This year marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of Boston City Hall in 1969.
The brutalist-style complex remains one of the most divisive buildings in the city’s history—and one of the more striking civic buildings in the history of the United States. Partisans love it for its unabashed modernism. Critics loathe it because, well, they say it’s ugly.
The city even today is marking the building’s golden anniversary with a contest to reimagine City Hall virtually “in a way that you think would take the building to the next level”—as if it still needs a certain something to make it palatable.
The building grew out of a national design competition that city officials announced in the spring of 1961. They wanted not only a new city hall, but a centerpiece of a huge urban renewal project to create a governmental hub that would include state and federal buildings as well—what became present-day Government Center.
Plus, officials wanted something forward-looking. Boston’s population had peaked in the 1950s, and the signs of the decay that would eventually drive the city to its 20th-century nadir in the 1970s were already there. It was a good time for the city to signal renewal.
The design competition drew more than 250 submissions. Two relative unknowns from Columbia University, Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, won.
The initial reactions to their brutalist design were famously swift and enduring. One person present at the unveiling at the Museum of Fine Arts in May 1962 shouted “What the hell is that?”, and Boston Mayor John Collins was said to have gasped when he saw the proposal (he had empaneled a jury of local businessmen and architects to select it, and didn’t know the winner until the unveiling).
Within the architecture field, though, the reception was noticeably warmer. Fellow architects, even if they didn’t care for Kallmann and McKinnell’s final approach, understood what they were going for—as architect Robert A.M. Stern put it, City Hall “is a building that architects love and the public doesn’t love”—while critics by and large praised their vision.
The critic Ada Louise Huxtable was a particularly strident fan, praising the building’s openness in The New York Times in February 1969, and dismissing its critics as essentially sentimental: “The monumentality of this public building—and it is magnificently monumental without a single one of those pompous pratfalls to the classical past that building committees clutch like Linus’ blanket—is neither forbidding nor austere.”
That was pretty much what the designers were going for: An open, modern complex that visitors could pass through as much as enter, a civic draw that popped and shocked among Boston’s landscape of much older (and older-style) buildings. It was also very much of its mid-20th-century era, with almost no precedent in any other American city and one still capable of eliciting strong emotions (how many city halls do that?).
“It had to be awesome,” Gerhard Kallmann, who died in June 2012, explained to the Globe earlier that year. “Not just pleasant and slick.”
Whatever the interest that the new design drew, Mayor Collins and his aides considered not working off Kallmann and McKinnell’s proposal. They relented almost immediately, though, allegedly after Collins downed several brandies with jurors at the old Locke-Ober restaurant after the May 1962 unveiling.
Construction got underway in 1963. It wrapped in 1968, and City Hall opened the following year—the first City Council meeting there was January 13, 1969—supplanting the previous civic hub. That one dated from the early 1860s, and had been done in the ornate Second Empire style that was considered new and voguish then.
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Source not already linked to: On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change by Ada Louise Huxtable
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