San Francisco City Hall
Credit: Paul Whitfield/Getty Images

San Francisco City Hall

I had two appointments recently in two different city halls, which made me think about civic architecture in a world in which our cities are more about bureaucracy—more or less efficient—than about a shared spirit.

In my native Cincinnati, as in many cities around the world, City Hall speaks of our ambitions when we built it more than it does of the reality of the place. The Chinese central government recently ruled to put a stop to the palaces that cities across the country were building for themselves, which reminded me of the elaborate city halls the United States built a century and more ago.

Cincinnati built our monument in 1893 according to designs by local architect Samuel Hannaford. It is a fine, though rather late, example of the Richardsonian Romanesque, its nine-story tower anchoring the corner, a massive pavilion marking the front entrance, and its bulk stretching back across the whole block in yellow ashlar accented by red sandstone.

Cincinnati's City Hall.
Hannaford/Flickr Cincinnati's City Hall.

The problems start with that orientation. The building sits beyond the edge of downtown, in a neighborhood of low-slung and messy buildings. Only a Methodist church, the local cathedral, and Plum Street Temple—which together shape the rest of City Hall’s turreted corner—give the area a sense of importance, but those structures are empty most of the time. An office building mainly occupied by government workers sits to the west, its utter banality at least shielding City Hall from the highway behind it. Cincinnati’s City Hall, in other words, is a monument in search of a landscape and an audience.

On you rise up a flight of steps to enter, and you find that the main entrance hall is a surprisingly dim affair, with the requisite grand staircase leading past glorious stained glass windows up to the council chambers that are, of course, over that entry. The mayor’s office occupies the corner of the piano nobile, where the tower is on the outside. When I go to visit him, I usually have to sit in the anteroom, where his staff works in office cubicles huddled in airy expanse. Despite the staff’s activity, I can’t help but feel that they are a bit forlorn. Once they usher you in to see the mayor, the disjunction between the room’s scale and its use is even more extreme: It does not ennoble, but dwarfs our highest elected official. When I joined him and a few other officials in a meeting room the other day, the contrast screamed out at me between the original woodwork and the added carpeting, lay-in ceiling, thermal windows, and every other piece of efficient but inelegant modern furnishings.

A few weeks ago, I went to San Francisco's City Hall to obtain a marriage license. This monument is even more impressive. Finished in 1915 to designs by Arthur Brown, also a local architect, it is as fine—and as large—a piece of Beaux-Arts classicism as you will find anywhere in the country. Its central dome is even taller than that of the U.S. Capitol. There is a plasticity about the way Brown deployed the columns, pediments, porticoes, and pavilions that brings alive what could be a dead behemoth.

Inside San Francisco's City Hall.
Credit: chris.chabot/Flickr

Inside San Francisco's City Hall.

The building sits at the end of a large open space and is surrounded, for the most part, by equally grand civic buildings. Though the plaza is rather forlorn, it is a proper forecourt. The main interior, with its central staircase rising up under a skylight, is filled with light.

Go beyond marveling to do business, however, and some of the same problems arise as I found in Cincinnati. The building does not exactly invite you in, even before you deal with the security checks. The staircase is for wedding pictures only, unless you are a celebrity. Find the office where you have to get your permit or have your meeting, and you go down long corridors past rabbit warren offices and arrive at a desk where the employees (in our experience, extremely friendly and efficient) work in a space that is again much larger than the human actions that take place there.

Inside Cincinnati's City Hall.
Credit: prolix.21/Flickr

Inside Cincinnati's City Hall.

This is the problem with architecture that seeks to be civic: It is about an idea, not about people. Style has little to do with it, as you can find the same problems with modern city halls and monuments that seek to fulfill that name. The reality of life around and in these buildings has no adequate and appropriate room in structures that are about abstract ideals and values.

Yet we still want those shared icons. What we really need is strategies for interior and exterior design that preserve these monuments, but let us occupy them with dignity, efficiency, and a sense of living community.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

Photos used with permission via a Creative Commons license with Flickr users chris.chabot, Hannaford, and prolix.21.