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Architects: Boston City Hall isn't brutalist - it's heroic

City Hall sign pointing to City Hall

What's not to love? 2012 photo.

ArchDaily interviews a trio of architects writing a book about the glory of 1960s and 1970s concrete architecture in Boston and why they prefer to call it "Heroic" rather than "Brutalist." For starters, not all concrete buildings are brutalist. Equally important, they say, all that concrete reflects an era in which city leaders managed to revitalize a city that had been somnolently declining for decades.

Across the U.S., concrete structures were designed during a time of optimism where positive investment was occurring in the civic realm. Their ambitions reflected these facts, so characterizing them as "brutal" sets the entirely wrong tone. It has, we believe, shaped their continued negative public reception today.

The three began thinking of the book in 2007, when Tom Menino said he'd move City Hall to the South Boston waterfront and sell or just demolish the current structure.

They have a Kickstarter campaign (of course!), and say they will use the money both to pay for photos for the book and to create a Web site that could help preserve concrete buildings from demolition by an uncaring and disdainful public and their elected officials, who have been busy starving the buildings of the maintenance funds they deserve.

Greater Boston has already lost several works, including Minoru Yamasaki’s Eastern Airlines Terminal at Logan Airport (demolished 2002) and Sert, Jackson & Associates’ Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School (demolished 2014). Others, such as Paul Rudolph’s Blue Cross Blue Shield Building (1957), are in constant peril of removal or insensitive modification based on escalating real estate values that precipitate ever-larger buildings.

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But it is still one of the ugliest buildings in the world.

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Dark and nearly impossible to navigate. And of course the entire plaza is the ugliest waste of open space in the city.

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Replace "Heroic" with "arrogant" and they are right. At the time architects and their BRA enablers thought nothing of being uncaring and disdainful of the public with mass land takings and demolition for anti-human superblocks.

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It's a design that doesn't encourage citizen participation in our communities. The design connotes keep back, you're not welcome.

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Just siegeproof.

A lot of public buildings from that time period would appear to be designed to limit access points in case of insurrection. Just look at one of your favorites- Phillip Johnson's addition to the Boston Public Library. Thankfully they have taken down the stone walls, and hopefully the entrances will be more attractive in the future.

As for City Hall, I think that post-9/11, we are stuck with only that one point of entrance. I don't know how one could open things up, sans-security, but the second floor entrance to City Hall (over by the credit union and elections department) was always more inviting, though you had to be "in the know" to, well, know about it. Not that it was a secret, just well hidden.

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I read somewhere that the architects were trying to open the building to the public on the plaza through large windows and such. And, in fact, there's a giant window that overlooks City Hall Plaza from the City Council chambers. Only it's way in the back and up high, so you couldn't see the council from the plaza anyway (and councilors could not see the little people five stories below).

And inside? The City Council meets in a giant concrete box (with seats raked at just the proper angle to make them uncomfortable, although that's hardly the fault of the architects).

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The building is a testament to the fear and contempt most people in government felt towards their constituents, particularly those with something to say. That plaza was designed to be in hospitable, and the building a fortress.

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The entire UMass Boston campus was build with just such a mentality - narrow enclosed catwalks between buildings to discourage use of the campus outdoor space, (which has the same design/construction quality as City Hall Plaza) and no easy access to the Harbor. The "new" (early 2000's) Admin building is a significant improvement (open, inviting) and they've made some attempts at enouraging use of the plaza space via outdoor sculpture installations.

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UMass-Boston kept on going through my mind.

The open space is not what made it impervious to attack. It's the fact that the buildings were on top of a 2 story parking garage, with the only entrance on the "side" from where the public approaches. Every time I run along the campus and get to the grand, yet somehow hidden, staircase, I chuckle.

The new "entrance", in the rear of course, does look amazing. Now all they have to do is tear down Quinn(?) and make a proper building at the entrance.

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the plan for UMB is to remove all of the plaza area surrounding the buildings. Thus removing the parking garage. Where the garage is beneath the buildings, they will make that useable space. Then the ground level will be a true university quad with pathways connecting all of the buildings.

https://www.umb.edu/the_university/masterplan

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...in the case of City Hall, that the architects had a fully developed symbolic concept of it being a people's building. Things like having all the functions the public interacted with on the ground floor, or having the mayor's office protrude out of the building to "connect" it to the city.

The problem was these ideas were so intellectual and abstract that it's nearly impossible for an average human being to sense any of them when physically in or around the actual building itself. This was a time of cold people with big ideas, and they were incapable of understanding how disconnected they were to the very people they were attempting acknowledge.

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I was in it yesterday as I have been many times over the years. Each time, I feel like a rat in a maze. Horrible building!

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Would help make it look better on the outside at least?

Incorporating the look of the new GovCtr station (large glass panels) as well as more greenery into the exterior of city hall could at least mask the bleak 'Joe Versus the Volcano' confines within.

Or just blow it up, whatevers easiest.

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I always thought they could just build around it. Incorporate a glass and steel structure like a shell over the existing building.

Just hide the dam thing.

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Just paint it. Give a section to various street artists. Or giant flower murals.

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that would require costly maintenance. Planting vine species with non destructive gripping pads on the other hand would be a great natural solution to the ugly brick wall along Congress Street.

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Across the U.S., concrete structures were designed during a time of optimism where positive investment was occurring in the civic realm.

The Urban Renewal-era, particularly in Boston, was obviously a traumatic experience for most and a divisive one for the public-writ large as there can be no mistaking that Boston post-Logue and post-Hynes and White was on surer economic footing than in the early 1950s. I mean it wouldn't have been far-fetched to deem Boston "Detroit on the Atlantic" back in the bad old days of deindustrialization (and back in a time where the development of a "service economy" was seen as a bad thing - manufacturing was never as prominent in Boston as other surrounding cities and the switch from manufacturing to service happened before the urban renewal era, but leaders at the time viewed that as an ill-omened development. This one the sentiment behind the NY Streets demolition and subsequent reconstruction as a light industrial site).

But.....what people seem to forget, most of all these architects, is that the urban renewal era was also the first time the federal government provided city-specific funds and the first federal involvement in urban affairs in the modern era - in effect, providing ambitious political leaders a source of fedbux to dole out to their constituencies as part of a country-wide modernization program. Now the aims and intentions of "modernization" were poorly understood, yes, but it was both the novel federal and civic investment in the public space that catalyzed growth in Boston. The architecture of the buildings built during this era were just, well, (un)lucky - the architecture changed nothing, and the architecture of city hall whether heroic or brutalist did nothing to spur Boston forward. It should be judged on its own merits, the only merit I can think of is the "head on a stake" one - warning future generations not to get sucked into the 'we know better' mentality.

These buildings are not good buildings, they're are a few modernist pieces that do fit quite nicely (the Brattle building, site of the current city-sports and former crate and barrel in Harvard Sq comes to mind) - but most don't and for most these buildings serve as reminder of the modernist architecture pissing contest waged by Harvard and MIT back in the day.

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Especially the observation that the champions of mid-century brutalism in Boston have their cart and their horse in wrong order.

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The City has abysmally failed for decades to redo the plaza in a way that complements the building. It should have grassy hillocks and some trees and shrubs - warm, softening greenery to offset the brutalist architecture. That would work and has never been tried. Instead we've had a brutalist brick wasteland, a horrible setting for the building.

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The plaza originally did have that - and a water fountain - in what is now the forlorn corner over by the JFK Building. But the water kept leaking on the T tracks below, so they shut the fountain. Then they took down the greenery. Then they filled the whole thing in with concrete.

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...becomes ashamed of itself.

2) The shame leads to the belief that bold, sweeping, disruptive actions need to be taken.

3) People long on brains and short on heart take advantage of the situation, create bold, sweeping disruptions.

4) Everyone hates it.

5) City rebounds in spite of it all.

6) Bold, sweeping disruptors attempt to take credit for the rebound, can't figure out why nobody else can see it.

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Sounds like the current Olympic plans.

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The city hall building was responsible for the economic rebound - all the companies in the country felt bad for us.

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Someone shoulda snuck in a rider in the Government Center T demolition agreement that included City Hall's destruction as well. Then rebuild the new one to look like a giant Dunkin' Donuts to really look welcoming.

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(covering head)

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I like it also. I may be part of a small minority, but I like that type of architecture. And though nothing has really changed, I seem to recall it somehow looked better years ago. Maybe because it was newer. The now defunct fountain helped. I think part of the problem is these type of buildings get a filthy, dirty look that I doubt can be effectively cleaned. The Lindemann Center building looks absolutely filthy. The City Hall brick plaza could use a good cleaning also.

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...the BRA has issued an RFP for re-master planning a new city hall plaza..stay tuned, and stay involved.

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I don't love it, but I see how people could dig it. There is something solid, chunky, stable, and permanent about it, which is kind of a nice message to send for local government, even if it's not always played out in practice. Sure, it looks like someone made a bunch of mistakes in concrete class and left them out back in the elements, but I am not sure that our current architecture is going to look so good to us a few decades down the line either, so I can live with it.

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Everyone, regardless of race, color, creed, or neighborhood, thinks it's hideous.

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I think Boston City Hall is underrated from an architectural standpoint, but from an urban planning standpoint come on, bulldozing Scollay Square was not a good idea.

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I've seen cement countertops with glass or stone embedded in them that look beautiful. I don't feel the same about these structures.

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I have seen some really ugly trees but this purpleheart trivet I have is really beautiful....we're comparing apples to orchards here. wow.

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It's a poor replacement for the glorius original city hall
on Milk St, and this architectual obscenity should
be torn down !!!!!
It's construction was part of a city wide swath of unconscionable destruction (urban renewal ?) which
was in retrospect a gift to corrupt developers by equally
corrupt politicians.

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Looks like a good place to store ice in the wintertime.

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I'm new in Boston and my neighbor has and has been using bbq grill on second floor wooden fire escape a "5 by five platform" , curious does anyone know if tenant is breaking any safety laws. If they are breaking the law, which dept do I call, for a swift result.
Concerned homeowner..

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that's definitely illegal. Honestly, your best bet would be to complaint to the landlord first before getting the city involved. Boston tends to hold a lot of property owners responsible for the bad behavior of people on their property, to a completely ludicrous standard, and your landlord could end up getting fined or in trouble over it. This might poision the relationship you have with your landlord going forward.

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Pick up your phone and call the fire dept. This is a series fire hazard and your fuck head neighbor is an asshole for being so selfish as to put lives in danger over a grilled steak. Fire dept will show up and hose that fucker right off his little platform and give him a citation to boot. Then I'd call the landlord and tell him that fire engines are at his property. I am not joking do it now.

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tell him to get a George Foreman grille

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...he might hate the brutalism but at least there's nothing combustible there except for an occasional zoning appeals hearing.

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Does the old Charlesview count as one of these lost heroic masterpieces?

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And that's how you feel when you go to city hall. It feels like a rainy day and you have to walk round and round and cant find anything and a basement on the first floor and a first floor on the 3rd floor and the ticket payment and parking permit and marriage license windows all next to each other in the dungeon because you are being punished for going there oh why oh why oh why....oops think i had too much coffee. Anyway i used to work there and i used to ask myself oh why oh why oh why...oops just horrible! Does anyone remember the boat that was on display on the outside mezzanine - must have been in the 70s. Mother took us there to play for some reason.

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All of Government Center looks like something an egomaniacal dictator would design. It perhaps might make sense to someone with a social deficit like autism, but not to neuro-typical people.

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The architects that complain that the public disdains public building design are missing something - the public is the user and gets the vote.

When I look at Boston architecture of yore, I love the crescent buildings, the buildings that have an interesting streetside front and secret lovely hidden spaces inside or outside in areas invisible to passersby.

But instead, we get the Stata - an ode to stupidity (ask any farmer about why the metal roof drains to gutters, and then look at the Stata's idiotic use of that material) It seems as if architects are giving a figurative eff u to anyone who is unfortunate enough to have to enter and use the spaces.

Gracefulness and thoughtful ornamentation and welcoming design have all been stripped from the mid-century and minimalist millennial designs.

Yuck.

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This building is awesome and beautiful. What is atrocious is all the hideous office building towers with zero character.

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It has about as much character as concrete foundation forms.

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This architecture could be described as:
1. Able to continue operating at the 200-year flood mark.
2. An unfinished building foundation
3. Brutal = the Biography of Whitey Bulger
4. The final resting place for many of Whitey's victims.

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