An architect has died.
With his design partner Michael McKinnell, in 1962 they won the famous design competition for Boston's new City Hall.
Boston City Hall, shortly after its completion in 1969
Since I find architecture can be an oppressively esoteric subject for the lay person I will be as brief as possible here- however I do intend this diary to have some appeal beyond an audience of architects and/or architectural enthusiasts.
The Partnership is born
In 1960, when Gerhard Kallmann, a professor at Columbia University, and Noel Michael McKinnell, a recently arrived graduate student from Manchester, England decided to establish an architectural practice together, they resolved that they would enter and win an architectural design competition. Not long afterwards, in early 1961, that opportunity arrived when Boston announced its international competition to design a new City Hall. Since official entrants were required to be licensed architects, lacking that credential, the two enlisted friend and colleague Edward F. Knowles as a third partner, having an already established practice in New York. In truth the design was entirely theirs.
The commission is won
In January 1962, the pair learned they were among the eight finalists chosen by the jury, from among more than 250 submissions. They had three months to provide a set of detailed new drawings as well as a model. They worked until the last possible minute; in the end, they put the model on a plane to Boston with one of their assistants, who finished it during the flight.a Mind Gap
The jury deliberated for several days, holing up at the Museum of Fine Arts while a police officer stood guard outside the door. Finally, rumor had it, the choice came down to two designs: one by the firm Mitchell/Giurgola, and the other by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles...
When the... (winner was revealed) there were gasps in the room. One person reportedly exclaimed, “What the hell is that?” Dazed and elated, the winning architects went to shake hands with a no less befuddled Collins.
Reaction from the architectural community was rapturous. That this complex work of modernism designed by a pair of unknown iconoclasts would be built in Boston was hard to believe. Suddenly, said Yale School of Architecture dean Robert Stern, Boston was “seen as the great new urban experimental center, where new work could go side by side with Faneuil Hall.”
Outside the architectural field, however, the jury’s selection was more controversial. One memorable Boston Herald piece from the time quoted a woman saying she wished the building were “more simple and more dignified”; an architecture student retorted, “Life is not simple and the winning model reflects that fact.” The story contained the kernel of what would become conventional wisdom: that, as Stern put it, City Hall “is a building that architects love and the public doesn’t love.” Indeed, there may be no better illustration of what the critic Ada Louise Huxtable called “the architectural gap, or abyss, as it exists between those who design and those who use the 20th century’s buildings.”
The building has drawn professional praise as well as condemnation. In 1976 a poll of architects named it one of the 10 most important buildings in America, while the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization of urban planners, voted the building and plaza into its “hall of shame.”Adding to the Boston public's general revulsion was the large area of dense old Boston cleared to make way for the new "Government Center". (But at least the giant tea kettle was saved)
Recognizing this gap in opinion, the following is my 'architect's intellectual defense' of Boston City Hall:
Precedents and Inspiration
Kallmann and McKinnell used two basic concepts in their design. The first was the "city on a hill" idea. In this case, the image of the Hellenic temple sitting atop a mountain was manifested in the brick base of the building giving way to the starkly contrasting concrete above. If not as obvious in the more viewed facade facing west onto the plaza, the east elevation illustrates the basic concept more readily.
Acropolis, Athens Boston City Hall
The much reviled plaza, so disdained for its dauntingly enormous space and monotonous expanses of brick pavers, is in fact a modern interpretation of the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy. The parallel is quite literally realized- even as far as the radiating pattern of light bands of stone set into the pavers and focused on the entrance to the city hall.
Piazza del Campo, Siena City Hall PLaza, Boston
And in all fairness, the dimensions of Boston's plaza are not significantly larger than the Piazza. However, I believe the negative aspect of Boston's space which so discomforts its occupants, is the large breaks in what architects call the surrounding "street wall". The sense of enclosure (and even intimacy) afforded in Siena, are greatly lacking in Boston. Furthermore, where Siena's enclosing surfaces are all concave curves (even the piazza itself is "cupped" as if you are standing in the palm of a giant hand), Boston's are convex- the space seeming less like "enclosure" and more like indifferent happenstance. And the plaza's level here actually falls away from the building and towards the waterfront- as if to suggest you should walk right by and continue onward to the Harbor. Admittedly, while this is not the building's most successful feature, when the populace gathers for celebration and observance, it happily provides ample space to do so:
What does command the respect and admiration of architects at BCH, is the brilliant synthesis of the forms which culminate in its famously dentilled upper three floors. The symbolism here is clear- government establishes order from chaos. The seemingly random array of forms swirling up from the plaza and dutifully arranging themselves about the lower stories, finally arrive at a recognizable order in the top three floors. And note that the third highest floor hasn't quite "gotten it together", its "dentils" being incomplete towards the south.
East elevation, competition drawing
Again, if the brick base is seen as an earthen hill, then the message is that 'man creates order from nature'.
And again, there was precedent for even this:
Le Corbusier's Monastery of La Tourette, 1957
Fighting for its life
As the controversy has flared over the years, with City Hall's razing approaching serious consideration, (The plaza has already lost its fountain) Boston preservationists have lined up to protect City Hall. I am guardedly optimistic that its future has been secured, and the threats of its demise have all but ceased.
I will close with this short anecdote which reflected the complex reactions to the building, and cited by Kallmann himself during the 50th anniversary observance of the City Hall competition earlier this year:
EVEN AT 96, Kallmann vividly recalls the response to his and McKinnell’s first project. Sitting at his dining table, he mentioned a news segment he saw after City Hall opened in 1969. In it, an elderly clerk who had just emerged from the new building was interviewed by a reporter. “The interviewer said, ‘What do you think of all this concrete?’ Already a leading question,” Kallmann said. “And this old man looked at him and said, ‘Goethe, the German poet, said that architecture is frozen music. And I think this building is frozen music.’ That was the hum-drum clerk who was supposed to say, ‘I hate this concrete.’ The only thing wrong was that it wasn’t Goethe who said this — it was Novalis, the Romantic poet.” (The statement has also been attributed to Friedrich von Schelling.)and leave you with images of another building by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Wood, which is more universally loved- the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge: