Ada Louise Huxtable, the longtime New York Times architecture critic who died last week at 91, was a pioneering woman in journalism, a widely respected champion of historical preservation, and — notably — a staunch defender of Boston City Hall.
Her praise has been a lonely distinction for a building that is mocked, maligned, and periodically suggested for bulldozing. But Huxtable had nothing bad to say about Boston’s Brutalist icon, designed by the firm Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles for a national competition. In her original review, published in 1969, she acknowledged that the building was controversial even then: perplexing to passers-by, accepted with ambivalence by then-mayor Kevin White. But Huxtable loved the integrity of its vision: an interior designed, hierarchically, around particular functions; a modern structure “without a single one of those pompous pratfalls to the classical past that building committees clutch like Linus’s blanket.” She called it “a tough and complex building for a tough and complex age, a structure of dignity, humanism, and power.”
More than 40 years later, most Bostonians have yet to come around to her opinion, and City Hall has settled into relative decay. The raw concrete that lent Brutalism its name has turned dark and water-stained. City Hall Plaza is still a windswept urban wasteland. Writing, with trademark bluntness, in The Wall Street Journal in 2009, Huxtable blamed the “abusive neglect” of the people who work inside, and she was right that ambivalence about the building surely hasn’t helped with its preservation. But it’s also worth considering her larger argument about City Hall’s place in the Boston landscape, especially when compared to the many soulless high rises that have gone up nearby. Understanding City Hall isn’t quite the same as loving it. But it’s hard to deny that, as Huxtable wrote, it was built with a vision, and is true to it throughout.