BOSTON JOURNAL; Fighting City Hall, Specifically Its Boxy Design and Empty Plaza
By KATIE ZEZIMA
Published: December 25, 2006
Boston City Hall, a hulking, gray concrete box of a building, is hard to miss. And lately so are people's opinions about it.
Debate about City Hall was sparked anew last week, when Mayor Thomas M. Menino proposed selling the building and its large brick plaza and moving city government to an undeveloped waterfront parcel. Mr. Menino thinks that the sale would fetch about $300 million and that the new building would prompt growth in an undeveloped part of the city.
''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.''
Descriptions like ''fortress'' and ''dungeon'' have long bounced off the concrete walls of City Hall, which has seen a recent influx of mice. The plaza is known mainly for its T stop, wind gusts that steal umbrellas and a fountain that was paved over because of leaks.
''I'm convinced someone in power had an uncle who owned a concrete factory,'' said Councilman John Tobin, who with a colleague proposed selling the building in 2003, only to have a piece of the ceiling fall on their desks days later. ''The air quality is poor. The windows don't open, and some offices are like meat lockers and others you can get a tan in.''
But Mr. Menino's announcement has also strengthened the will of City Hall's defenders; some see it as a seminal building in the city's history, and others do not want the seat of city government to move to a waterfront location that can be difficult to reach.
''It's extremely important, architecturally, and it's been recognized as one of the best modern movement buildings in the U.S.,'' said Pauline Chase-Harrell, an architectural consultant who was chairwoman of the Boston Landmarks Commission in the 1980s. ''It was intended to symbolize the rebirth of Boston,'' Ms. Chase-Harrell added, with the new concrete building growing out of Boston's red brick past.
Thomas H. O'Connor, the university historian at Boston College and author of ''Building a New Boston: The Politics of Urban Renewal,'' said City Hall was a controversial building from the day its first rendering was unveiled in 1962 because it so contrasted with the city's colonial architecture. It was completed in 1968 to numerous jokes, including that it was the box that neighboring Faneuil Hall came in.
''I think members of the new architectural era thought it was marvelous, and I think by and large the general public was horrified by it,'' Dr. O'Connor said.
It is not so much the building that must be preserved, Dr. O'Connor said, but its location, which intertwines city, state and federal government in the neighborhood where American democracy was fomented.
''The location now is central to what should be a very proud government center for Boston, and I don't think putting it somewhere else would do the trick,'' he said.
The building has drawn professional praise as well as condemnation. In 1976 a poll of architects named it one of the 10 most important buildings in America, while the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization of urban planners, voted the building and plaza into its ''hall of shame.''
Some architects see the emptiness of the plaza, which was meant to hold restaurants and benches, as a municipal failing. Elizabeth S. Padjen, editor of Architecture Boston magazine, said in the May-June 2005 issue that the center looked like ''someone who has lost his self-respect,'' and the inability to fix it stemmed from something in Bostonians that ''favors self-flagellation.''
Gerhard Kallman, who designed the building and its surroundings, also said in the magazine that he had expected the plaza to be developed with restaurants and other public spaces. In an interview, Mr. Kallman, 91, said the building was not meant to be trendy and disposable.
''A building like this is an iconic public building,'' he said, ''and it really becomes a memory of a city's history. It cannot be easily replaced for reasons of temporary convenience. I hope those who do recognize its importance to the architectural history of the past few decades would make their opinions known to the mayor.''
The people in line at the parking clerk's window during lunch Thursday were more than happy to offer their thoughts on the building.
''It's prime real estate. Just nuke this and sell it,'' said Jerry DiPietro, 47, an asset manager from East Boston who was in line. ''It's such a waste of space.''
But Karen O'Donnell, 53, an electrician from Waltham, Mass., said she enjoyed the occasional concert and sports rally on the plaza, and worried that the gathering space could not be replicated.
Up a set of escalators, in a hallway decorated with works by local artists, Mary Pearson, 71, the head clerk in the city's assessing department, said she would be happy to see the building go.
''I hate this building,'' Ms. Pearson said. ''It looks like a dungeon. It's so blah, how else can you say it? That's how it feels.''
Janet Pagano, 55, who works for the nearby school department and has business at City Hall nearly every day, said she wanted the building to stay where it was.
''I'd be disappointed, only because it's so accessible right here,'' Ms. Pagano said. ''Being a city employee, it's just easy to get here.''
Wrecking ball tolls for City Hall
By Alex Beam, Boston Globe Columnist | December 18, 2006
Preservationists are already crawling out of the woodwork to oppose mayor Tom Menino's One Great Idea -- moving City Hall to the waterfront and selling off the existing monstrosity to a developer. Predictably, the architectural priesthood is shedding crocodile tears over the possible loss of Gerhard Kallmann and Noel McKinnell's "important," but ugly, molded concrete, Brutalist doorstop. But there is only one possible fate for the Incredible Hulk: Tear it down.
Boston City Hall shows up in every architecture lecture in the world. Generations of snoozy undergraduates have seen the slide of Le Corbusier's odd, ramparted monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette in Eveux, France, followed immediately by a picture of our City Hall. As if it were somehow relevant that a difficult to appreciate building by a great architect begat an ugly building by two other great architects. I have nothing against Kallmann and McKinnell, by the way. I practically live in one of their wonderful creations: the Newton Free Library.
City Hall may be interesting intellectually, but it's been hell to live with. Buildings have two faces. City Hall's exterior, which the world sees, is unprepossessing, to be charitable. The unseen interior is even worse. In an interview with Architecture Boston magazine, former mayoral aide Carter Wilkie described his workplace: "All of the dark, gloomy bleak concrete, wall after wall of it, is oppressive as you walk through. In those spaces where there aren't windows to the outside, it's very bleak. Even the spaces that should be monumental in a public building are a real disappointment."
Let's face it, Boston is a city where A-list architects have dumped a lot of B-list buildings. Philip Johnson , after doing a nice job building the modern extension of the Boston Public Library, threw up the nondescript International Place towers. Frank Gehry offloaded the silly, self-parodying Stata Center right in the middle of M.I.T. Charles Luckman had taste; he commissioned Park Avenue's Lever House, Manhattan's first, signature, International Style skyscraper. Then he gave us the Prudential Center.
Right next door, the CBT partnership, which is capable of great work, gave us the nothingburger R2D2 building, also known as 111 Huntington Ave . Now they are walling in Boylston Street east of the Hynes Convention Center, just so Robin Brown's rich friends can overpay for condos in the new Mandarin Oriental. There oughta be a law.
What other Boston buildings should be torn down?
The great Henry Cobb gave us the John Hancock tower, but also the eyesore Harbor Towers, said to be the city's most desirable residence because the occupants can't see . . . Harbor Towers. As a young shaver, Cobb worked on the master plan for Government Center, the hideous brick and concrete setting for the Medusa head that is City Hall. "That space has a lot of problems," Cobb told me in an interview eight years ago. "We imagined there would be a green space there that would be linked by Tremont Street to the Common. Now, as a brick plaza, you look at it and say, 'Where are the people?' "
Well here is a chance to correct Cobb's, Kallmann's, and McKinnell's mistakes. For four decades, City Hall has squatted on the best nine acres in town, and everything has tanked there, from Yo-Yo Ma's Music Garden to the Enchanted Village. OK, it's a good enough venue for showering praise on World Series and Super Bowl champions, but they have been in short supply of late.
Important buildings get torn down all the time. Charles Bulfinch's Tontine Crescent and New South Church; Boston's original Masonic Temple and Aquarium; our imperious Union Station; the eye-grabbing Museum of Fine Arts on Copley Square, "Ruskinian gothic of an extravagance rarely seen," according to architectural historian Jane Holtz Kay. All gone. And we are enriched rather than diminished by their disappearance.
When it's time, it's time. Boston City Hall, the bell tolls for thee. And as long as there are bulldozers in the area, Harbor Towers is just a short drive away . . .
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is email@example.com.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.