Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles with Campbell, Aldrich, and Nulty, 1961–1968
Utile and Lam Partners, Lighting installation, 2016
Harleston Parker Medal, 1969
City Hall is the most loved - and most hated – building in Boston. Many architects admire the sculptural power of its monumental forms; others are repelled by the grayness of the concrete and the aggressiveness of its cantilevers. Decades of neglect certainly haven’t helped, nor has the abuse of the plaza and terraces. Love it or not, the building tells a compelling story about Boston’s civic aspirations in the middle of the last century.
Government center, of which City Hall is a part, was carved into the heart of Boston to renew Scollay Square, a decaying commercial district with its tangle of back alleys and old brick buildings. This design for a new City Hall was the winner of an international competition; its architects were a Columbia Architecture School professor and his former student who had never had a building built. Their audacity made up for their inexperience.
A concrete colonnade rises up from a red brick base – the new seemingly emerging from the remnants of the old. Exuberant sculptural projections enclose the city council chambers, the mayor’s office and the agencies that help run the city, intending to make those functions both evident and transparent. Steps wind their way up from the plaza into a central courtyard; a stairway runs down the other side to Quincy Market. Similar monumental forms and spaces define the interior, with only a thin glass skin separating inside from outside. Part futuristic monument, part ancient ruin, it provides compelling spatial experience to those who don’t reject its abstract monumentality.
In an era suspicious of authority, City Hall may represent governmental overreach, but when it was built it represented the power of government to bring us together to meet shared aspirations. In 1976 a poll of architects named it one of the ten most important buildings in America. It has also appeared on lists of the most shameful urban places.
In 2015, the city engaged several local firms to develop a comprehensive master plan for City Hall's future. Their process and progress can be followed here: http://rethinkcityhall.org. A colorful new permanent lighting installation was unveiled in 2016. The energy-efficient LED system can be tuned to present a wide range of hues, allowing for different lighting schemes for celebrations, commemorations, and awareness-raising to "to communicate back to the people of Boston through the language of light, as a first step in making City Hall Plaza the welcoming, loved, civic heart of the city." Hopefully, these efforts will make City Hall's strengths easier to appreciate, and fill its dramatic spaces with life.