The City of Boston has recently put out a call for ideas to re-envision City Hall Plaza. Boston City Hall is a controversial building, a mid-century modern example of Brutalism that some people call the ugliest building in Boston. I’ve even heard it called the ugliest building in the world!
There are some cool things I’ve learned about the architecture of the building such as the honeycomb of windows on the top floors indicating where the city worker bees have their office being joined to the public on the ground floor by the large shapes of the Mayor’s Office and City Council chambers. The “brute” in Brutalism comes from the shape of the raw concrete that makes up the bulk of the building resting like a sculpture on a brick base. I think the unadorned concrete’s aesthetic difficulties are what leads to City Hall’s reputation as ugly.
Nevertheless, ugliness is in the eye of the beholder and while I will not offer an opinion on the attractiveness of City Hall, I do believe that it fails as a public space. Some of these failures can be addressed by modifying the building. For example, the entrance from the plaza is hidden and unwelcoming and should be redesigned. The gaping auto entrance on Congress Street should only exist at a suburban office park, if anywhere, and not opposite Faneuil Hall, one of the city’s most historic places. The lower floors in the interior are also dreary and cavernous, with a long line of glass-plated counters along the far walls adding to the general unfriendliness of the building. Architecture fans want to preserve City Hall and taxpayers appreciate not spending money on a new city building, but I believe these problems should be addressed to make City Hall feel more like it belongs to the people.
The biggest problem for City Hall, I’ve long felt, is not the building itself by the massive 200,000 square foot plaza that surrounds it. The architects wanted to send a message by having their Brutalist sculpture on a plinth surrounded by open space providing a panoramic view, yet to many Bostonians that message is an extended middle finger. The open space accentuates the inaccessibility and unfriendliness of the building making it feel more like a fortress than a Palace of the People that it ought to be. While the plaza is sometimes used for concerts and public events, it is a generally empty with no protection from the elements. I remember once attending the Scooper Bowl and had to give up because there was no escape from the hot sun. That’s right, City Hall Plaza made free ice cream not fun!
So my idea for revitalizing City Hall Plaza is to fill it up with small-scale buildings broken up by winding alleys and parks spaces. When I catch a glimpse of City Hall from Washington Street or from the alleys of the Blackstone Black, I’m impressed by how interesting and attractive the patterns of its structure look at the end of the street vista. Since City Hall looks best in small bits rather than all at once, my plan would emphasize its architectural strengths while also bringing it back to the city from its island of isolation. Filling the plaza would also allow for a variety of landscaping, architecture, and activity that will make the area around City Hall a welcoming and attractive place where people will want to linger.
I below I’ve drawn a quick and dirty plan I drew on a Google Map of what the new City Hall neighborhood could like. A more detailed explanation follows after the illustration.
On the map above you will notice that there is still a considerable amount of area dedicated to open, public space. These areas are indicated in green above. Unlike the sun-scorched, wind-swept City Hall Plaza of today these public spaces will be planted with trees, shrubbery, and flower beds as well as various fountain, sculpture, and other public art. Benches and picnic tables will encourage visitors to linger for a while. There are four distinct types of public space:
- The Triangle – Beneath the overhanging balcony of City Hall is a triangular space which would have less landscaping and more open space (kind of smaller version of today’s plaza) that would encourage a gathering place for public demonstrations, celebrations, and street performance, as well as provide a perspective to view City Hall.
- Promenades – three promenades lead to the Triangle: one from the MBTA station, one from Cambridge Street (and the Center Plaza complex opposite), and one to the federal building complex. With landscaping to provide shade and beauty, these promenades provide a visual link among the architecture of the are. They also are functional walkways providing direct routes for the 20,000-30,000 pedestrians passing through the area each day.
- The Circle – a green area surrounded by buildings near the JFK Federal Building that can serve as a lunch spot for local workers and respite for tourists.
- The Amphitheater – the stage on the north side of City Hall used for summer concerts and festivals will be upgraded into a permanent venue for live music, dance, theater, and public addresses.
The narrow alleys that wind among the new buildings will also be an important public space. My hope is that a person wandering along the alleys will see something at each turn that will surprise and delight and be encouraged to linger.
The black shapes on the map above represent the footprints of small buildings on the scale you may find in the heart of an ancient European city or more close to home, the Blackstone Block across Congress Street. I drew 16 different buildings, which may be too many, but whether it’s 16 or 12 or 10 or 8, I believe there should be several buildings intersected by winding ways that prohibit motor vehicles. It is my expectation that these would be small-scale buildings, ranging from about 3-6 floors in height.
While there would be a master plan specifying general rules for design, I would like them each to have unique architecture. Instead of one big project by one big architectural firm and built by one contractor, the land should be parceled out to multiple firms each creating their own building. Participants in construction would be encouraged to experiment with architectural styles and materials, blending and contrasting with the variety of buildings already surrounding the plaza. This smaller approach also means that many smaller local and minority-owned architecture and construction firms can be encouraged to participate instead of big companies that typically get to work on a project like this. In fact, a different building could be built by companies representing different neighborhoods of Boston, emphasizing the centrality of City Hall to this great city.
The ground floor of each building will be dedicated to retail space – restaurants, bars, and cafes (with tables spilling out into the alleyways and promenades in pleasant weather) and shops of all kinds. As a contrast to Faneuil Hall Marketplace which features more tourist-oriented and high-end shopping, some effort should be made to have shops and services that meet the needs of Government Center employees and residents of adjacent neighborhoods with things like a dry cleaners, delis, or even a child care center in some of these ground level spaces.
The upper floors of the new buildings would be primarily office space, although I suppose one may make an argument for residential apartments or even a hotel in some of the buildings. I imagine that some buildings could be joined together with a picturesque bridge over an alleyway connecting upper levels of the buildings to allow for larger companies. I think a brilliant idea though would be for the city to retain hold of some office space. The city can help fulfill its initiatives for innovation and small businesses by providing low-rent incubator space to innovative local companies.
My idea is a big idea but Boston is a city that has a history of building on big ideas – from filling Back Bay to building America’s first subway to the Big Dig. There would certainly be a considerable investment that would have to go into bringing this idea to fruition, and yet the new buildings would also provide a new source of taxable income. And yet even with the income, I believe my idea would provide many tangible benefits to the city, including:
- vibrant, multiple-uses of underutilized public space
- preserve unique and varied architecture of City Hall and surrounding buildings in a way that shows of their best side
- create a new city center where people come together to work, shop, dine, drink, and play.
I hope this plan would help make the greatest city in the world an even better place. Let me know what you think about my plan, and any ideas of your own in the comments.