Opinion

opinion | Harry Bartnick

Give Boston’s City Hall a much-needed makeover

Harry Bartnick

Since it was built in the late 1960s, people have been talking about Boston City Hall, and not necessarily because of the business that goes on inside. Some architects consider the design a stunning example of the modern Brutalist style, but for many Bostonians it’s the building they have long loved to hate.

As a massive and complex outdoor “sculpture,” City Hall really does have its merits. But as architecture, the qualities the building communicates are not desirable metaphors for an open government: fortress-like, grim, top-heavy, ponderous, intimidating, shadowy, graceless, unwelcoming, cavernous, confusing. The list could go on.

Modeled on Le Corbusier’s monastery, Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, the building sits isolated within the plaza, lacking physical and visual connection to pedestrian and public transportation networks. Public entry points aren’t easy to find, with large brick structures of unclear purpose appearing to block people out.

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There are those who would like to see the building demolished, something not likely to happen any time soon. (“It’s not in the discussions right now,” Mayor Marty Walsh told the Globe earlier this month.)

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At the other extreme, preservationists say City Hall has historical importance and visual strengths that should not be tampered with. Proposals to alter the exterior have ranged from the superficial to the esoteric and hypothetical, with some practical and exciting possibilities in between.

To satisfy those preservationists and future generations who might hold a kinder view of the building, why can’t we make changes that are easily reversible, while simultaneously acting to protect and preserve the structure? The changes should incorporate existing features and appear to be part of the original design, not an afterthought or cover-up.

Here’s one simple, obvious and cost-effective solution: Sheath the building with a tinted glass curtain wall — but not to create another modernist glass box. The sheath would progress from just below the cornice to ground level in a combination of alternating diagonal and vertical planes, progressively moving away from the building as it reaches the ground. The generally outward sloping angle of the glass would impart a feeling of greater stability, and redistribute the visual mass toward the ground.

Translucent glass would allow the original wall-surface variations to still be seen, but now softened by filtration through the glass “veil.” This way, the projecting balconies of the front and rear façade, as well as brick structures on the north and east sides, would be allowed to emerge. At street level, articulated openings would clarify entrances. Along Congress Street, the glass sheath would extend to the meridian, creating a covered “car port” for taxis and buses, and a covered pedestrian corridor along the now-barren brick wall.

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Aesthetics aside, there’s also an energy-savings benefit to this concept. City Hall, with its large interior courtyard and concrete surfaces, has always been expensive to heat. Encapsulating the building in glass would create a climate-controlled, passive solar interior environment.

Feasibility studies and cost estimates would need to be done, but the cost of this proposal pales in comparison with the cost of a more invasive exterior remodeling, or a new building. And over time, the savings in heating costs would defray the expense of the project.

The building could appear luminous and crystalline, transparent, welcoming, sheltering, inclusive — all better metaphors for city government.

Big changes are underway in the Government Center area. A dramatic office tower by César Pelli and other residential high rises are proposed for the spot now occupied by that other prominent Brutalist structure, the Government Center garage. In addition, a striking new entrance to the Government Center MBTA station is in the works. Mayor Walsh has expressed openness to making changes to City Hall’s exterior, and to making City Hall plaza more inviting and user-friendly with the installation of artificial grass. As these projects go forward, it will become even more urgent and desirable to do something about City Hall’s exterior. We’re going to be looking at it for a long time.

Harry Bartnick is a professor emeritus at Suffolk University, where he taught courses in two- and three-dimensional design and fine art.

Related:

The dream behind Boston’s forbidding Government Service Center

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