Whenever the Boston Globe runs a story touching on the design of Boston City Hall (Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles, 1969) and its plaza (I.M. Pei & Associates), readers’ comments add color.

“That whole area looks like Moscow in 1980.”

“Dear Lord, knock it down.”

“No amount of tinkering can save it.”

“Convert ‘Brutalist’ building into housing for architects who like this style of architecture.”

Over time, however, the discussion has evolved. While Boston’s previous and current mayor both proposed at different times to sell City Hall, Mayor Marty Walsh has changed his tune since taking office. Some of the building’s public functions, such as paying parking tickets, are now performed online, leaving space ripe for adaptation. And it is now understood that the "problem” with City Hall is not so much the building as its vast and desolate plaza, part of a master plan designed by I.M. Pei, FAIA, and Henry Cobb, FAIA. In 2015, the city launched Rethink City Hall!, and has since been issuing RFPs to freshen the complex. Readers’ comments on the news are starting to sound more like these:

“Finally, someone thinking and not just complaining.”

“While I don't like Brutalist architecture, it's a style that by now has some historical value/merit. It should be preserved as an example of what was built in the past.”

“This building is very interesting and has the potential to be extraordinary with the right lighting, plaza activity, landscaping, signage. But like Charlie Brown's tree, it needs some TLC!”

The Designing Boston: City Hall + Plaza forum, moderated by Michael Ross (left), featured panelists (seated, left to right) Mark Pasnik, Anita Berrizbeitia, and Michael McKinnell.
Paige McWhorter The Designing Boston: City Hall + Plaza forum, moderated by Michael Ross (left), featured panelists (seated, left to right) Mark Pasnik, Anita Berrizbeitia, and Michael McKinnell.

On January 11, more than 200 people packed a Boston Society of Architects forum on the past and future of City Hall and Plaza. Fifth in a series entitled “Designing Boston,” the event aimed to look clearly forward by looking back at the designers’ intentions. Moderated by attorney Michael Ross, the panel comprised Michael McKinnell, FAIA, who designed City Hall with Gerhard Kallmann and Edward Knowles; Mark Pasnik, AIA, coauthor of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (Monacelli Press, 2015); and Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, chair of the department of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Representing the City of Boston construction department were assistant director of design Gert Thorn and senior project manager Maureen Anderson.

Ross opened by gently challenging the crowd: “Will this be yet another interesting but academic conversation?”

Pasnik reviewed the history of Government Center and the most distinguishing features of City Hall, such as the expression of its program on the facade and the completeness of design throughout the structure. “That’s what makes buildings like this so remarkable,” he said. “The inside and the outside are conceived as one totalizing project.” Many concrete buildings today, Pasnik pointed out, are razed and replaced by “very thin and commercial” designs, “precisely the type of architecture that Michael [McKinnell] and his generation were reacting against.” The city needs to understand “where, within the building’s own DNA, there’s opportunity for us to rethink it.”

Boston City Hall Plaza, from 1 Beacon Street, October 1973
Peter H. Dreyer/City of Boston Archives Boston City Hall Plaza, from 1 Beacon Street, October 1973

Berrizbeitia assigns the 8.8-acre City Hall Plaza as a studio project, with a brief to improve its edges, diversify its materials, and connect it to the urban fabric. She showed plans in which students redistribute the 29-foot grade change between Cambridge and Congress streets, creating “more spaces for people to inhabit.” Given nearby foot traffic following the Big Dig, she said, the plaza is poised to become a genuine gathering place, not a “nine-to-five space." Asked about insertions such as the new headhouse on the Government Center T station, Berrizbeitia countered that “the solution here is not to put things on City Hall Plaza. What we need to focus on is how do we make that exquisite expanse have enough intricacy around the edges [in the form] of smaller spaces, smaller plazas, steps that can be inhabited.”

The crowd’s appreciation for McKinnell was palpable, and he seemed pleased, in turn, by the push to keep his work alive. In the 1960s, he said, "We were obsessed, all of us, with the idea of the public realm, the possibilities of democracy, the possibilities of public action. And we thought the building should engender that: The building should be open, and penetrable, and accessible night and day, and that was the whole idea of passing through and under the building." Invoking his firm's 2001 Independence Visitor Center in Philadelphia, McKinnell said he would turn the lower part of City Hall into a visitor center and city museum (a concept that has also been advanced by others) and the central courtyard into a glazed-over “celebratory space.” Changes to the complex as a whole, he argued, should be dramatic: “I’m not sure the plaza or the building in its present condition can accomplish the sorts of things that we had envisioned without a very considerable and radical intervention. What’s important is that whatever happens is bold, and self-confident, and in that sense can exist with the building and complement it."

Boston City Hall Plaza, from 1 Beacon Street, October 1973
Peter H. Dreyer/City of Boston Archives Boston City Hall Plaza, from 1 Beacon Street, October 1973

Asked about activating the plaza’s edges, McKinnell told a surprising backstory: “We tried very, very hard to introduce the possibility of cafés and eating places around the perimeter. We were finally told this would not happen, because the city had made an agreement with the local tradespeople not to introduce anything into this publicly financed space that could in any way be competitive with their enterprises.”

Attendees shared ideas. One called for a shopfront design studio where people could stop in, review the latest plans, and make comments; another suggested plaza space for physical pursuits such as skateboarding. Former city construction manager Jim Mulligan made a case for private fundraising. Veteran architect and planner Sy Mintz, AIA, called passionately for people to “come out in the thousands in City Hall Plaza” to assure Mayor Walsh that there is public support, “not just architects’ support,” for this public place.

Several speakers praised the “enlightened” Walsh administration for having reopened this conversation. In the words of Mark Pasnik, “I think the tide is shifting towards people accepting and being interested in the building."