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Learning to love the world’s ugliest building

Boston City Hall has been maligned for most of its 50 years. It’s time to give it a fair shake.

Globe staff/File

Earlier this year, Boston City Hall was bathed in lights colored Celtic green, marking the passing of hoops impresario John Havlicek. The building was a natural choice for this glowing tribute, just as it serves so well as the terminus of championship Duck Boat parades.

By day, however, the view of the building is partially blocked by the new glass-and-steel Government Center MBTA headhouse, standing nearly 40 feet tall, like someone wearing a top hat in the front row of a theater. And a recently unveiled plan to plant 100 trees on the plaza out front suggests a further impulse to somehow hide the iconic and controversial structure — as if to say this manifestation of 20th-century modern architecture, routinely placed on lists of the ugliest buildings in the world, deserves to be obscured.


What a study in contrasts for Boston City Hall, which opened in 1969, a year that gave us Woodstock and the moon landing. Condemned as a fortress and eyesore — dissing it is almost a rite of passage around here, like complaining about the T, or move-in day for college students — it is also the center of our civic attention, in ways that were utterly anticipated five decades ago. The 50th anniversary, and the passage of time, presents an opportunity for a spirited defense of the building Bostonians love to hate.

There was never a doubt that Boston City Hall would be daring. In 1961, Mayor John F. Collins proposed a design competition for a new seat of local government to be the centerpiece of the massive Government Center urban renewal project that laid waste to Scollay Square and the West End. The plan was to embrace the modern, break with the past, and give a city then suffering from manufacturing losses and a flight to the suburbs a symbol of resurgence.


The architectural model, greeted with gasps as it was unveiled, revealed an inverted trapezoid of staccato concrete dentils on top, and a series of geometric protrusions, squared-off columns, and red-brick staircases below. The contest’s winners, a teacher and grad student at Columbia University, Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, had never before designed and built something.

Executed along with partners Henry Wood and Ed Knowles; Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty; and LeMessurier Associates, the nine-story structure was set in a large open plaza, as if a sculpture on a pedestal. The concrete, juxtaposed with traditional red brick, was bright and clean, suggesting a public facility of importance — something monumental. And definitely new.

While praised by critics — a 1976 survey of architects and historians named it the sixth-best building in America, right after Monticello — Boston City Hall was soon enough enveloped by grousing from everyone else. Passing taxi drivers thought it looked like some kind of giant harmonica; it was imposing and unwelcoming, and appeared oddly upside down. The interior was dark and gloomy and at turns cavernous and labyrinthine. The heating and cooling systems didn’t work properly, and city government employees reported ceiling lights that seemed to constantly flicker and fail. By 1988, a city councilor, David Scondras, called for selling it off and finding new digs.

After Thomas M. Menino began occupying the fifth-floor mayor’s office beginning in 1993, he developed a special loathing for the place, calling it cold and unfriendly and dysfunctional; he sought modern new digs in the Seaport. When I asked the mayor what to do with the building if it was thus discarded, he said it might make a good handball court. His successor, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, tossed in similarly stinging reviews, though his distaste has been tempered more recently by an initiative to rethink, renovate, and retrofit the building and City Hall Plaza.


In a city where contemporary architecture is greeted with sneering nicknames — the “refrigerator building” (Federal Reserve) and the “pregnant building” (100 Federal Street) — and as skyscrapers internationally are routinely derided as pickles, cheese graters, walkie-talkies, and worse, City Hall’s place is secure as the ultimate dud.

A number of factors have converged to mask City Hall’s equally viable status as an elegant, successful work of architecture.

First things first. Boston City Hall suffers from its setting, its neighbors, and the era of urban renewal in which it was built. City Hall Plaza is too large and windswept, and lacks the framing of dense buildings lining Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy, after which it was modeled. Its new-and-different nearby structures, the trifecta of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, Paul Rudolph’s Government Service Center, and the lumbering Government Center Garage, fostered the perception that the whole complex was just plug ugly. There is something haunting, too, about the fact that the entire area was made possible by bulldozing nearly all of a once-thriving neighborhood.


City Hall under construction in 1967, with the Custom House tower behind it. UPI Telephoto

Mid-20th-century urban renewal architecture is broadly associated with Brutalism, and Boston City Hall is among the finest examples of the genre. In one of the great misunderstandings in architecture, “brutal” doesn’t refer to a harsh appearance — the term derives from the French béton brut, or raw concrete. Concrete is a favored material for many modernists, as it can be sculpted and shaped, and is unadorned and streamlined.

But it’s not for everyone. A recent conference held by Tufts University professor Justin Hollander included applying eye-tracking technology — used to show what we think about things like commercials and websites — to building designs. Hollander found that people look at a traditional facade with symmetrical doors and windows and see a friendly face. When they look at blank concrete, it stirs fear and suspicion, prompting an averting of the eyes, as if to say, in evolutionary terms, “this is an unfathomable stranger.” The biometrics, in short, suggest City Hall triggers our flight instinct.

It’s a problem for modern architecture generally, says Alex Krieger, principal at NBBJ and a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. “Buildings are always trying to express their function, their role, and the thought process from which they came,” Krieger says. “Historically, you understood a church, a palace, or a castle. The architecture spoke to you about aspects of society rather literally, after centuries of the same techniques. With the big break of modern architecture, those clues were not so obvious. So people were kind of mystified about 20th-century buildings, including Boston City Hall.”


City Hall’s interior has friendly touches, such as the protruding ledges and counters where people can sign documents or place bags. But its lighting is poor. Gil Friedberg/Globe staff/File 1969/Globe Staff

If we clear our minds, step back, and consider the building anew, however, its rationale is less of a puzzle. The lobby, lower floors, and multiple entrances were designed to welcome the public. The citizenry was supposed to permeate the building from many directions, go to teller windows to get a marriage license or pay a parking ticket, and move on. The polished concrete walls and sets of stairs were intended to signal that this was an elegant, modern setting for everyday needs.

The middle of the building, meanwhile, marked by those protrusions agitating the exterior surface in a slightly irregular composition on both the Cambridge and Congress street sides, announces the functions and ceremonial activities of democracy: the mayor’s office and City Council chambers. Finally, the top floors are for the bureaucracy getting the people’s work done, in individual offices and conference room arrayed on four sides around a central courtyard.

Kallmann and McKinnell were inspired by a monastery in France built by the modernist pioneer Le Corbusier. Couvent Sainte-Marie de La Tourette, near Lyon, is almost a mirror image, with repeated small rooms for monks up top, and gathering spaces and a cavernous but light-filled sanctuary below. The whole thing is perched on concrete stanchions in a meadow; as with City Hall, one is meant to ascend to a kind of shining city on a hill.

Right. But does it work?

“I believe City Hall is one of the most humanely designed buildings in Boston,” says Brigid Williams, cofounder of Hickox Williams Architects, best known for more traditional New England design. “The scale is like that of civic and religious buildings of all eras: designed to impress with the power of institution, but fully recognizing and taking responsibility for the intimacy of individual human experience.”

One of the features that struck Williams was the design of the service area in the half-level down from the main entrance, a critical interaction of citizen and government. “Next to each teller window there’s a generous projecting surface perfectly placed to be used to spread out or sign papers, rummage in a briefcase, or seat a tired child,” she says. “These aren’t afterthoughts. They are integral to the very structure of the building, incorporated when the concrete was poured.”

Those cubbies and ledges remain, but another reason City Hall is underappreciated can be traced to what happened after it opened in 1969. As Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell has said, a building isn’t finished when the construction is complete. It has to be lived in and cared for and nurtured. That didn’t happen with City Hall. Some features were left unfinished, including a planned beer hall, courtyard enhancements, and multiple egresses. The lighting scheme — hugely important to keep the place bright, almost like an art gallery — was never fully executed, and when fixtures stopped working, they weren’t replaced. Whether for lack of money or general fatigue, the prescribed art and greenery never materialized.

People stacked boxes of papers and other bureaucratic detritus in odd corners and corridors; security concerns, particularly after 9/11, sealed off much of the intended openness. Outside, cars and trucks were parked on City Hall Plaza, amid stretches of chain-link fencing, supposedly temporary, but which remained year after year.

City Hall is harder to love because it has been unloved.

Then-new Boston City Hall in 1969, with the Custom House in the background.Sam Hammat/Globe staff/File 1969/Globe Staff

Like a strong cocktail, a building can be an acquired taste. I found that out as a reporter in the Globe’s City Hall bureau, on the ninth-floor press area, from 1996 to 2000. I had heard all about the complaints, but it seemed to serve its functions reasonably well. The City Council chambers even had a kind of regal, parliamentary feeling, and featured an excellent amphitheater gallery where the public and press could view the proceedings. In the classically messy bureau office, it was also quite mesmerizing to look through the indented windows, each its own flat television screen, to the city below. By the time Mayor Menino announced his intentions to move, I had developed a wistful affection for the place.

The passage of time can do that. “The shock of the new has worn off,” Krieger says. “This building has been there for 50 years. I bet that younger people hate it a lot less than older people who remember urban renewal, who can’t disassociate the distressing aspects of the era with the building itself. The young might not like it as much as the Old State House, but they would recognize [that it’s] prominent, large, and monumental, and presents itself as something important, which a city hall should.”

Now that Mayor Walsh has adopted a policy of mend-it-don’t-end-it — or, in HGTV parlance, love it, not list it — the place may finally move on from being the familiar object of ridicule. I’m not sure another skating rink or the planting of a hundred trees is the right answer for City Hall Plaza, and I withhold judgment on the sleek new proposed “community engagement” center as an appendage. But the quest for better programming in the building’s expansive front yard has met with success, whether it’s with a circus, mini-golf, farmers market, or stalls for craft brews or ice cream. Two ready fixes would be to turn the lights back on atop the mast-like poles lining the western edge, and to unearth Hanover Street — still there, just under the bricks of the plaza — from Congress to Cambridge streets. Restoring a traditional city street along the northern edge would shrink down the plaza, and make the place feel more cozy and urban, and less windswept.

Variations in its concrete facing indicate different aspects of City Hall’s purpose. Phil Preston/Globe staff/File 1969/Globe Staff

Any rehabilitation of Boston City Hall and its setting has another virtue. It respects the layers of architectural history in the city, not unlike different wings of a museum, featuring Renaissance, Impressionist, and abstract art. Many people disdained Victorian architecture when it first came on the scene; a critic lambasted Harvard’s late 19th-century Memorial Hall as an out-of-scale abomination.

Interestingly, the historic preservation movement has embraced mid-century modernism, including Brutalist architecture, an irony since so many of those structures replaced older buildings that preservationists were trying to protect. Once villains, they’re now eligible for landmark status.

Cities must be judicious in tearing stuff down, because the central task of booming metropolitan regions in the 21st century is clearly redevelopment. It’s a matter of choosing battles. The Government Service Center got a makeover. The Government Center Garage was a much more obvious candidate for demolition, and soon there will be a transformative mixed-use development at the site, overlooking the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

So let’s try embracing City Hall. It represents another stage of the evolving metropolis, one intended as a jump-start, all those years ago, a symbol of a new Boston.

Grand Central station, another monumental public building that some politicians once wanted to destroy, now stands as an anchor in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by new development. Boston City Hall could settle into a similar role — a brazen proposal conceived more than a half-century ago, anachronistic, almost quaint in retrospect, but ultimately, as new towers rise up all around, glowing with an iconic, retro coolness all its own.

Anthony Flint is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Send comments to the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.