A New Look For City Hall
International Design Contest
In 1961, Boston city government launched an international contest seeking innovative designs for what would be the city’s new seat of government. This area, in the heart of downtown, would be called Government Center. It would become the site of a newly constructed City Hall building. 566 designs were submitted for consideration. The winning design, by Gerhard Kallman and Michael McKinnell (a Columbia University professor and graduate student, respectively) began construction in 1962. Explore the evolution of Boston’s City Hall:
Construction began on the new City Hall in 1963, although it would not be completed for five years. In 1968, City Hall opened to the public.
Mixed Opinions Among Public
Reactions to the building were mixed. While many in the city agreed that the old City Hall needed a modern replacement, views of the completed structure ranged from praise to criticism. Generally, architecture critics felt positively about the design, while Boston residents and politicians had negative reactions.
New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable captured some of the public reaction to City Hall's opening in this 1969 article: “‘Whatever it is, it's not beautiful,’ said the Boston cab driver taking the visitor to the new City Hall. ‘What would you call it, Gothic?’ asked another. Which about sums up the architectural gap, or abyss, as it exists between those who design and those who use the 20th century's buildings.”
Praise from Critics
The building received high praise, as well. In this Sunday paper op-ed in the Boston Globe, art and architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt calls the building “the greatest triumph of urban design since New York’s Rockefeller Center was built in the 1930s” for its ability to meet the needs of a modern public and its civic leaders, without wasting any space on superfluous things like greenery or long hallways. “Boston gambled, and to blurt right out with it, won!” writes Von Eckardt.
The building did not age particularly well, either in terms of public opinion or historic preservation. In 2015, Mayor Marty Walsh tried to soften the very starkness praised by Von Eckardt by attaching a large carpet of fake grass to the brick ground in front of the building, in order to make the hard and monolithic space look more inviting to residents. The New York Times reported that “practically overnight, the setup, minimal as it is, has transformed part of this widely derided stretch of cityscape into a park space.”
The building’s preservation has also been a challenge. Concrete buildings are hard to alter, update or renovate, don’t fare well in damp weather, and the steel rebars required to support these structures often leak rust, staining the exteriors. The lack of interior natural light also took a toll on those who work inside, as evident in this 2006 article. In it, Boston City Councilman John Tobin says, “I’m convinced someone in power had an uncle who owned a concrete factory. The air quality is poor. The windows don’t open, and some offices are like meat lockers and others you can get a tan in.”
In 2007, Architecture Boston asked 6 young architects to identify the “sins” of City Hall and suggest improvements that could be made. This example, by Moscow Architects, proposes adding glass vitrines that jut out from the building in order to add light to interior spaces, and a vibrant rooftop garden to present a kinder, gentler face to the public.