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How Boston City Hall was born

Fifty years after a groundbreaking competition, two architects look back at the project that polarized the city — and gave it a new lease on life

An architectural rendering of Boston City Hall, which was the subject of an unusual design competition in the early 1960s.Globe File

Whatever else you might think about it, Boston City Hall is an improbable building. Call it a giant concrete harmonica or a bold architectural achievement, but to walk by this strange, asymmetrical structure in Government Center is to wonder how on earth it landed there.

Boston City Hall has come in for significant criticism over the years. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has proposed selling it and investing in a more conventional headquarters. But the truly remarkable fact is that it was built in the first place. Experimental architecture, after all, is something we expect from museums and universities, not municipal governments. Take a look at other cities — Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles — and you’ll find city halls adorned with columns and arches, domes and porticos. Some are made of marble. Some have giant clocks. Then there’s ours, which looks like a fossilized spaceship.


Yet it wasn’t aliens who brought it here. Surprisingly, it was a group of Boston politicians and businessmen, along with two young architects named Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, who conceived of the building as a dramatic gesture intended to help usher in a new era in Boston history. This year marks the 50th anniversary of a decisive moment in that campaign: namely, an unusual design competition mounted by Mayor John F. Collins, in which architects were invited to imagine a brand-new, forward-looking home for Boston’s city government.

Boston was a very different place then. Until the 1950s, it had been a city “dying on the vine,” as US News & World Report put it, and the situation had improved only marginally when Collins took office in 1960. Economically stagnant, notoriously in thrall to political corruption, the city had seen little development for decades. As business owners decamped and residents fled to the suburbs, a fear took hold that Boston would soon be hollowed out for good.


It was in this context that the city decided to demolish the neighborhood known as Scollay Square and build in its place what would come to be called Government Center. Forceful and bewildering, Kallmann and McKinnell’s Boston City Hall would be the centerpiece of this controversial plan to revitalize Boston’s economy and convince its citizens — and the world — that the city was changing.

When the winning design was unveiled in the spring of 1962, “It sent a signal that the city was taking itself seriously,” said Keith Morgan, an architectural historian at Boston University. “That the city wanted to be something better than it had been.”

In the weeks after Kallmann and McKinnell’s design was selected, their model was placed on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, and thousands of curious Bostonians dropped by to take a peek. What they found was like no government building they’d seen: a blocky, fortress-like thing made of gray concrete and covered with curious, geometric protrusions. Some said the building looked like a pigeon cage. Others said it reminded them of an Aztec gas station. The headline in the Globe said it all: “It Will Grow on You, 3 Architects Predict.”

In the 50 years since, architects worldwide have declared Kallmann and McKinnell’s City Hall one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century. And yet its relationship with the people of Boston has remained uneasy, even hostile: Many regard the building as unwelcoming, cold, and ugly, while those who work inside complain about its poor lighting, ineffective heating system, and labyrinthine layout.


Michael McKinnell (standing) and Gerhard Kallmann in Cambridge today. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The architects who dreamed it up, meanwhile, are both still here in Boston. McKinnell is now 76; Kallmann is 96. And as the 50th anniversary of their design for Boston City Hall approaches, they remain defiantly in love with it.

“Art is not what pleases you immediately,” said Kallmann recently at his Cambridge apartment, speaking slowly in his faint German accent. “It is not pretty-pretty, easy on the eye . . . .That is operetta stuff. That is Rodgers and Hammerstein . . . .That is not what we did.”

Even Kallmann and McKinnell’s most passionate defense of their creation might not persuade critics to appreciate its bleak, windswept plaza or maze of concrete corridors. But the story of the competition that made them architectural stars goes far in explaining the presence of this polarizing building in our midst. Lifting the curtain on its history reveals not just the grand ideals that went into its design, but also that, however it may divide architects and regular Bostonians today, it played a pivotal role in bringing our once moribund city back to life.


EVEN AT 96, Kallmann vividly recalls the response to his and McKinnell’s first project. Sitting at his dining table, he mentioned a news segment he saw after City Hall opened in 1969. In it, an elderly clerk who had just emerged from the new building was interviewed by a reporter. “The interviewer said, ‘What do you think of all this concrete?’ Already a leading question,” Kallmann said. “And this old man looked at him and said, ‘Goethe, the German poet, said that architecture is frozen music. And I think this building is frozen music.’ That was the hum-drum clerk who was supposed to say, ‘I hate this concrete.’ The only thing wrong was that it wasn’t Goethe who said this — it was Novalis, the Romantic poet.” (The statement has also been attributed to Friedrich von Schelling.)


Kallmann was an architecture professor at Columbia University when he met McKinnell, then a 26-year-old graduate student recently arrived from Manchester, England. Despite the 20-year gap between them, the two became friends, united in their admiration of European architects like Le Corbusier, as well as their disdain for the “corporate modernism” then dominating New York City: sleek, dull skyscrapers held up by steel frames and wrapped in taut skins of glass.

By contrast, the buildings that most excited McKinnell and Kallmann adhered to the principles of an architectural aesthetic called Brutalism, whose practitioners favored exposed concrete above all other materials, and prioritized authenticity over gleam and ornament.

It was the spring of 1961 when the city of Boston announced a national design competition for its new City Hall, to be judged by a panel of local businessmen and architects. Such competitions were uncommon in the United States — the last time one had been held for a major public building was in 1912. But an influential Boston architect named James Lawrence convinced the mayor that instead of handing the contract over to a local firm, as Boston’s tradition of political patronage usually dictated, the design of the new building should be decided through an open, public process.


The building itself would serve as the keystone of a massive urban renewal project, initiated by Mayor John Hynes during the 1950s, meant to transform Boston from a dilapidated backwater into a world-class metropolis. “Boston was a city standing on the abyss of mortal decline,” said McKinnell. By building a new City Hall within a lively central complex that would also include federal and state office buildings, Boston’s leaders sought to “demonstrate to everybody, to the world at large as well as to the business community and to Bostonians, that [they] were going to rebuild and reenergize the city.”


Kallmann’s drawing showing a cross-section of the buildingHistoric New England

MCKINNELL AND KALLMANN decided to enter the competition with two somewhat discordant goals in mind: to challenge people’s concept of how a monumental civic building should look, and to evoke a sense of optimism about democratic government.

“You must remember this was 1962,” McKinnell said. “John Kennedy had just been elected president. And at least in young people, there was a tremendous sense of faith and investment and trust in the idea of government.” To capture that feeling, the architects sought to make their City Hall accessible and transparent. The design featured an open space in the center of the building that people could enter directly from the plaza, and external features — those large protruding bumps — showing the locations of the City Council Chamber and the Mayor’s Office.

Neither McKinnell nor Kallmann possessed an architect’s license, a prerequisite for entering the competition. To that end, Kallmann invited his friend Edward Knowles, an established architect with a firm in Manhattan, to join their team, providing them with credentials as well as a place to work. The architects spent the winter poring over sketches in Knowles’s basement office, working at night and trying to clear out before the firm’s staff arrived in the morning. Though the two men labored as equals, often sitting at one desk and drawing simultaneously on the same piece of paper, McKinnell addressed his partner as Professor Kallmann — a habit he would not break for many years.

In January 1962, the pair learned they were among the eight finalists chosen by the jury, from among more than 250 submissions. They had three months to provide a set of detailed new drawings as well as a model. They worked until the last possible minute; in the end, they put the model on a plane to Boston with one of their assistants, who finished it during the flight.

The jury deliberated for several days, holing up at the MFA while a police officer stood guard outside the door. Finally, rumor had it, the choice came down to two designs: one by the firm Mitchell/Giurgola, and the other by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles.

On May 3, 1962, a crowd of 300 people, including city officials, journalists, and many of the competition finalists, gathered at the MFA to hear the results. Renderings of the eight designs hung on the walls, but all eyes were on the table in the middle of the room, where the winning model had been placed underneath a white sheet. No one but the jurors — not even Mayor Collins — knew which it was, and McKinnell and Kallmann peered at it, trying to ascertain whether it could be theirs.

When the sheet was lifted to reveal their model, there were gasps in the room. One person reportedly exclaimed, “What the hell is that?” Dazed and elated, the winning architects went to shake hands with a no less befuddled Collins.

Under the terms of the competition, the city was under no obligation to actually build the winning design. But Collins wanted to honor the process. After the unveiling, he is said to have taken the jury to dinner at Locke-Ober and, after several brandies, asked them to level with him. “He said, ‘All right, do we build this?’ And apparently they said yes,”

McKinnell said, cautioning that the story may be partly apocryphal.

“His attitude was: I told them to do it, they did it, so I’ll go along with it,” said Thomas O’Connor, the Boston College historian and author of “Building a New Boston.” “And he accepted [it] with the best grace he could under the circumstances.”

Reaction from the architectural community was rapturous. That this complex work of modernism designed by a pair of unknown iconoclasts would be built in Boston was hard to believe. Suddenly, said Yale School of Architecture dean Robert Stern, Boston was “seen as the great new urban experimental center, where new work could go side by side with Faneuil Hall.”

Outside the architectural field, however, the jury’s selection was more controversial. One memorable Boston Herald piece from the time quoted a woman saying she wished the building were “more simple and more dignified”; an architecture student retorted, “Life is not simple and the winning model reflects that fact.” The story contained the kernel of what would become conventional wisdom: that, as Stern put it, City Hall “is a building that architects love and the public doesn’t love.” Indeed, there may be no better illustration of what the critic Ada Louise Huxtable called “the architectural gap, or abyss, as it exists between those who design and those who use the 20th century’s buildings.”

After City Hall’s completion, Bostonians commonly complained that the place was an inscrutable, inhospitable eyesore. And yet the broader effort that had led to its construction was undeniably succeeding. Thanks in part to the development of Government Center, Boston was becoming a thriving city. Businesses were opening up downtown; developers broke new ground on buildings. “Whereas we can count on one hand the number of large-scale development projects in the city prior to the Boston City Hall competition, development in the decade following the competition flourished,” said Brian Sirman, who teaches a course called Reviled Architecture at Boston University and is writing his doctoral thesis on the history of Boston City Hall..

Eventually, Boston’s ramshackle past faded into memory. And while there’s no doubt that City Hall was just one piece of a puzzle that also included the development of the Prudential Center, the Central Artery, and Faneuil Hall Marketplace, it went a long way toward changing the perception that Boston was a city with a past but no future. “It jump-started the city’s sense of itself, and what it could be, and did it in a very dramatic, non-Boston way,” said Morgan.


AFTER WINNING THE COMPETITION, Kallmann and McKinnell moved to Boston to oversee construction. They ended up staying for good, opening a firm, and going on to design many more local buildings. Today, while Kallmann has retired, McKinnell and his team are still going strong. They are currently at work on a new building in Jerusalem.

The sketches and plans for City Hall are now housed in the Historic New England archive. Sitting amid those sketches recently, McKinnell said he hopes City Hall will one day be renovated and improved. “We wanted the people to take it over and make it their own,” he said. “Maybe it was wishful thinking.”

Back at Kallmann’s apartment, I asked the architect what he and his partner had imagined Boston City Hall would be like when it was built — what they were picturing as they worked on their sketches in that basement in New York.

“It had to be awesome,” he replied, gesticulating in a way that made clear he didn’t mean it colloquially. “Not just pleasant and slick.” Great buildings, he said, should “remind you of ancient memories. History. Where you come from. Where your ancestors lived. Profound memories that root you to this planet.”

But how did they want people to feel when they looked at it? I asked. What were they hoping it would evoke?

“A hell of a lot!” he answered. “Man’s existence on the planet. No less. No less. Architecture to me is a metaphor for that. It’s a metaphor for our existence on this earth . . . .What could be more important and complex? It’s not a department store. It’s not an office building. Come on.”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail