The City Hall and the Government Center projects were part of one of the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) first urban renewal projects. The project was conceived of in 1954 when local, state, and Federal governments were considering building in Boston. Under Mayor Kevin H. White, the original vision was for nearly thirty new buildings sprawling over sixty acres in the downtown region, at a cost of $260 million. The BRA hoped that local, state, and Federal investment in the area would spur private investment. The area selected for the project had been known as Scollay Square, a squalid retail and entertainment district that was home to burlesque houses and dive bars. When the project began, fifty acres in the heart of the city were completely cleared to make way for the new structures that were meant to rejuvenate the city, both morally and economically. The master plan for Government Center was the work of I.M. Pei and Partners.
In late 1961, the City of Boston announced a competition for the design of a new City Hall, the first competition for a public building held in Boston since 1909. The competition was to be judged by the Government Center Commission and sought to find, “the best possible design in terms of beauty, planning and harmony with the other buildings in Boston’s new Government Center.” The design, which included the plaza that the building was situated upon, was subject to a number of restrictions, such as Floor Area Ratio, height limits and minimums, and aesthetic concerns (for instance, the roof of the chosen design would be visible from the neighboring buildings’ upper story windows, so it was important that it not be unsightly). The interior was also subject to a number of requirements to allow the building to serve its role as a functional government space. The building would be in very close proximity to two very important pieces of Boston architecture, the Old State House and Faneuil Hall. Therefore, the design of the new City Hall would need to engage harmoniously with the historic structures. Of about 250 entries, the design submitted by the firm Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles was selected as the winner of the competition in 1962.
Constructed of primarily of brick and concrete, Boston City Hall is starkly different from the surrounding built fabric. The City Hall Building is a nine-story pre-cast concrete and brick structure that is roughly rectangular in plan of an inverted pyramidal shape with an interior light court. The lower four floors are of red brick and the upper five floors are pre-cast concrete. The City Hall architects used the massing and materials to delineate the building’s different parts and uses. The brick base contains the offices of ordinary use (taxes, permits, etc.), a series of protruding rectangles extend from the concrete blocks comprising the main body of the structure and highlight ceremonial spaces such as the mayor’s office and the council chambers. Finally, the upper floors of administrative and planning departments are designed in a more ordinary fashion with regular, repetitive window placement. The building is supported by concrete and brick piers and has a total area of 513,000 square feet, while the lot area totals 122,926 square feet. The building is set in a gently sloping nine-acre brick plaza defined by geometrically arranged tree plantings. The plaza originally contained a fountain but after chronic mechanical problems it was covered with a concrete slab in spring 2006 to create a venue for public gatherings and events.
The construction of City Hall was done using a combination of precast and poured-in-place concrete. The design called for approximately 22,000 precast panels. The precast concrete is identified by its smoothness, while the cast-in-place concrete is textured due to the fir wood frames. The bottom of the building was poured-in-place, while panels were used for the upper part of the building.
Located in the heart of historic district Beacon Hill, Boston City Hall is surrounded by a variety of buildings including tall office buildings, low-rise commercial structures, and a great number of historic residences and establishments.
The City Hall building in Boston has been heralded as a landmark of 1960s Brutalism. Influenced by the later works of Le Corbusier, Brutalism exploited the use of raw concrete with rough blocky forms and repeated angular geometries to create dramatic, and often imposing, buildings. The idea of Brutalism is that the form, appearance, and engineering of a building should “accurately reflect the advantages and drawbacks of the material.” The bulky mass and strong angular geometries of City Hall reveal this. Another aspect of the style was the exposition of the building’s functions. The different functions of the building are reflected by the diverse levels of projection and organization of materials visible on the exterior.
The social importance of City Hall is found not only in the fact that the building itself was a symbol of the City, but that it was supposed to represent a new era of economic rebirth for Boston. The City Hall building was part of a federally funded urban renewal effort that took place in Boston during the sixties. The site, former Scollay Square, was an unsavory area that planners hoped to rejuvenate with the new Government Center project. The insertion of the very modern Brutalist structure showed that the City was moving forward, as it was chosen in part because it resembled no other city hall in America. The bold design showed that the city was confident in their new project and ability to prosper, and was intended to promote private investment in the area.
Boston City Hall was designed with citizen participation and inclusion in mind: it was meant to be a building that could be used by the general population and that would welcome them, that would above all allow them access to their government and serve their needs. Over its relatively short history, it has been both widely admired and despised. Praised by architectural historians and critics, it has garnered a number of prestigious accolades. For instance, the AIA named it as one of the year’s best designs in 1969, praising the building’s “rich, expressive form” and “sensitively scaled” interior spaces. In 1976, a poll of architects named Boston City Hall as one of the ten most important buildings in America. Yet that same year, City Hall and its surrounding plaza were voted into the Project for Public Spaces’ “hall of shame.” The public distaste for City Hall has not abated through the years: in 2006, Mayor Thomas M. Menino proposed selling City Hall and the plaza and moving the City government to an as-yet-constructed new building by the waterfront. This proposal was met with much controversy, with the plan eventually shelved in 2008 due to the poor economy. That same year, Boston City Hall topped travel website VirtualTourist.com’s list of the “World’s Top 10 Ugliest Buildings.” Yet despite the mixed opinions about the building, it has still come to be recognized as an important part of the city’s past, present, and future. In 2008, as part of a series of green initiatives a miniature wind turbine was installed on the flat roof of Boston City Hall to demonstrate how a roof-mounted turbine would function in an urban environment. In 2009, Boston City Hall was featured in “Heroic,” an exhibit at local gallery pinkcomma that highlighted the city’s concrete architecture.
Despite widely varying public opinion on the aesthetic merits of City Hall and its adjoining plaza, it has served an important social role in Boston since its completion in 1968. The space is used for concerts throughout the year, indoor holiday shows and open-air concerts on the plaza in the summer. The plaza has also served as the site for public celebrations following sports victories. Historically, the space has also been used for political causes, such as anti- and pro- Vietnam War rallies, debates, and protests.
Based both upon modern and classical ideologies, the design was meant to stand apart from the surrounding architecture while invoking a sense of accessibility and openness. The design was meant to represent strength and permanence, to add a sense of gravitas to the new Government Center. The asymmetrical façade and series of protrusions and recessed spaces recall the work of Le Corbusier. The influence of a classical tripartite order can be read in the exterior’s “brick volumes, concrete piers, and projecting hoods and fins.”The inverted pyramidal shape draws the eye down, while the eye is busied with the patterns of windows and structural projections of concrete. The interior centered on a large ceremonial atrium with dramatic staircases leading to higher levels. The brick paved plaza, meant to recall the brick streets and sidewalks of the old city, provided a place where the city’s denizens could gather for any number of purposes, such as rallies, celebrations, and other occasions.
City Hall has very strong reference value in the scope of modern and Brutalist architecture. The single most important reference it makes is to Le Corbusier’s Convent of La Tourette, Lyon, France, 1960. Le Corbusier was the inspiration for most early works of Brutalism. The name itself comes from a French term béton brut, meaning "raw concrete," that Corbusier used in describing his choice of building material. Both structures have an upper massing with repeated fenestration, midsections broken up by irregular projections and window arrangements, and bases with strong verticals.
In the year City Hall was completed, it won the AIA Honor Award for Architecture. In 1971, the AIA voted City Hall the 7th best building in the history of the United States. Most discussions of mid-20th century modern architecture, and nearly all on Brutalism, site City Hall as an important example of such work. City Hall has proved to be a bit of a conundrum in the world of architecture. While the average person may have difficulty understanding it, and it seems to be the general consensus in Boston that the structure is aesthetically unpleasing, there is a certain value behind its design.
Additionally, Boston City Hall holds an important place in the history of the firm Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles. The first major building by the firm, it catapulted them to international fame and began their career as a major firm. More significantly, though, is the relationship that City Hall symbolizes between Boston’s past, present, and future. During the early to mid-twentieth century, Boston was suffering a period of economic and cultural stagnation. Boston City Hall was meant to be the crowning achievement upon this movement, the ultimate symbol of the City’s rebirth.
Opinions on Boston City Hall remain divided. It is one of the most important concrete building constructed in Boston in the mid-twentieth century. It represents a complete departure from the prevalent architectural expression of the City and marks the beginning of a “new” Boston, a city of progress. It is the defining structure of the City’s mid-century redevelopment efforts, a symbol of the “progressive thinking and bold initiatives that transformed Boston into a ‘world-class’ contemporary city.” No matter the opinion on the general aesthetic of the building, one cannot ignore the symbolic and social value of Boston City Hall and its plaza. Ultimately, Boston City Hall is an important example of the Brutalist style and of the changing tastes in American architecture.
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