from the Similarity Files – Boston City Hall

Boston City Hall by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles

The connection here is more than obvious, and not exactly news either, but it is extra-topical in some ways. Just as our very very poor imitation of this building is slated for demolition (it might as well be), so too is the Mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, proposing the abandonment of the Boston City Plaza, Hall and all, and relocating the Government Center to a South Boston site. It was proposed that the current site be sold to developers. And, just as those in Wellington who have an appreciation of Modern architecture, or heritage architecture in general, are opposing the ‘facelift’ of the National Library Building – in Boston, the similar groups have rallied to try and protect the hulking structure. Here in Boston (where I am currently), interested groups are actually petitioning to have the site registered as a special landmark, which would afford it ultimate protection.

But here’s the rub – Bostonians, in general, absolutely loathe the place, and for good reason. The brick desert (a popular local moniker), in which it is placed is appalling. Designed by I M Pei (apparently after the Piazza Del Campo in Siena), the Boston City Plaza is 45000 m2of unrelieved brick paving:

The image here shows some kind of event, possibly a circus – all of those smaller white buildings (including the circular one) are not usually there. The weather was clear and sunny (if a little crisp), and the famous Fanueil and Quincy Markets in the next block east of the Town Hall were crowded, as were the Common, Newbury Street, and all the other places to ‘see and do’. The absence of people using the City Plaza was not surprising, however, given its vast emptiness. I was there for about a quarter of an hour, and saw only three hardy souls attempting the long trek across it.

The whole development was part of a large-scale 1960s urban renewal project, which saw Scollay Square, and its surrounding network of small streets and alleys demolised in the name of ‘improvement’. My Boston guide book describes the former Scollay area thus:

…a boisterous, if somewhat seedy, riot of Burlesque shows, jazz joints, penny arcades, movie houses, tattoo parlours and taverns.

…I’d argue that such a precinct is just what contemporary Boston lacks…

It isn’t clear whether the general disdain for the City Hall is due to the actual architecture of the building or just its siting, but most refer to the area with more generalised dislike – the Hall is just seen as one among a number of Modernist buildings that make up the precinct, which sits as something as an anomaly in the heart of some of America’s most historic sites. E.g. (click on the thumbnails to see bigger images):

The base of an only partly realised Paul Rudolf designed highrise (now a "Mental Hospital")
The base of an only partly realised Paul Rudolf designed Government Service Center (now the Lindemann Health Center").
JFK Federal Office Buildings by Gropius' Architect's Collaborative
JFK Federal Office Buildings by Gropius' Architect's Collaborative
Don't know anything about this mostly carparking building (I hope), except that it is absolutely massive (about 2x the City Hall), and cotains the Haymarket 'T' (Metro) Station.
Don't know anything about this mostly carparking building (I hope), except that it is absolutely massive (about 2x the City Hall), and cotains the Haymarket 'T' (Metro) Station.

Anyway, Just like the recession has scotched the full-scale plans for the National Library redevelopment (has anyone seen the revised proposal yet?), so too has the recession (which is visibly far more severe over here), saved the fate of the City Hall – late last year Mayor Menino suspended the plan, citing the economic situation.

And finally, I’ll leave with some more representative images of the Town Hall – the one above is just a detail to show how much was ‘lifted’ by National Library of NZ designers (arguably the most banal part) – the real Town Hall is much more sculptural, and although it is very difficult to determine from images, is all the more monstrous/brutal due to the fact that the whole inverted pyramid component of the building is lifted off the ground by those huge concrete columns. Underneath the building is actually quite permeable (well, if it wasn’t blocked off for security reasons) – cold and dark, but permeable nonetheless. The building is so much more impressive in the flesh…



17 responses to “from the Similarity Files – Boston City Hall”

  1. Nice to hear from you in Boston m-d: a very favourite city of mine. And thanks for the great post – and great photos too! Hope the trip is going well.

    Back here in Wellington, while the former plans for the National Library have been shelved, the new plans have not yet been published. What HAS been published however, is the former chief Librarian Mr Traue’s comments on the proposed project – in the form of a small booklet.

    But so, m-d, I have a question. Is the National Library really just a poor ripoff of the Boston City Hall, or is it in fact a better building? Is there really any point in having giant pilotis to walk under if you can’t gain access because of later security? I imagine that pilotis would work so much better in the hot climates of Brazil and India than they would in the cold windswept Boston Bay….

  2. I think both buildings are severely flawed functionally, and you have a point about the elephantine pilotis of the Boston City Hall – when there is a pretty useless space left underneath.

    The brick areas under the BCH house the public face of the City Council, above the void, and behind the ‘sculptural’ box windows are the Mayor’s offices and other important rooms of Civic function. The actual inverted pyramid hosts the teeming masses of the council departments – so the building kind of all makes sense in a way that the NL doesn’t even attempt to.

    But the BCH really wins out as a work of sculpture ala Corb of Chandigargh or La Tourette – the NL on the other hand, removes all traces of Corbusian sculptural power, and we’re left with something that is, quite frankly, something of an embarrassment by comparison. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were’nt so derivative, but because it so obviously is, it cannot be rescued from direct association.

    I had no love for the NL before, but I didn’t realise how poor a rip-off it was until I got here. I’m all for tearing it down now…

  3. PS Mayor Menino just last week got voted in for an historic fifth term… The survival of the City Hall probably depends upon the recession lasting longer than Menino’s grip on power here…

  4. maybe tear down the National Library and replace it with a replica of the BCH? I like the legs despite any functionality issues

  5. Heck – if Menino doesn’t want it, perhaps we could transport it here…

  6. …or better still, just raise up the NL building and give it some massive ‘legs’… maybe they could fit the requisite public interface functions in there…

  7. Has anyone else noticed that the WAM plans are nowhere to be found on the NLNZ website (for obvious reasons I guess), but that the rationale for redevelopment is now about fixing leaks, increasing storage, and updating infrastructure – nary a word about the public interface.

  8. And they’re not on the WAM website yet either.

    Back to the drawing board?

  9. “the Mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, proposing the abandonment of the Boston City Plaza, Hall and all, and relocating the Government Center to a South Boston site. It was proposed that the current site be sold to developers.”

    The man must be mad. Boston as a city has just spent billions (no, seriously, actually real billions) on the Big Dig to put a waterfront freeway underground, to enable people to gain access to the waterfront, and so making the environment for Fanueil Hall and City Hall all the much nicer. Having done that, is he serious to move City Hall all the way to South Boston? What is he up to?

    Surely can’t be serious…

  10. The plan is to give the Government Center over to developers – I guess retail and offices to consolidate on the success of the big dig. Moving the administration core to the waterfront (further south I think) would help to spread development too, and utilise the waterfront along a greater stretch of the ‘shore’. It would actually make some sense, as long as the public interface services remained accessible in a central location. The plaza is rather a failure, and the waterfront does open a lot of possibilities that have not been uterlised to date (except for the sporadically cool Diller+Scofidio Intstitute of Contemporary Art…).

  11. uterlised??

  12. well I guess at a stretch Wellington could be south Boston …

  13. “uterlised” said in a broad Boston accent makes sense….

  14. Seeing your photo of the Boston City Hall (presumably re Nat Library): Just back from New Travels: i.e. New England and New York, with a little L.A. on the way. With an architectural eye. I’ve dumped 500 photos into one Set on flickr, including a couple of the Boston Hall as now:
    Or you can go through whole Set at:

    Best regards to the Centre,

  15. Update shot if of interest:
    (If it doesn’t link, copy into your URL address slot. 🙂

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