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Edward L. Glaeser

Let's put City Hall to a vote

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Edward L. Glaeser
June 6, 2008

WHAT SHOULD be done with an official building, such as Boston's City Hall, that is regarded as a modern masterpiece by architectural cognoscenti but detested by many, if not most, of the city's population?

Plenty of important art, like Lucien Freud's portraits or Allen Ginsburg's poetry, also manages to offend standard sensibilities, but no one is forced to look at unpleasant paintings or read difficult books. In these more optional art forms, there is nothing but upside to convention-snapping innovation, since we can embrace the works that we love and avoid the rest. But when architects take risks they are gambling with the experiences of people who have no choice but to live with and in their structures.

In December 2006, Mayor Menino reopened the controversies surrounding City Hall, by suggesting that city government move to a new building on the waterfront and that the plaza be sold. The move would make it possible to preserve the structure and end its association with public spending. But removing City Hall from the hub of the city's public transit system is not the only way to deal with an unpopular public space.

Another option is that City Hall and its underused plaza could be renovated in a way that made the building more appealing and the plaza more usable. Alternatively, the building could be torn down so that the space could be completely reimagined. Starting from fresh might be the cheaper option, but it would earn Boston a permanent place in the annals of architectural philistinism.

I am so internally divided over these two options that I cannot stand. The part of me that is an architectural historian's son believes that City Hall is magnificent. The building's inverted pyramid structure gives it a profound mass; its brutal concrete exterior sears itself on one's soul. Indeed, my more aesthetic side wants to disown my fingers for even typing that razing the landmark is an option.

Yet another part of me wonders why the people of Boston shouldn't get to decide whether or not to keep this building. After all, the job of a public building is to delight and inspire the people who see it. If we had a referendum and an overwhelming majority of Bostonians wanted a new structure and plaza, then would it really be appropriate to enforce an artistic agenda on voters who reject that agenda?

I believe that there is a middle ground that can preserve the building and respect popular sovereignty. The experience of art is far from fixed. The beauty of an object depends on the emotions, ideas, and memories that are associated with the artwork. Countless Americans, who had been indifferent toward the World Trade Center, found the buildings hauntingly beautiful in the wake of a national tragedy. Art courses teach people how to enjoy Strindberg and Proust. And I am sure that many Red Sox fans would find Fenway a little less beautiful if it had been the home of Mickey Mantle instead of Ted Williams. With the right renovations, a serious campaign to teach people why City Hall is so interesting could give the structure a much more solid base of popular support.

City Hall was born out of a competition. Let's have another one, following the lines of ArchitectureBoston magazine's "Rethinking Boston City Hall." With the support of the mayor and private philanthropists' dollars, the architectural community could be given a public challenge to provide new ideas for the building and plaza. At the end of the contest, there could be a referendum where different options are put to a citywide vote. Ordinary Bostonians would have a say in the future of the plaza, which at the very least would ensure some sense of ownership. A contest and a referendum would create a terrific opportunity to debate buildings and public spaces and build appreciation for architecture.

City Hall is a great building, and the building's advocates can convince the public of that fact. A democratic process will give architects the right incentives to make the public case for the building, and in making that case, they will help others to experience the masterwork's magic.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

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