Boston City Hall
This controversial overscale building was designed by Gerhard Kallmann, Noel McKinnell, and Edward Knowles, three Columbia University professors, who won the nationwide contest in 1962 to design the building. Their design, which was chosen out of 256 entries, was said to revolve around the theme of creating a public and accessible character for the headquarters of the city's government (columns and eagles were out of fashion at the time). The architects claimed to be inspired in their aim for civic monumentality by precedents as varied as Le Corbusier’s works, especially the monastery of Sainte Marie de La Tourette, with its cantilevered upper floors, exposed concrete structure, and its similar interpretation of public and private spaces, and Medieval and Renaissance Italian public spaces. Many of the elements in the design were supposedly abstractions of classical designs such as the coffers and the architrave above the cement columns. Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles collaborated with two other Boston architectural firms and one engineering firm to form the Architects and Engineers for the Boston City Hall, responsible for construction, which took place from 1963 to 1968.

Assessment of the building's architecture follows a variety of criteria. In general, design professionals admire the design, while non-designers -- people who live and work outside of the architecture profession -- dislike the design's realization.

For example, after viewing the building for the first time, some Modernist architects praised it, including Ada Louise Huxtable, who said, "What has been gained is a notable achievement in the creation and control of urban space, and in the uses of monumentality and humanity in the best pattern of great city building. Old and New Boston are joined through an act of urban design that relates directly to the quality of the city and its life." Thereafter it has been considered an excellent example of Brutalist architecture. It is listed among the "Greatest Buildings" by Great Buildings Online, an affiliate of Architecture Week. In the 1976 poll of historians and architects, sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, Boston City Hall was voted the sixth greatest building in American history.

On the other hand, people who live with the building day after day, year after year, find City Hall unpleasant, disfunctional and dispiriting. In the 1960s, then-Mayor John Collins reportedly gasped as the design was first unveiled, and someone in the room blurted out, "What the hell is that?" City Hall is sharply unpopular with Bostonians, as it is with employees of the building, who see it as a dark and unfriendly eyesore. It remains the butt of jokes in local magazines. The structure's complex interior spaces result in cavernous voids, a confusing floorplan, and make the building very expensive to heat.

In 2008, the Boston City Hall gained some international notoriety when Reuters reported that editors from Virtualtourist voted it the ugliest building in the world.

The surrounding City Hall Plaza has long been cited as a failure in terms of design and urban planning. In 2004 the Project for Public Spaces identified it as the worst single public plaza worldwide, out of hundreds of contenders. Some efforts have been made to liven up City Hall Plaza, but these have been met with mixed reactions.

James Howard Kunstler said on a talk show that, "There is not enough Prozac in the world to make people feel okay" when walking along the road on the back side of the building.

City Hall divides into three sections, aesthetically and also by use. The lowest portion of the building, the brick-faced base, which is partially built into a hillside, consists of four levels of the departments of city government where the public has wide access. The brick largely transfers over to the exterior of this section, and it is joined by beige- and gray-colored materials such as quarry tile and exposed concrete, all of which are typical of Boston buildings. The use of earth tones such as brick is meant to emphasize the idea of public access in this building.

The intermediate portion of City Hall houses the public officials — the Mayor, the City Council, and the Council Chamber. The oversize scale and the protrusion of various interior spaces on the outside are meant to be symbolic of the ideal public connection with these areas of city government. These dramatic outcroppings severely contrast with the character of the other two portions of the building, which stick to a more regular pattern. They are intended to create an effect of a small city of concrete-sheltered structures cantilevered above the plaza. The cantilevers are supported by exterior columns, spaced alternately at 14-foot-4-inch (4.37 m) and 28-foot-8-inch (8.74 m), which are steel-reinforced.

The upper stories contain the city’s office space, used by bureaucratic agencies not visited frequently by the public, such as the administrative and planning departments. This bureaucratic nature is reflected in the standardized window patterns, which are of the typical modern office building style.

The top of the brick base was designed as an elevated courtyard melding the fourth floor of the city hall with the plaza. Because of security concerns, city officials blocked access to the courtyard and to the outdoor stairways to Congress Street and the plaza. The courtyard is occasionally opened up for events (such as the celebration of the Boston Celtics championship in 1986). After 9/11 security was further increased. City Hall's north entrance facing the plaza was barricaded with jersey barriers and bicycle racks. All visitors entering the front and back entrances must pass through metal detectors.

City Hall was constructed using mainly cast-in-place and precast Portland cement and some masonry. About half of the concrete used in the building was precast — roughly 22,000 separate components — and the other half was poured-in-place concrete. All of the concrete used in the structure, excluding that of the columns, is mixed with a light, coarse rock. While the majority of the building is created using concrete, precast and poured-in-place concrete are distinguishable by their different colors and textures. For example, cast-in-place elements are coarse and grainy textured because the concrete was poured into fir wood frames to mold it, while precast elements, such as trusses and supports, were set in steel molds to gain smooth, clean surfaces. This distinction can also be seen in the fact that the exterior poured-in-place pieces are of type I cement, a lightly colored cement, while the exterior precast components use type II cement, a dark colored cement. The base of the building is dark with brick, Welsh quarry tiles, mahogany walls, and darker concrete. As the building ascends, the overall color lightens, as lighter concrete is used.

On December 12, 2006, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino proposed selling the current city hall and adjacent plaza to private developers and moving the city government to a site in South Boston.

On April 24, 2007, the Boston Landmarks Commission reviewed a petition backed by a group of architects and preservationists to grant the building special landmark status (much to the dismay of Mayor Menino). The petition will be studied further before a final vote is taken.

On July 10, 2008, Landmarks Commission official said the petition to grant the building special landmark status had been recommended for study, but probably would not be considered by the panel unless a plan to demolish the structure was imminent. Members of the group Citizens for City Hall also opposed Mayor Menino's plan to build a new City Hall on the South Boston waterfront because it would be a major inconvenience for tens of thousands of city residents.

In December 2008, Menino suspended his plan to move city hall in 2011. In a worsening recession, he stated, "I can't consciously move ahead on a major project like this at this time".


28 photos

Building Activity

  • updated a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via Annotator
  • Иван Барашов
    Иван Барашов commented
    about 7 years ago via iPhone
  • Иван Барашов
    Иван Барашов commented
    about 7 years ago via iPhone
  • Иван Барашов
    Иван Барашов commented
    about 7 years ago via iPhone
  • atlboy
    atlboy commented
    about 7 years ago via iPhone
  • thmars10
    thmars10 commented
    I couldn't agree more. Never has a Brutalist building stuck me as anything more than a concrete eye sore.
    about 7 years ago via iPhone
  • danielbv
    danielbv commented
    Burtalism is an aberration of architectural disconnection from the human condition. Virtually all people are made to feel less human in the presence of these monstrosities. I attended the University of Tennessee just after many of these depressing structures were put up, my dorm made me want to jump out the window to the cold, inhumane courtyard below! The preservationists who stand in the way of the destruction of these failed concrete, abstract monuments to the irresponsible architects of the 1960's are inflicting unnecessary pain on the citizens of their afflicted cities.
    about 7 years ago via