Boston City Hall: ‘A Building People Love to Hate But Shouldn’t’

The other day the hardworking staff stumbled upon this Architectural Digest post headlined “10 Buildings People Love to Hate but Shouldn’t: Reconsidering Brutalism, architecture’s most argued-over style.”

Immediately we thought, Boston City Hall has got to be one of them.

And bingo – number three with a bullet.

Boston City Hall was created by the masterful principals of Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles with Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty (also architects) and engineers LeMessurier. Completed in 1968, the building is the centerpiece of the city’s famous (some critics of the design would say “infamous”) Government Center.

Detail of coffered concrete overhangs at Boston City Hall.

Here at the Global Worldwide Headquarters, we’ve long put on the pom poms for Boston’s Brutalist Boondoggle, roundly endorsing New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s glowing tribute to the new building on the occasion of its 1969 unveiling.

Huxtable’s critical verdict was thoroughly upbeat.

Boston can celebrate with the knowledge that it has produced a superior public building in an age that values cheapness over quality as a form of public virtue. It also has one of the handsomest buildings around, and thus far, one of the least understood.

It is a product of this moment and these times – something that can be said of successful art of any period. And it is a winner, in more ways than one.

Except . . . it’s been a loser in every way since then.

Over a decade ago, the hardwincing staff noted this piece by Boston Globe architectural critic Robert Campbell about “what people would choose for demolition here.”

Ugly is in the eye of the beholder

Readers vote for Boston buildings they’d rather not see

The ugliest building in Greater Boston is Boston City Hall. At least, that’s the opinion of Globe readers. For second ugliest, they’re split between the Government Center Parking Garage and the twin white towers known as Symphony Plaza East and West, which stand at the corner of Massachusetts and Huntington . . .

Of City Hall, one e-mails, “It’s scary, right out of ‘1984,’ intimidating and grim.’’ Another disses it as “a hideous and disastrously non-functional abomination of a building.’’ And another calls it “a landmark which is infamous, not famous.’’

Campbell himself was “a fan of this powerful, ugly-and-wonderful building, and I look forward to the day when it gets the loving and inventive spruce up it needs and deserves.”

And . . . we’re still waiting.

Oddly enough, two months earlier the Globe Magazine had featured a piece by staffer Sarah Schweitzer headlined, “In praise of ugly buildings: Could this be the decade during which Boston’s most ridiculed are recognized as treasures?” The praise was, shall we say, somewhat less than full-throated.

Resentment of modern buildings was bound to be acute in Boston. We are a city that revels in our history. The mid-century-modern buildings — most notoriously, those that rose in Government Center on the site of the leveled Scollay Square — buried blocks of history to make room for themselves. But the buildings’ defenders say that past sins must be forgiven and that the buildings should be recognized for their own history — that of ushering Boston into the 20th century. When they were built, Boston was suffering from the departure of its manufacturing base. Nothing of note had been built in downtown for decades. The new buildings rising on the skyline were a sign of turnaround. “These buildings countered the perception that Boston was an economic backwater,” says Mark Pasnik, a Boston architect.

That “economic backwater” perception is long gone. But City Hall’s “ugly building” tag will likely live forever.

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