Essential Architecture- Boston

Boston City Hall


Kallmann McKinnell & Wood


Boston, Massachusetts






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.


town hall
  Boston City Hall, note the Flag of Ireland at right.
  Boston City Hall during the 2004 rally for the New England Patriots.
  Side view of City Hall.
Special thanks to for the following article



Brutalized in Boston

Boston City Hall

Sledgehammers would be satisfying but it would take a million Red Sox fans swinging a million sledgehammers a million years to erase this building, and then you'd have a vast pile of broken rocks and race of super-strong Red Sox fans on your hands. That's poured concrete, of course, tough concrete and masonry. It took five years from groundbreaking (September 18, 1963) to dedication (February 10, 1969) to pour this rough-edged concrete, the kind of concrete that shows the rough vertical form-marks on purpose, sweater-snagging Brutalism, concrete not friendly to tender fingertips or to the eye.

It is interesting to know how this happened, exactly who in 1962 thought this was a good idea, but the much better question is what now.


how did this happen?

The design for Boston City Hall was awarded in a 1962 national competition to Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, both of whom were teaching at Columbia and both of whom moved over to the Harvard GSD after landing this big commission. Kallmann was 45, McKinnell was 25. It started their careers, made their names, and they're still going.

Boston City Hall is surrounded by and integrated with "City Hall Plaza", a great name for 8 acres of flat brick pavement. City Hall Plaza is 8 acres of the 60 acres of the Government Center, and City Hall is the crown jewel of 30 buildings in the Government Center, in the middle of downtown Boston. Prime real estate to say the least. All this is the result of an early 1960s urban redevelopment / slum clearance scheme which bulldozed a portion of the city 'previously known as Scollay Square and populated by burlesque houses and honky-tonk bars.' All of Government Center was master-planned by the much-decorated and masterful I. M. Pei.

The building itself is called a landmark of the 1960s Brutalism style, characterized by thick blocky chunky forms, a certain futuristic permanence, and, above anything else, that rough-edged poured concrete. Brutalism is born of the notion that the shape and look and feel and structural engineering of the finished building should accurately reflect the advantages and drawbacks of the material, which is sensible at heart, so the Boston City Hall is a deliberately crude essay in the inherent qualities of concrete. (A contrarian would point out that concrete buildings aren't necessarily crude; the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, for one example, is sensitive, serene, and highly rhythmic, but whatever.) Concrete is relatively inexpensive to pour and relatively impossible to move or remove after you've poured it. The fun of Brutalism is imagining the building as a heavily muscled, thick-fingered, knuckle-dragging, semi-monstrous intransigent brute with a slow stupid stare. (This one has numerous deeply hooded square eyesockets - scary!) And with another Brutalist landmark, Paul Rudolph's fabled and fondly hated Art & Architecture building on the Yale campus, the Boston City Hall shares a multilevel labyrinthine quality of the time, with ramps and cavities and catwalks and platforms, which is complex and spatially entertaining.


The Kallmann McKinnell and Wood web site explains their Boston City Hall by saying

Its importance as a public icon and the high visibility of its dramatically contoured site called for an intensely complex composition, responsive to the constraints of site, context and program, and an imagery which conveys the openness and dignity of civic governance… The public elements of government, the Council Chamber, the Councilors' Offices and the Mayor's Suite are placed at an elevated level. They are identified as expressive volumes of the interior spatial organization and as important features of the exterior. There is an underlying tripartite, classical order of a brick-clad base, a columnated middle level of concrete piers and the elements of government, and an attic of stepped tiers for the office floors above…The use of an inventive technology and the allusion to historic precedent in the siting as well as the compositional scheme of the building result in a density of image, which is both modern and timeless in nature.

Their web site also says, "The firm's founding project, the Boston City Hall, received instant national recognition and enthusiastic praise. In a poll of historians and architects, sponsored by the AIA, Boston City Hall was voted the sixth greatest building in American history."


what happened?

It's just hard to believe I'm looking at the sixth greatest building in American history.

Sixth best? That would put it ahead of 25 of the following 30 structures, just at random: the Seagram Building, Monticello, Fallingwater, Johnson Wax Headquarters, Dulles Airport, the Robie House, Unity Temple, Grand Central Terminal, the Hollyhock House, the US Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, Richardson's Trinity Church, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, IIT Crown Hall, 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, the Gamble House, the Tribune Tower, the Auditorium Building, the Wainwright Building, the Bradbury Building, the Kimbell Art Museum, the Lovell House, Independence Hall, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Sullivan's banks taken as one, the LA Public Library, the Jefferson Memorial, the River Rouge plant, and the Guardian Building in Detroit. That's amazing. So amazing, it's dead wrong.

This chorus of unanimous praise would be news to the citizens of Boston. This is one of those buildings that regular people hate. Everybody hates it. They don't like looking at it, they fantasize about its sudden disappearance. But they're just a bunch of ill-educated taxi drivers and fishmongers and sloppy drunks who love to complain. What do they know?

This would have been news to the original client. The Mayor of Boston at the time, John Collins, reportedly gasped in involuntary horror when the scale model of this competition winner was unveiled in 1962. Somebody else in the room blurted out, "What the hell is that?" That's truly enthusiastic praise.

It would also be news to the current mayor. "Cursed?" says Mayor Thomas M. Menino. "Nah, it's not cursed. C'mon, it's just had a bad beginning. It's a tough building, though, confusing, too much wasted space, expensive to heat, and it's modernistic and not typical of Boston."

It would be news to architectural historians too. If you're predisposed to give Kallmann and McKinnell points for producing a design of shocking originality and mystery, or to defend them for having a bold experimental vision which didn't turn out, you might have a quick look at Corbusier's monastery at La Tourette.


See any resemblance here? Is it my imagination?


This sixth-best-building in American thing would be shocking news to the taxpayers of Boston, who foot the bill for its excessive energy use, which amounts to two and a half times the costs of running a traditional office building, a result of its high ceilings and drafty complicated cavernous interior voids, some of them nine stories high. That playful spatial complexity, that's expensive. Some offices have 27-foot ceilings. But those people who pay taxes, heck, they're only taxpayers.

It would be news to the people who work in the building. They freeze and roast and sneeze and endure crazy temperature variations, complain of Sick Building Syndrome, suffer with moldy carpets because of leaks, and exhaust fumes wafting up from the underground parking. . But they only spend eight hours a day in this building. What do they know?

It would be news to anybody who has to navigate the floorplan, an especially important attribute for a civic building with a large number of first-time visitors. A story in the Boston Globe in 2004 points out that

It confuses some people to enter from the plaza and then take the elevator up two floors only to find they're not on the third floor but on the fifth because the plaza entrance is on the third floor. Others are perplexed that on the south side there's no fourth floor and on the north side no fifth floor.

Perplexed! This floorplan is so "baffling" (his word) that City Councilor John Tobin still gets lost in the upper floors after working in the building for only three years.

But he's only City Councilor. What would he know about Arrrrrrrrchitecture?


It would be news to the Project for Public Spaces, who identified the surrounding City Hall Plaza as the worst plaza worldwide, beating out many, many other candidates, even the gloriously bad Empire State Plaza in Albany. The building shows a multistory blank brick face to Congress Street, and the plaza creates a sucking void in the heart of the city.

(You might know that the Government Center's master planner Pei was responsible for the nearby John Hancock Tower, which was masterfully delayed from 1971 to 1976 while costs masterfully ran from $75M to $175M, while it was masterfully re-engineered and braced and dampered to keep from falling over on Trinity Church, and while 500-lb 4-by-11-foot panes of glass detached from the windows and masterfully crashed into the sidewalks hundreds of feet below, the technical cause of which was the subject of a masterful legal settlement and a gag order, but you might not know that one of the other buildings on Government Center is Paul Rudolph's Lindemann Center for the mentally ill, which has driven at least one patient, speaking of Brutalism, to ceremonially kill himself.

Most significantly, I think, it would be news to Charles T. Goodsell.


Goodsell is the Virginia political researcher who in the 1980s bothered to travel across the United States and photograph and describe a large number of city halls and other municipal buildings, analyzing the ceremonial social and political relationships coded into these spaces. He produced a book-length essay on the topic called "The Social Meaning of Civic Space: Study Political Authority Through Architecture," and this is what Goodsell has to say about the effect of the Boston city council chamber (pictured above):

The Kallmann-Knowles Boston chamber also illustrates how ceilings can impose order. This architecturally reactionary room features aldermanic desks, side galleries, and boxlike space. Dominating the entire scene is the ceiling. Only about 15 feet high, it appears even lower because of the much higher cavities above the public galleries. Massive concrete gridwork, accentuated by light fixtures, transforms the ceiling into a metaphor for suppressive social control.

If architecture codes and preserves social & political relationships (and yes Virginia it does) then the exterior of this building says everything about the relationship of Boston's municipal services with its clients, the relationship of the government to the governed. I'm not talking about a metaphor. This building generates the experience of city government in Boston.

So imagine the real experience of government through the eyes of a pedestrian forced to traverse a windswept empty plaza ('windswept' is just a word, but, please, understand that it's a whole set of unpleasant sensations, 'windswept' is shorthand for windswept, snowswept, exposed to cold wet penetrating Boston wind, featureless, hard and flat, forbidding, uninteresting, vulnerabilzing, isolating, scaled-to-intimidate), past the broken promise of a fountain that has never ever worked (too bad we don't have a Broken Fountains theory to go along with the Broken Windows theory), to approach the underside of a top-heavy, brooding, hulking concrete fortress (and by 'fortress' I mean instantly, cinematically, viscerally, recognizably-by-shape-alone out of human scale, comparable to the worst of Soviet work), rough to the touch and confusing as hell, a building that wastes your time, a building with cavernous voids vaguely threatening and vaguely empty, so he or she can climb upstairs and register to vote. All metaphors aside, that voter learns things during a journey like that. That voter draws certain conclusions about Boston and voting and his role as a citizen. Whether he knows it or not.



So what now?

All this history and analysis is meaningless if it doesn't guide future action. There's a lot of talk about tearing Boston City Hall down.

The very shape of the building doesn't provide much hope. It's a fundamental problem of the massing of a very heavy very permanent concrete structure. You'd have to plant a lot of ivy. Hard to gather the political will, a full head of steam, regarding design decisions. Hard to protest against this building without putting yourself in the position of the puny individual against the government fortress.

So what? Give it the Logan's Run treatment, a vast ruin-rainforest-shrine? A mound of dirt up to a certain level, the rest of it converted into some kind of rock-climbing park?

Mayor Menino says, "It's got a long life expectancy, because it's built like a bomb shelter," he says. "You could hit it with an atomic bomb and windows might quiver, but the building won't move."

Reading between the lines I detect a vague hope that the building will 'come back into style' so it won't have to be pulled down. As if people would ever really embrace being Brutalized. (I guess it could happen.) As if this building was simply misunderstood. As if the people who spend eight hours a day here are somehow disqualified from being heard and understood. As if we should judge buildings on how they look instead of how they work. As if.


I don't have any other suggestions about how to get rid of this blockage. I believe it's only a matter of time, and it will have to be totally removed, not modified, not retrofitted, not adapted. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when.

But the history of this building makes one thing very clear. As harped-on above, the AIA in its wisdom named the Boston City hall the sixth-best building in American history. It gave the building a 1969 AIA Honor Award for Architecture. It also gave the masterful John Hancock Tower, whose 500-lb windows kept crashing into the street, a 1977 AIA National Honor Award.

So when the City of Boston finally wants to begin public hearings, inevitably some conservationist will file suit to preserve the building, calling it a unique architectural resource, an irreplaceable cultural artifact, and stuff like that. Inevitably some witch doctor from the AIA will stand up to talk. You might be able to recognize him from ceremonial funny eyeglasses. Inevitably he or she will begin talking, weaving his head hypnotically as he speaks, saying it's an intensely complex composition, responsive to the constraints of site, context and program, and an imagery which conveys the openness and dignity of civic governance. He is deeply mistaken. The more he talks, the less you learn. If you let him speak for too long, you will end up knowing less than when you started, and your head will throb.

Treat his remarks as a series of cynical and irrelevant jokes, and don't let him distract you from the matter at hand.Trust your own judgment and the judgment of those who use and work in the building. Those opinions are the ones that count.




Copyright 2006 - 2007 Walt Lockley.

Boston City Hall

Boston City Hall is the home of the municipal government of Boston, Massachusetts.

City Hall is a 9-level, horizontally-oriented brutalist building designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Wood and located at the heart of a brick-paved Government Center plaza in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. It is rectangular in plan, but is an inverted pyramid in elevation. The masterplan for Government Center was designed by IM Pei.

City Hall is located in Government Center in downtown Boston. The adjoining 8-acre City Hall Plaza is often used for parades and rallies; most memorably, the region's championship sports teams, the Boston Celtics, Boston Bruins, New England Patriots and the Boston Red Sox, have been feted in front of City Hall. A huge crowd in the plaza also greeted Queen Elizabeth II during her 1976 Bicentennial visit, as she walked from the Old State House to City Hall to have lunch with the Mayor.

This monumental building was designed by Gerhard M. Kallmann, Noel M. McKinnell, and Edward F. 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, revolved 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 were 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 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.

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 other earth-toned materials such as quarry tile and exposed concrete, all of which are typical of Boston buildings. The use of earth tones such as brick emphasizes 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 grand scale and the protrusion of various interior spaces on the outside are 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 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 inches and 28-foot 8 inches, 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. Another usage of color distinction can be seen in the fact that the base of the building starts out dark, using brick, Welsh quarry tiles, mahogany walls, and darker concrete and then, as you ascend, the overall color of the structure lightens, as lighter concrete is used.

After viewing the building for the first time, some in the architecture community promptly 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."

The praise was not universal. Then-Mayor John Collins reportedly gasped as the design was first unveiled, and someone in the room blurted out, "What the hell is that?"[1] City Hall is unpopular with Bostonians, as it is with employees of the building, who see it as a dark and unfriendly eyesore.[2] The structure's complex interior spaces result in cavernous voids, a confusing floorplan, and make the building very expensive to heat.

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.[3] Some efforts have been made to liven up City Hall Plaza, but these have been met with mixed reactions.

On the other hand, the adjacent Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market buildings have met with stunning success following restoration. It is a place popular with tourists and natives alike, and generally well esteemed by architectural historians.

Government Center and City Hall Plaza reflect the idea in the 1960s that government, by its nature, must be sterile and non-confrontational. Having so many levels of government in one location — city, state, and federal — is perhaps necessary, but it inevitably crowds out the private sector from a huge section of the city.

Despite the widespread dislike of City Hall among the city's residents and workers, many architecture critics consider it a fine example of brutalist architecture. It is listed among the "Greatest Buildings" by Great Buildings Online, an affiliate of Architecture Week.[4] In a poll of historians and architects, sponsored by the AIA, Boston City Hall was voted the sixth greatest building in American history.[5]

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.[6][7]

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 will be taken, potentially in late 2007 or early 2008.[8]