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December 14, 2006

Sad News / Good News

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

John Massengale writes an eloquent eulogy for his recently-deceased mom.

John also brings welcome news: that Boston's atrocious City Hall -- a mid-'60s Brutalist structure hated by the public from its debut but (surprise surprise) much-celebrated by the architecture establishment -- looks likely to be sold and demolished.

The building was proudly featured in the architecture-history classes I took in the '70s as one of the recent glories of modernism. Wikipedia quotes a contemporary review from the august (cough cough) Ada Louise Huxtable:

"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."

Wikipedia then goes on drily to note:

City Hall is unpopular with Bostonians, who see it as a dark and unfriendly eyesore, and with workers in the building. The structure's complex interior spaces result in cavernous voids, a confusing floorplan, and the building is 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.

But we wouldn't want to hold critics -- let alone architects (in this case: Gerhard M. Kallmann, Noel M. McKinnell, and Edward F. Knowles, three Columbia University professors) -- responsible for their mistakes, would we?



posted by Michael at December 14, 2006


It looks like Sargon the Cruel's Ziggurat of Doom turned upside down.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 14, 2006 8:16 PM

I guess you can fight City Hall!








Yeah, I know. Lame. Sorry.

Posted by: Brian on December 14, 2006 8:24 PM

Oh no, my friend, you do not yet understand the pain that Boston City Hall has inflicted upon my life.

You see, I married this beautiful dark haired Lusitanian and brought her to this country. She had lived for years in Paris, and often claims that architecture is the first criteria by which she rates a city.

We could have lived anywhere, and my opinion was double weighted in the calculation because I knew more of the country, so we moved to Boston. In part, it was because I'd always been told it was the most "European" city in the US. And, despite living in Paris, London, NYC, and many more, it remains my favorite city in the world.


City Hall has cost me years of extra spousal adaptation to native country time. Through its effect on her mood, I'm sure it has cost me at least one romantic evening.

The Holzbachian

Posted by: Holzbach on December 14, 2006 8:33 PM

Yep, I remember the critical Ooos and Ahhs when the city hall was completed.

And from the link to Massengale, it looks like the proposed replacement in South Boston (hasn't that part of town suffered enough over the centuries?) is gonna be the 21st century version of Trendy ("green") just as the mid-60s building was in its era.

So cheers if the demolition plan goes through without a lawsuit by Preservationists. And hopeful cheers if the area winds up as a net improvement.

Suggestion: rename Government Square "Scollay Square"

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 14, 2006 9:12 PM

Word on the street is that when the demolition begins, the celebrations around Boston will be utterly phenomenal. I sent the mayor a letter suggesting that a portion of the demolition be done with sledge hammers, and those partaking made to pay for the privilege.

I'll pay. Lots of people will pay. Possibly enough to pay for the new city hall.

Posted by: Omri on December 15, 2006 1:29 AM

I too remember the critical praise for Boston's City Hall and City Hall Plaza. So Boston's new City Hall and Plaza were near the top of the list of the things I had to see when I went to visit Boston for the first time in the early 1970s, when I was a student at CCNY.

The "trip" itself was kind of interesting. It was a wintertime class trip for students at CCNY's architectural school that I got to tag along on. For some very low fee, each student got a bus ride to and from Boston and a cot in a large dorm-like room at the magnificent, but then down at the heels, old Parker House Hotel. (What wonderful, wide hallways!)

Suprisingly, most of the architectural students in the program (at least the ones that I knew) were kind of blase, or at least kind of low-energy, about this trip to Boston. The group I was hanging out with was concerned about the weather and was debating whether they wanted to see a movie instead of walking around! So I set off by myself and had just a spectacular time!

It could have been my imagination, but with this being maybe the "peak" of the hippie/student era and Boston being a college town, it seemed that Boston was especially "open" and welcoming. I mention this especially here because I didn't seem to have any problems exploring the insides of any of the buildings I had set out to see. The closest to a "problem" I had was when some dorm resident asked me what I was doing exploring the hallways of that famous modernist dorm at Harvard (forget the architect) -- but once I told him I was there to look at the archtiecture, he left me alone! (In my manic enthusiasm, it hadn't even occurred to me that this was where people were living and that someone might understandably be concerned about intruders!) I also had no problem exploring the interiors of Paul Rudolph's state government buildings (not far from City Hall), Sarineen's chapel and auditorium at MIT, the MIT student center (by the guy who did Julliard at Lincoln Center), I.M. Pei's science tower, a brick modernist graduate school of education at Harvard (which I had seen in Time Magazine), and eating lunch at a cafeteria in another nearby graduate building by Benjamin Thompson(?).

As a result of the perceived openess of the times, especially in Boston, I also to see a surprising amount of the new City Hall -- more than I think I would have seen in a New York City government building, let alone City Hall. (But I also remember being careful not to press my luck in this regard.)

Although at the time I was already beginning to have misgivings about orthodox modernism, I have to admit that I really loved the City Hall building. I wonder, though, if I still would like it as much if I were to visit it today or if I had visited it on a regular basis, rather than just once.

But I also have to say that I was immediately severely disappointed with City Hall Plaza -- it didn't live up to Ada Louise Huxtable's hype at all -- and this was an early inkling to me that modernist architectural critics (particularly Ada Louise Huxtable) and I were going in different directions.

# # #

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 15, 2006 1:32 PM

Oh, yes, I remember that thing. Like Hitler's bunker turned inside out.

This is the best news in urban planning reversal since San Francisco shed its Embarcadero Freeway.

Posted by: Rick Darby on December 15, 2006 2:58 PM

Well, this made my day. Would that they tear down the whole Government Center (aka Nazi Central) and start over, too. Talk about a monument to the totalitarian impulse!

Posted by: thaprof on December 16, 2006 10:27 AM

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