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Boston’s City Hall and Plaza

April 8, 2008 Planning & Design, Travel 19 Comments

Regular readers will recall that I was in Providence RI and Boston MA in January (see Commonwealth Mall and North End). Looking back over the photos I took, I realized I hadn’t yet written about Boston’s City Hall (wiki).

If the windows were narrower you might think it was a prison. The building is considered a prime example of the brutalist style. Brutal is correct.

Even more brutal is the wasteland known as Government Center (wiki), the plaza that connects city hall to adjacent state and federal office buildings. The master plan for this urban renewal disaster was done by the famed Chinese-born architect I.M. Pei.

Pei also gets credit for a destructive downtown master plan for my hometown, Oklahoma City. There an underground tunnel system originally known as The Concourse was created to connect downtown buildings.. Shops and restaurants that could at one time survive off of people on the street were also located in this underground maze. It is not all underground, however, as some includes skywalks. It does an excellent job of keeping people off the sidewalks. — I’m not sure of his involvement in the tunnel system but it was done around the same time frame in the 1970’s. Namely he advocated razing many small blocks and creating large superblocks (four small blocks would become one big unfriendly block). OK, back to Boston and the horrible public space he helped create there.

Skating is prohibited but that is really the best use of the open space.

Yes it was a cold day in January when I was in Boston but pedestrians were out and about all over the city — just not here in this horrible space.

In the 20th Century most architects and urban planners abandoned all that we knew about cities and they began to foist their experimental notions upon their clients at great financial cost to tax payers. People lost their homes so these men could try out their “bold visions.” Without waiting to see results city after city jumped on the wipe it all out urban renewal bandwagon. The only thing proven by this process was that you could erase traces of the past — both the people and the buildings that contained their lives. This section of Boston had theaters with burlesque shows — the area was certainly tired but in no way did it need to be completely erased. The erase it bare and start over mentality was simply that this new breed of architect & planner failed to see any value in the existing forms. Plus the existing was in the way of their large scale experiments. Our cities became their labs. They and the general public confused having new sanitized spaces with real city life. The consequences 40-60 years later were not realized at the time.

Boston’s Mayor has proposed selling city hall and the plaza to developers. The architecture and preservation community have both fought to designate them as landmarks. Oh they are a landmark — the poster child for bad urban design type of landmark. Bostonians hate their city hall — you cannot find a postcard of it anywhere.  We need to save those elements that contribute to a high quality urban life and disregard these failed urban renewal experiments.


Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jim Zavist says:

    I don’t like the plaza, but I’ve always found the building to be intriguing. Taste is in the eye of the beholder, and yes, I think the building deserves to be preserved, just as much as the old Post Office was here. Styles and tastes change, and it’s too often that we look back with regret at what was torn down when it reached the nadir of common likeability . . .

  2. Adam says:

    yeah, i’d say the plaza is the detriment, not the building. the building should definitely be conserved – maybe a la the PET building – and the plaza devoloped.

  3. Brad Mello says:

    I tend to agree about the building, having visited Boston many times in my life — I find the building interesting but that plaza is absurd in a town in need of more land to build on!

  4. urbanian says:

    Interesting to look at the original plans for these types of plazas. The drawings show lots of people in various business and recreational pursuits busily using the space. Most cities have these wasted-space plazas, as we have a few small ones here in STL.

    Were they trying to recreate Tiananmen Square? Or a minimalist park that minimizes trees, grass, benches, and maintenance? Or did they think their building would appear greater if surrounded by barrenness?

    Regarding the building itself. We have no more moral right to judge against buildings of the 1970s than our predecessor architects of the 70s judged against their predecessors of the 1920s. They all had merit. Only those who curse the merits of others lack merit themselves.

    [slp — this building is unfriendly and out of scale to humans.  It does to contribute to its surroundings  — it should be razed.  I love modern and non-traditional buildings but not this one.  ] 

  5. john w. says:

    Pei’s mark is all over Boston (Kennedy Library, Christian Science Center, Biolabs at MIT, et al), but I must say that brutalism is hilarious… ha ha ha ha ha!!! 1960s and early 1970s ‘civic’ architecture a la Paul Rudolph and the fine specimen of Boston City Hall by Kallmann, McKinnel and Wood are a such anti-urban oddities yet sculpturally many are very intriguing. I’ve always really appreciated the St. Louis Community College at Forest Park buildings by Harry Weese of this same era.

  6. Brady Dorman says:

    As others have said – I think the building should be preserved but the plaza is definitely due for redevelopment. I agree the City Hall is in no way human scaled, but neither are a lot of our skyscrapers and we can’t tear everything down. This building is at least unique and (to some) interesting. Yes, though, it would be great if so much of historic Boston was never torn down by this massive “renewal proejct” but by tearing this all down and starting over we might regret it in another 40 years.

  7. Randy V. says:

    It looks very similar to the St. Louis County Courthouse in Clayton.

  8. john w. says:

    Didn’t Thomas Menino consider selling the building because the mayoral administrative offices were to move? I seem to remember something like that in the news in recent years…

  9. southsidered says:

    “Only those who curse the merits of others lack merit themselves.” Wha??? So everything is always good, all the time? No, that building is hideous and dysfunctional, as is the Pet building here, and new brutalism generally. “Sculpturally interesting”? Maybe, but buildings are not sculptures. Put it on a pedestal in a gallery, if you must – whatever it takes to keep it off the street.

    Aesthetic relativism and the cult of the “genius” architect have ruined the American city. Given a choice between (a) thousands of years of accumulated, highly refined wisdom about the built environment, or (b) the whimsy of theory-addled, self-impressed auteurs, I choose (a), thanks. Evidently, so do the people of Boston. Good for them.

  10. Adam says:

    i’m gunna have to disagree. i think the PET building is very attractive. granted this building in boston is not nearly as attractive as the PET.

    [slp — I actually find the Boston City Hall rather attractive as sculpture in the landscape but aesthetics is not the only basis for judging a building.]

  11. Jim Zavist says:

    Tastes change and styles change. The problem with this building and the plaza is the plaza. Pull a brutalist building up to the sidewalk, respect the existing bulk and fenestration patterns, and you have another building that “plays nice” with its neighbors. The big problem here is simply one of context – creating a sculptural element on a barren paza makes absolutely no sense in the existing urban context.
    That’s also the big problem I have with historic districts – they attempt to freeze a community at some arbitrary point in time when the reality is that any vibrant community continues to evolve, hopefully slowly, respectfully and in a positive direction. Should we take Laclede’s Landing or Lafayette Square back to the log cabin days? I’m old enough to remember the ’60’s and ’70’s. Much of what we value today wasn’t valued back then. And yes, there are many mundane, or worse, buildings from that time period, but this building isn’t one of them. We can’t go around tearing down every building that “I” or “we” don’t like this week – we need to learn how to coexist, not impose random, uneducated design opinions on property we don’t own! The arch was controversial when it was built – would St. Louis be better off if it wasn’t here?!
    As for “the cult of the “genius” architect”, I disagree completely. Our clients, both public and private, have the ultimate say over what gets built, and what doesn’t. We create the ideas, some good, some bad and many just mainstream, but few architects have to resources to actually build something, especially of this scale. Like Pogo said, if you want to see the villain in this whole scenario, just look in the mirror – “I’ve seen the enemy, and he is us” . . .

    [slp — The genius architect gets big press and clients that hire them want the attention that comes from statement buildings.  But yes the plaza is more the problem in Boston — perhaps they could cut streets back through the area and fill in with new buildings while leaving city hall intact?]

  12. john w. says:


    The Arch is a complete trade-off… would St. Louis be better off if it wasn’t THERE? You bet it would, because the city would still have its connection to the riverfront however weak or strong we could make it. The Arch is undeniably beautiful, and is clearly now one of, if not the most, identifiable landmark in the city from the perspective of outsiders and their visual imprints. This powerful and elegant composition unfortunately replaced many, many square blocks of INTACT urban building stock and streets. If you haven’t seen the volume of historic photos that show the vastness that was once the working riverfront of this RIVER CITY, you would be astonished to see the scope of urban demolition that was required to build this sculpture. If ever there was a case study in the profundity of loss of urban scape, it is the twin programs of the Gateway Arch and the construction of the Busch Stadium II (the current stadium is Busch Stadium III) and this type of urban ‘renewal’ would never stand in today’s political and urban planning climate. Do I blame a piece of sculpture or the architect who designed it? Of course not. Do I blame the planners, who’s vision of greatness has left our city cut off from its riverfront and evicted many tenants and whole ethnic neighborhoods? Of course. I realize it is heretical to most non-urbanists to see the Arch from this perspective, but to deny the facts is to be wrong. I’m not even talking about the Arch, but rather the tidal wave of urban destruction that preceded, and was of course required, to make the existence of the Arch possible. So, would St. Louis be better off if it wasn’t THERE? In the opinion of this urbanist, St. Louis would be better off. I also disagree with you a bit regarding the nature of the genious architect because you and I both know that to attract a star architect of world renown (Gehry, Meier, Libeskind, et al) is to roll out the red carpet and issue virtual carte blanche. It’s how they became star architects in the first place. I am in total agreement with your first paragraph and some of the next, but I have to disagree with the rest. I think the people of the city often look in the mirror and see not a villain but rather own who has been poorly served again.

  13. Jim Zavist says:

    This is why we can’t let homebuilders (mis?)appropriate classic styles and “modify” them for current “tastes”: http://www.hwcstl.com/falconcrest.html

  14. john w. says:

    …more suburban garbage. There is a lot of debate about whether the validity or even the intent of infill projects such as Botanical Heights, which was built on the ground cleared of approximately 9 square blocks of existing homes matching the type (two-family detached), density (10-15 DU/Acre), and architecture of the remaining intact blocks of McRee Town is acceptable for an urban cityscape. I happen to believe the esthetic disappointingly ignores the cues given by the precedent of the neighborhood in favor of attracting a more suburban-minded buyer, however the density is reasonably good considering the constraints of contemporary zoning. It really is the density and form (rear alley accessed garages with at least the potential for accessory unit add-on, for instance) of new urban infill like this that should be evaluated first. The architectural esthetic must be relevant and respectful of history to ensure stable property values, but a larger battle to fight and win is the form-based logic that gives the promise of sustainability.

  15. john w. says:

    Here’s a pretty interesting discussion thread from just over a year ago on the STL Rising blog. I believe I would echo the considerations of the third comment posted:


  16. john w. says:

    Hey Jim,

    Do you live in a house like the ones in the ad?

  17. Jim Zavist says:

    Nope – an older SW city brick one.

  18. Shannon Dumdum says:

    Tearing down should be the last resort. There are still a lot of opportunities to redevelop the plaza. Buildings are more beautiful when they are surrounded by lush and well-groomed greeneries pleasing to the eye. Maybe there was not enough budget for the landscaping at that time. The whole scene can be enlivened by an array of landscaping features which always attracts people and provide movement complete environment with the addition of trees and water.

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