough-edged concrete, the kind of concrete that shows
the rough vertical form-marks on purpose,
sweater-snagging Brutalism, concrete not friendly to
tender fingertips or to the eye.
It is interesting to
know how this happened, exactly who in 1962 thought this
was a good idea, but the much better question is what
how did this happen?
The design for Boston
City Hall was awarded in a 1962 national competition to
Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, both of whom
were teaching at Columbia and both of whom moved over to
the Harvard GSD after landing this big commission.
Kallmann was 45, McKinnell was 25. It started their
careers, made their names, and they're still going.
Boston City Hall is surrounded by and
integrated with "City Hall Plaza", a great name for 8
acres of flat brick pavement. City Hall Plaza is 8 acres
of the 60 acres of the Government Center, and City Hall
is the crown jewel of 30 buildings in the Government
Center, in the middle of downtown Boston. Prime real
estate to say the least. All this is the result of an
early 1960s urban redevelopment / slum clearance scheme
which bulldozed a portion of the city 'previously known
as Scollay Square and populated by burlesque houses and
honky-tonk bars.' All of Government Center was
master-planned by the much-decorated and masterful I. M.
The building itself is
called a landmark of the 1960s Brutalism style,
characterized by thick blocky chunky forms, a certain
futuristic permanence, and, above anything else, that
rough-edged poured concrete. Brutalism is born of the
notion that the shape and look and feel and structural
engineering of the finished building should accurately
reflect the advantages and drawbacks of the material,
which is sensible at heart, so the Boston City Hall is a
deliberately crude essay in the inherent qualities of
concrete. (A contrarian would point out that concrete
buildings aren't necessarily crude; the Kimbell Museum
in Fort Worth, for one example, is sensitive, serene,
and highly rhythmic, but whatever.) Concrete is
relatively inexpensive to pour and relatively impossible
to move or remove after you've poured it. The fun of
Brutalism is imagining the building as a heavily
muscled, thick-fingered, knuckle-dragging,
semi-monstrous intransigent brute with a slow stupid
stare. (This one has numerous deeply hooded square
eyesockets - scary!) And with another Brutalist
landmark, Paul Rudolph's fabled and fondly hated Art &
Architecture building on the Yale campus, the Boston
City Hall shares a multilevel labyrinthine quality of
the time, with ramps and cavities and catwalks and
platforms, which is complex and spatially entertaining.
Kallmann McKinnell and Wood web site explains their
Boston City Hall by saying
Its importance as a
public icon and the high visibility of its dramatically
contoured site called for an intensely complex
composition, responsive to the constraints of site,
context and program, and an imagery which conveys the
openness and dignity of civic governance… The public
elements of government, the Council Chamber, the
Councilors' Offices and the Mayor's Suite are placed at
an elevated level. They are identified as expressive
volumes of the interior spatial organization and as
important features of the exterior. There is an
underlying tripartite, classical order of a brick-clad
base, a columnated middle level of concrete piers and
the elements of government, and an attic of stepped
tiers for the office floors above…The use of an
inventive technology and the allusion to historic
precedent in the siting as well as the compositional
scheme of the building result in a density of image,
which is both modern and timeless in nature.
Their web site also says, "The
firm's founding project, the Boston City Hall, received
instant national recognition and enthusiastic praise. In
a poll of historians and architects, sponsored by the
AIA, Boston City Hall was voted the sixth greatest
building in American history."
It's just hard to believe I'm looking
at the sixth greatest building in American history.
best? That would put it ahead of 25 of the following 30
structures, just at random: the Seagram Building,
Monticello, Fallingwater, Johnson Wax Headquarters,
Dulles Airport, the Robie House, Unity Temple, Grand
Central Terminal, the Hollyhock House, the US Capitol,
the Lincoln Memorial, Richardson's Trinity Church, the
Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, IIT Crown
Hall, 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, the Gamble House, the
Tribune Tower, the Auditorium Building, the Wainwright
Building, the Bradbury Building, the Kimbell Art Museum,
the Lovell House, Independence Hall, the Cathedral of
St. John the Divine, Sullivan's banks taken as one, the
LA Public Library, the Jefferson Memorial, the River
Rouge plant, and the Guardian Building in Detroit.
That's amazing. So amazing, it's dead wrong.
This chorus of unanimous praise would
be news to the citizens of Boston. This is one of those
buildings that regular people hate. Everybody hates it.
They don't like looking at it, they fantasize about its
sudden disappearance. But they're just a bunch of
ill-educated taxi drivers and fishmongers and sloppy
drunks who love to complain. What do they know?
This would have been news to the
original client. The Mayor of Boston at the time, John
Collins, reportedly gasped in involuntary horror when
the scale model of this competition winner was unveiled
in 1962. Somebody else in the room blurted out, "What
the hell is that?" That's truly enthusiastic praise.
It would also be news
to the current mayor.
"Cursed?" says Mayor Thomas M. Menino. "Nah, it's
not cursed. C'mon, it's just had a bad beginning. It's a
tough building, though, confusing, too much wasted
space, expensive to heat, and it's modernistic and not
typical of Boston."
It would be news to
architectural historians too. If you're predisposed to
give Kallmann and McKinnell points for producing a
design of shocking originality and mystery, or to defend
them for having a bold experimental vision which didn't
turn out, you might have a quick look at Corbusier's
monastery at La Tourette.
See any resemblance here? Is it my
sixth-best-building in American thing would be shocking
news to the taxpayers of Boston, who foot the bill
for its excessive energy use, which amounts to two and a
half times the costs of running a traditional office
building, a result of its high ceilings and drafty
complicated cavernous interior voids, some of them nine
stories high. That playful spatial complexity, that's
expensive. Some offices have 27-foot ceilings. But those
people who pay taxes, heck, they're only taxpayers.
It would be news to the
people who work in the building. They freeze and roast
and sneeze and endure crazy temperature variations,
complain of Sick Building Syndrome, suffer with
moldy carpets because of leaks, and exhaust fumes
wafting up from the underground parking. . But they only
spend eight hours a day in this building. What do they
It would be news to
anybody who has to navigate the floorplan, an especially
important attribute for a civic building with a large
number of first-time visitors. A story in the Boston
Globe in 2004 points out that
It confuses some people to enter from
the plaza and then take the elevator up two floors only
to find they're not on the third floor but on the fifth
because the plaza entrance is on the third floor. Others
are perplexed that on the south side there's no fourth
floor and on the north side no fifth floor.
floorplan is so "baffling" (his word) that City
Councilor John Tobin still gets lost in the upper floors
after working in the building for only three years.
But he's only City
Councilor. What would he know about Arrrrrrrrchitecture?
It would be news to the
Project for Public Spaces, who
identified the surrounding City Hall Plaza as the
worst plaza worldwide, beating out many, many
other candidates, even the gloriously bad Empire State
Plaza in Albany. The building shows a multistory blank
brick face to Congress Street, and the plaza creates a
sucking void in the heart of the city.
(You might know that
the Government Center's master planner Pei was
responsible for the nearby John Hancock Tower, which was
masterfully delayed from 1971 to 1976 while costs
masterfully ran from $75M to $175M, while it was
masterfully re-engineered and braced and dampered to
keep from falling over on Trinity Church, and while
500-lb 4-by-11-foot panes of glass detached from the
windows and masterfully crashed into the sidewalks
hundreds of feet below, the technical cause of which was
the subject of a masterful legal settlement and a gag
order, but you might not know that one of the other
buildings on Government Center is Paul Rudolph's
Lindemann Center for the mentally ill, which has
driven at least one patient, speaking of Brutalism, to
ceremonially kill himself.
Most significantly, I
think, it would be news to Charles T. Goodsell.
Goodsell is the Virginia political
researcher who in the 1980s bothered to travel across
the United States and photograph and describe a large
number of city halls and other municipal buildings,
analyzing the ceremonial social and political
relationships coded into these spaces. He produced a
book-length essay on the topic called "The Social
Meaning of Civic Space: Study Political Authority
Through Architecture," and this is what Goodsell has to
say about the effect of the Boston city council chamber
Boston chamber also illustrates how ceilings can impose
order. This architecturally reactionary room features
aldermanic desks, side galleries, and boxlike space.
Dominating the entire scene is the ceiling. Only about
15 feet high, it appears even lower because of the much
higher cavities above the public galleries. Massive
concrete gridwork, accentuated by light fixtures,
transforms the ceiling into a metaphor for suppressive
If architecture codes
and preserves social & political relationships (and yes
Virginia it does) then the exterior of this building
says everything about the relationship of Boston's
municipal services with its clients, the relationship of
the government to the governed. I'm not talking about a
metaphor. This building generates the experience
of city government in Boston.
So imagine the real
experience of government through the eyes of a
pedestrian forced to traverse a windswept empty plaza
('windswept' is just a word, but, please, understand
that it's a whole set of unpleasant sensations,
'windswept' is shorthand for windswept, snowswept,
exposed to cold wet penetrating Boston wind,
featureless, hard and flat, forbidding, uninteresting,
vulnerabilzing, isolating, scaled-to-intimidate), past
the broken promise of a fountain that has never ever
worked (too bad we don't have a Broken Fountains theory
to go along with the Broken Windows theory), to approach
the underside of a top-heavy, brooding, hulking concrete
fortress (and by 'fortress' I mean instantly,
cinematically, viscerally, recognizably-by-shape-alone
out of human scale, comparable to the worst of Soviet
work), rough to the touch and confusing as hell, a
building that wastes your time, a building with
cavernous voids vaguely threatening and vaguely empty,
so he or she can climb upstairs and register to vote.
All metaphors aside, that voter learns things during a
journey like that. That voter draws certain conclusions
about Boston and voting and his role as a citizen.
Whether he knows it or not.
So what now?
All this history and analysis is
meaningless if it doesn't guide future action. There's a
lot of talk about tearing Boston City Hall down.
The very shape of the
building doesn't provide much hope. It's a fundamental
problem of the massing of a very heavy very permanent
concrete structure. You'd have to plant a lot of
ivy. Hard to gather the political will, a full head of
steam, regarding design decisions. Hard to protest
against this building without putting yourself in the
position of the puny individual against the government
So what? Give it the Logan's Run
treatment, a vast ruin-rainforest-shrine? A mound of
dirt up to a certain level, the rest of it converted
into some kind of rock-climbing park?
Mayor Menino says,
"It's got a long life expectancy, because it's built
like a bomb shelter," he says. "You could hit it with an
atomic bomb and windows might quiver, but the building
Reading between the
lines I detect a vague hope that the building will 'come
back into style' so it won't have to be pulled down. As
if people would ever really embrace being Brutalized. (I
guess it could happen.) As if this building was simply
misunderstood. As if the people who spend eight hours a
day here are somehow disqualified from being heard and
understood. As if we should judge buildings on how they
look instead of how they work. As if.
I don't have any other
suggestions about how to get rid of this blockage. I believe
it's only a matter of time, and it will have to be totally
removed, not modified, not retrofitted, not adapted. It's
not a question of if, it's a question of when.
But the history of this
building makes one thing very clear. As harped-on above, the
AIA in its wisdom named the Boston City hall the sixth-best
building in American history. It gave the building a 1969
AIA Honor Award for Architecture. It also gave the masterful
John Hancock Tower, whose 500-lb windows kept crashing into
the street, a 1977 AIA National Honor Award.
So when the
City of Boston finally wants to begin public hearings,
inevitably some conservationist will file suit to preserve
the building, calling it a unique architectural resource, an
irreplaceable cultural artifact, and stuff like that.
Inevitably some witch doctor from the AIA will stand up to
talk. You might be able to recognize him from ceremonial
funny eyeglasses. Inevitably he or she will begin talking,
weaving his head hypnotically as he speaks, saying it's an
intensely complex composition, responsive to the
constraints of site, context and program, and an imagery
which conveys the openness and dignity of civic governance.
He is deeply mistaken. The more he talks, the less you
learn. If you let him speak for too long, you will end up
knowing less than when you started, and your head will
remarks as a series of cynical and irrelevant jokes, and
don't let him distract you from the matter at hand.Trust
your own judgment and the judgment of those who use and work
in the building. Those opinions are the ones that count.
Copyright 2006 - 2007 Walt Lockley.
Boston City Hall
Boston City Hall is the home of the municipal government of
City Hall is a 9-level, horizontally-oriented brutalist building
designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Wood and located at the heart of a
brick-paved Government Center plaza in downtown Boston, Massachusetts.
It is rectangular in plan, but is an inverted pyramid in elevation. The
masterplan for Government Center was designed by IM Pei.
City Hall is located in Government Center in downtown Boston. The
adjoining 8-acre City Hall Plaza is often used for parades and rallies;
most memorably, the region's championship sports teams, the Boston
Celtics, Boston Bruins, New England Patriots and the Boston Red Sox,
have been feted in front of City Hall. A huge crowd in the plaza also
greeted Queen Elizabeth II during her 1976 Bicentennial visit, as she
walked from the Old State House to City Hall to have lunch with the
This monumental building was designed by Gerhard M.
Kallmann, Noel M. McKinnell, and Edward F. Knowles, three Columbia
University professors, who won the nationwide contest in 1962 to design
the building. Their design, which was chosen out of 256 entries,
revolved around the theme of creating a public and accessible character
for the headquarters of the city's government (columns and eagles were
out of fashion at the time). The architects were inspired in their aim
for civic monumentality by precedents as varied as Le Corbusier’s works,
especially the monastery of Sainte Marie de La Tourette, with its
cantilevered upper floors, exposed concrete structure, and its similar
interpretation of public and private spaces, and Medieval and
Renaissance Italian public spaces. Many of the elements in the design
were abstractions of classical designs such as the coffers and the
architrave above the cement columns. Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles
collaborated with two other Boston architectural firms and one
engineering firm to form the Architects and Engineers for the Boston
City Hall, responsible for construction, which took place from 1963 to
City Hall divides into three sections, aesthetically and also by
use. The lowest portion of the building, the brick-faced base, which is
partially built into a hillside, consists of four levels of the
departments of city government where the public has wide access. The
brick largely transfers over to the exterior of this section, and it is
joined by other earth-toned materials such as quarry tile and exposed
concrete, all of which are typical of Boston buildings. The use of earth
tones such as brick emphasizes the idea of public access in this
The intermediate portion of City Hall houses the public officials
— the Mayor, the City Council, and the Council Chamber. The grand scale
and the protrusion of various interior spaces on the outside are
symbolic of the ideal public connection with these areas of city
government. These dramatic outcroppings severely contrast with the
character of the other two portions of the building, which stick to a
more regular pattern. They create an effect of a small city of
concrete-sheltered structures cantilevered above the plaza. The
cantilevers are supported by exterior columns, spaced alternately at
14-foot 4 inches and 28-foot 8 inches, which are steel-reinforced.
The upper stories contain the city’s office space, used by
bureaucratic agencies not visited frequently by the public, such as the
administrative and planning departments. This bureaucratic nature is
reflected in the standardized window patterns, which are of the typical
modern office building style.
The top of the brick base was designed as an elevated courtyard
melding the fourth floor of the city hall with the plaza. Because of
security concerns, city officials blocked access to the courtyard and to
the outdoor stairways to Congress Street and the plaza. The courtyard is
occasionally opened up for events (such as the celebration of the Boston
Celtics championship in 1986). After 9/11 security was further
increased. City Hall's north entrance facing the plaza was barricaded
with jersey barriers and bicycle racks. All visitors entering the front
and back entrances must pass through metal detectors.
City Hall was constructed using mainly cast-in-place and precast
Portland cement and some masonry. About half of the concrete used in the
building was precast — roughly 22,000 separate components — and the
other half was poured-in-place concrete. All of the concrete used in the
structure, excluding that of the columns, is mixed with a light, coarse
rock. While the majority of the building is created using concrete,
precast and poured-in-place concrete are distinguishable by their
different colors and textures. For example, cast-in-place elements are
coarse and grainy textured because the concrete was poured into fir wood
frames to mold it, while precast elements, such as trusses and supports,
were set in steel molds to gain smooth, clean surfaces. This distinction
can also be seen in the fact that the exterior poured-in-place pieces
are of Type I Cement, a lightly colored cement, while the exterior
precast components use Type II Cement, a dark colored cement. Another
usage of color distinction can be seen in the fact that the base of the
building starts out dark, using brick, Welsh quarry tiles, mahogany
walls, and darker concrete and then, as you ascend, the overall color of
the structure lightens, as lighter concrete is used.
After viewing the building for the first time, some in
the architecture community promptly praised it, including Ada Louise
Huxtable, who said, “What has been gained is a notable achievement in
the creation and control of urban space, and in the uses of
monumentality and humanity in the best pattern of great city building.
Old and New Boston are joined through an act of urban design that
relates directly to the quality of the city and its life."
The praise was not universal. Then-Mayor John Collins reportedly
gasped as the design was first unveiled, and someone in the room blurted
out, "What the hell is that?" City Hall is unpopular with Bostonians,
as it is with employees of the building, who see it as a dark and
unfriendly eyesore. The structure's complex interior spaces result in
cavernous voids, a confusing floorplan, and make the building very
expensive to heat.
City Hall Plaza has long been cited as a failure in terms of
design and urban planning. In 2004 the Project for Public Spaces
identified it as the worst single public plaza worldwide, out of
hundreds of contenders. Some efforts have been made to liven up City
Hall Plaza, but these have been met with mixed reactions.
On the other hand, the adjacent Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market
buildings have met with stunning success following restoration. It is a
place popular with tourists and natives alike, and generally well
esteemed by architectural historians.
Government Center and City Hall Plaza reflect the idea in the
1960s that government, by its nature, must be sterile and
non-confrontational. Having so many levels of government in one location
— city, state, and federal — is perhaps necessary, but it inevitably
crowds out the private sector from a huge section of the city.
Despite the widespread dislike of City Hall among the city's
residents and workers, many architecture critics consider it a fine
example of brutalist architecture. It is listed among the "Greatest
Buildings" by Great Buildings Online, an affiliate of Architecture
Week. In a poll of historians and architects, sponsored by the AIA,
Boston City Hall was voted the sixth greatest building in American
On December 12, 2006, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino proposed selling
the current city hall and adjacent plaza to private developers and
moving the city government to a site in South Boston.
On April 24, 2007, the Boston Landmarks Commission reviewed a
petition backed by a group of architects and preservationists to grant
the building special landmark status (much to the dismay of Mayor
Menino). The petition will be studied further before a final vote will
be taken, potentially in late 2007 or early 2008.