Defending, Reimagining City Hall

For some Bostonians City Hall is a mammoth example of modernist architecture. For others, including Mayor Tom Menino, it's an ugly, dysfunctional eyesore.

Late last year he introduced a controversial proposal to sell City Hall and build a state-of-the-art replacement on Boston's waterfront. Now the Boston Society of Architects is coming to City Hall's defense. WBUR's Andrea Shea reports.

Sound from City Hall Plaza

ANDREA SHEA: Love it or hate it, most people walking up, down and across City Hall Plaza have an opinion about City Hall.

PEOPLE ON CITY HALL PLAZA: 'It's kind of just there. And big. And ugly and boring Boston architecture.' 'It's my favorite building in town, cause it's so ugly that it's just awesome. 'I mean I love the outside just because it's a different shape but I think the inside could be done over.' 'I understand that perhaps it has value as a work of art but I really don't like the way it looks.' 'Oh I think this building is terrific, I think it's unsinkable. I think they'd have to nuke this thing to bring it down.'

ANDREA SHEA: And while Mayor Menino's didn't say he'd bring City Hall 'down' when he introduced his idea last December, there is a perception that any developer who'd buy it would likely scrap it to build from scratch. That dramatic prospect...and the mayor's plan to move the government to the waterfront...was, and still is, disturbing to some Boston architects.

ELIZABETH PADJEN: To be honest, it's one of those ideas that everybody thought was so preposterous it would somehow just go away and of course it didn't.

ANDREA SHEA: Elizabeth Padjen is the Editor of 'Architecture Boston,' a magazine published by the Boston Society of Architects. She says the mayor's proposal stoked a slew of questions among her peers, including...

ELIZABETH PADJEN: Why move, why sell it, why abandon the building when the things that people typically complain about really could be fixed? And so we decided that we would devote a whole issue of the magazine to re-imagining City Hall.

ANDREA SHEA: And they asked 6 teams of young Boston designers to consider the 38 year-old building's many 'sins.' Too dark. Too hard. Too aloof...and then brainstorm for solutions.

ELIZABETH PADJEN: What are the ways that you can refresh the building so the energy of the building becomes more obvious and isn't just seen as a great concrete hulk in the middle of the city?

ANDREA SHEA: Padjen says the team's designs might strike people as extreme, scary or weird. Some feature 'sleeves' and 'wraps' added on to building. Others include glass walls, catwalks, roof-top gardens, cafes and galleries. Most incorporate green technologies.

HANSY BETTER: When I thought of new, I thought of a fashion. How do we make something that can give the existing structure a wow factor.

ANDREA SHEA: Hansy Better of Studio Luz designed an update with a crystalline structure that looks like a honey comb.

HANSY BETTER: We wanted to construct something that would be like a new halo, a new skin for the existing building.

ANDREA SHEA: Better's firm collaborated with landscape architect Scott Carmen of C2 Studio in Roxbury to turn the Mayor's proposal on its head. He says they decided to bring the waterfront to City Hall.

SCOTT CARMEN: Let's just flood the Plaza. And we decided that sort of tongue-in-cheek but at the same time the water in the center creates the opportunity to have a splash park where kids can play in the summertime and in the wintertime you can have ice skating. And it's still holds a sort of monumental quality of City Hall, the quality of it sitting by itself in this plaza so it actually maintains that as well.

ANDREA SHEA: Mayor Menino hasn't yet responded to the architects' responses, but this week he said this to WBUR.

MAYOR TOM MENINO: We all know inside City Hall doesn't work. This is once again the architectural community coming together on a prominent sight. I challenge the architectural community to go look at some of the stuff they've allowed to happen in this city over the last 25-50 years, why don't they criticize that? LAUGHING.

ANDREA SHEA: Plenty of architects do criticize City Hall and would applaud its demolition. Anyone who's been inside knows how dark, confusing and bleak the experience can be. But it wasn't always that way, according to Herbert Gleason. He was Corporation Counsel for the City of Boston during Mayor Kevin White's term in office...and remembers how beautiful...and functional...the building was when it opened in 1969.

HERBERT GLEASON: We had very distinguished guests; people wanted to come and see the building, and have meetings there, have dances there, have parties. We even entertained the queen of England for lunch.

ANDREA SHEA: Architect Gerhard Kallmann won world-wide praise for designing Boston's City Hall in the 60's, according to architect and preservationist Gary Wolf. As he flips through an old periodical he says the building was like a Frank Gehry in its day.

GARY WOLF: Well this is a copy of the 'Architecture Forum' which was one of the periodicals in the profession in the 60s with a photo of city hall on the cover...

ANDREA SHEA: Wolf is also the Vice President of Doco Momo, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving modern architecture. He says City Hall is the most important modernist building in Boston. That's why he organized a petition for the Boston Landmarks Commission asking that it be considered for landmark status. He also says it's eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and can't believe people question its value.

GARY WOLF: It's like asking what would be lost if you completely erased from memory, from all CDs from all LPs, Beethoven's First Symphony. If it weren't there it certainly would be a major vacuum.

Sound City Hall sound

ANDREA SHEA: The debate over City Hall's sins, merit and fate has been heated for many years. People interviewed for this story acknowledge that renovating or building anew will cost a lot either way. Back on the Plaza passerby Peter Valley says while City Hall may not be perfect it belongs to the city.

PETER VALLEY: Can you imagine Boston without this? I mean, c'mon.'

ANDREA SHEA: The Boston Society of Architects is sharing their re-imaginings of City Hall with the public and city officials hoping to open people's eyes to the possibilities.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

To see a slide show of Boston Architecture's re-imaginings...and some shots of City Hall when it first opened...go to our website:

This program aired on October 18, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Andrea Shea

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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