When we started the Heroic Project in 2007 there was a very good chance that Boston’s City Hall, which had been in a state of active neglect for over a decade, was in danger of being sold and demolished. The prevailing attitude to the building then was that it was the ugliest in the world, as certified by the now-defunct website virtualtourist.com. It was at this moment that my co-authors reached out to the office of Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood to talk through the origins of the building, the competition, and the resulting structure.
Boston City Hall main entrance at dusk.
© Ezra Stoller/Esto
Boston City Hall interior entrance lobby after a recent restoration.
Utile Architecture & Planning
At the time both Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell sat with us for hours, bringing out sheets of drawings, early renderings and sketches as they argued over who drew which elements and where, often to the point of giving up, as both of their hands were intertwined in a dance of City Hall’s creation. It was in every way a partnership, and while we lost Gerhard soon thereafter, Michael remained a presence in our lives, eventually becoming a mentor and friend. He was always available to us, talking at lectures and book events, visiting our studio (and telling us he secretly wished he could work in a similar setup, which, coming from him I always took as tacit approval for what we were up to).
By the time the fiftieth anniversary of the public opening of City Hall arrived, Michael had become a fixture in our lives. We produced a replica of the pin that was given out in 1969, and Michael graciously signed letterpress cards in a requisite gold ink. He was even invited to a birthday party by the mayor, where, with great amusement, he was presented with a giant cake, slathered in grey icing, of the building itself. Without pause Michael cut into the cake, perhaps relishing in both the absurdity of the situation, and finally an opportunity for the author to consume his work.
McKinnell and Walsh during a cake cutting celebrating City Hall’s 50th birthday.
Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe staff file
He also saw the tide turn in perceptions of the building, which had gradually climbed out of what we refer to as the "Ugly Valley,” the period forty to fifty years after a building is built, and cyclical styles are appreciated and reevaulated, and was now being treated not just with respect, but with active repurposing.
In our interview with him for Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, Michael eloquently summed up the aspirations for our project, and for architecture itself:
“The making of architecture is imbued with hubris, because we challenge our own mortality. That is perhaps why you use such words as heroic and noble. I think that those are terms in which all architects—whatever they say—secretly think of their work.”
It’s another heartbreaking loss for our architecture community. If you need a moment to clear your mind, imagine City Hall and place your hand on this masterwork’s concrete columns. Lean in if you need to in these surreal times. I guarantee it will hold you up.
-Chris Grimley, OverUnder
© Ezra Stoller/Esto
Michael McKinnell was born on Christmas Day in 1935, in the city of Manchester, England. He passed away on the afternoon of March 27 north of Boston, Massachusetts. His presence will be missed.