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Architect Michael McKinnell, co-designer of Boston City Hall, dies at 84

Michael McKinnell
Michael McKinnellJonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

When Michael McKinnell and his partner, Gerhard Kallmann, won a competition in the early 1960s to design Boston’s City Hall, they predicted it might stand for a century, or maybe five. The source of such longevity can be found in the building’s defining material.

“The characteristic of concrete that we enjoyed most was that one material could do so much, and could be seen to do so much,” Mr. McKinnell said in an interview for the book “Heroic,” in 2009. “It could be the structure. It could be the cladding. It could be the floors, it could be the walls. There’s a kind of all-through-ness about it.”

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He added: “I think if we could have done it, we would have used concrete to make the light switches.”

Mr. McKinnell, whose first building as an architect was City Hall, and whose designs with Kallmann helped redefine Boston’s look as the city reinvigorated itself in the 1960s and ’70s, died of pneumonia Friday. He was 84 and had tested positive for COVID-19. Mr. McKinnell had moved full time to his Rockport vacation home a few years ago, after having lived in the Back Bay.

Honored and maligned, praised mightily and insulted dismissively, City Hall has withstood it all, celebrating its 50th anniversary last year.

In 1976, the American Institute of Architects polled architects, historians, and critics, who chose the “proudest achievements of American architecture for the nation’s first 200 years.” Boston’s City Hall made the list.

Architect Michael McKinnell (center) joined Mayor Marty Walsh and others during a 50th anniversary ceremony of Boston City Hall in 2019.
Architect Michael McKinnell (center) joined Mayor Marty Walsh and others during a 50th anniversary ceremony of Boston City Hall in 2019. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“People are married here, families record their births here – it’s a living building at the heart of our community,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said at the February 2019 anniversary ceremony.

Though some detractors liken City Hall to a hulking, fortress, Mr. McKinnell saw it as something that would evolve as those who worked in the building, or even just passed through, left their mark in uncounted ways.

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“This isn’t a building where the pattern is frozen, where if you move one detail, you ruin everything,” he told the Globe in 1969, touring City Hall with a reporter nearly 50 years to the day before last year’s celebration. “The process of democratic government is the meaning of City Hall. It should never be finished.”

Mark Pasnik, an architect with the Boston firm OverUnder and a coauthor of the 2015 book “Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston,” said of Mr. McKinnell’s City Hall design: “He wanted it to change. He wanted it to be marked by new ideas.”

“He wanted a younger generation to bring younger ideas to the building and the plaza,” Pasnik added. “Rather than being protective of his work, like many architects are, or wanting it to stay static, he had this idea that it should change over time and that people should adorn it.”

Architects Michael McKinnell (standing) and Gerhard Kallmann.
Architects Michael McKinnell (standing) and Gerhard Kallmann.Jonathan Wiggs

Mr. McKinnell and Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood, the firm he and Kallmann formed, received numerous awards – notably for City Hall and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences building in Cambridge.

The firm’s other memorable Greater Boston buildings include the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank, the Back Bay Station, and the enlarged Hynes Convention Center. Outside of Massachusetts, buildings such as the Becton, Dickinson and Company corporate headquarters in New Jersey and the School of Business and Public Administration at Washington University in St. Louis brought them renown.

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“If there is a common theme, it is one of paradox and conflict. KMW’s buildings are never serene,” Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell wrote in 1988 about the firm’s work. “There is usually, for one thing, a conflict between order and disorder in the floor plan, often in the sense that an orderly grid at the center disintegrates into something more random at the edges.”

Campbell added that “often nature and disorder seem to be chewing their way into KMW’s buildings from outside. A tragic sense of time, of the ruin that must come to all buildings, is encoded in the designs. This is architecture that perfectly fits Robert Frost’s well-known definition of a poem as ‘a momentary stay against confusion.’ ”

Noel Michael McKinnell was born on Christmas Day in 1935 in the Salford portion of Manchester, England. He was the youngest of four siblings born to Ronald and Marguerite McKinnell.

In a 2013 interview with the Gloucester Daily Times, he recalled a World War II childhood in which he and other boys would find shrapnel from bombs while playing outside.

Mr. McKinnell received a bachelor’s degree in 1958, graduating with first class honors in architecture from the University of Manchester in England.

A Fulbright Scholarship brought him to the United States, where he was a student at Columbia University, from which he received a master’s in architecture, when he became friends with Kallmann, an associate professor.

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Mr. McKinnell was 25, Kallmann was 20 years older, and neither was a licensed architect when they heard about the competition to design a new City Hall for Boston.

When they entered, neither had designed buildings under their own names. Upon winning, they moved to Boston and set up their firm.

Mr. McKinnell formerly was married to Jane D’Esopo, and they had two daughters before their marriage ended in divorce. She died in 2018.

In 2003, Mr. McKinnell married Stephanie Mallis. The two had been a couple for many years, and she had worked in New York City with I.M. Pei before joining Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood, where she was a principal.

The couple had worked on numerous projects together at the firm and on other buildings after the firm closed a few years ago. “He was totally magical, magnetic, insightful,” she said.

Way To The Quarry, by Michael McKinnell
Way To The Quarry, by Michael McKinnell

Both painters, they also had exhibited at the Mercury Gallery in Rockport.

A memorial gathering will be announced for Mr. McKinnell, who in addition to his wife leaves his two daughters, Caitlin McKinnell Klatz and Phoebe McKinnell Ventola, both of Northampton; a sister, Sheila Sharman of Dorset, England; and four grandchildren.

Mr. McKinnell, who was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, taught for many years at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture and Planning.

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The story of how he and Kallmann teamed to create one of the 20th century’s most unforgettable structures with their first building has become legendary among architects – an unmatched accomplishment.

It’s possible the criticism City Hall has weathered is also without peer. At times their design was damned even when praised.

A gifted storyteller, Mr. McKinnell liked to recount the response of renowned architect Philip Johnson to City Hall. “ ‘Absolutely marvelous. … I think it’s wonderful. … And it’s so ugly!’ ” Mr. McKinnell told Pasnik, adding: “We thought that was the greatest praise we could get.”

The late Thomas M. Menino, a five-term mayor, was among the high-profile officials who hoped to rid Boston of the building. Some critics wanted to simply level City Hall. Such a demise, Mr. McKinnell said, was unlikely.

“As we all know, Boston’s political establishment has at times wanted to sell or tear down City Hall,” he told Pasnik. “But as our engineer Bill LeMessurier once said, it will take a controlled nuclear device to get rid of this building.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.