< Back to front page Text size +

Preserve City Hall Plaza?

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 11, 2009 01:01 PM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

City Hall Plaza

Last fall, the Washington-based Cultural Landscape Foundation placed Boston City Hall Plaza on a list of a dozen endangered "Marvels of Modernism" -- notable 20th-century public spaces threatened with demolition, abandonment, or neglect.

In many cities with sites on the list -- including Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco -- landscape architects have rallied to the cause of saving them. (In Fort Worth, for example, momentum is building to re-open and restore Heritage Plaza, a noted public park designed by Lawrence Halprin, a living landscape master.) But City Hall Plaza got little local love from landscape architects: The Boston chapter of the Society of Landscape Architects gave a thumbs-down to sponsoring an traveling exhibition based on the Marvels of Modernism project. (The Cultural Landscape Foundation commissioned noted photographers to document the endangered sites. Arlington's Sam Sweezy shot the area around City Hall.)

"There was a concern that the board would be associated with preserving the plaza as is," says Robert Corning, who is president of the BSLA and also sits on its board, "and that is not something the board wants."

Preserving the plaza "as is" is also not what the Cultural Landscape Foundation says it wants. But the BSLA worried that the public might have missed that nuance amid the foundation's talk of the plaza being under "threat" from Mayor Menino (who has proposed moving city government out of City Hall, though for budgetary reasons he recently had to shelve that plan).

Like City Hall itself -- the brutalist brainchild of Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles -- I.M. Pei's windswept brick plaza has never been fully embraced by Bostonians. But it represents a historically important effort to bring new energy to an American urban center, argues Charles A. Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. Birnbaum believes it could still serve that purpose if some tweaks were made: new landscape features, for instance, programmed cultural events, and more vendors allowed nearby.

Doug Reed, of the landscape-architecture firm Reed Hildebrand, is a member of the BSLA and also sits on the board of the landscape foundation. The BSLA's decision disappointed him. "I think it's endemic of the deep divide in the public over this place," he says.

Modifications to the plaza are warranted, Reed adds. "The question is, 'How to you do it while making sure it is done with genuine knowledge of the cultural importance of the place?'"

In the end, Bostonians will get to see the Marvels of Modernism show -- but they'll have to wait: The Boston Society of Architects has offered space to the exhibit during the Build Boston confererence, which is scheduled for November. Providing space, however, does not imply an endorsement by the architects of the save-the-plaza campaign.

Another view of the unloved public space

(Photos: Sam Sweezy)

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

15 comments so far...
  1. It's a complete waste of space and one of the coldest places in the city. It is NOT historic but a ugly and of no use. Get rid of it.

    Posted by Bill March 12, 09 03:39 PM
  1. Every Landscape problem has a solution.

    I learned that the first week while studying L.A

    A few years back they were working with Yo-Yo Ma to design the space around one of his musical pieces..incorporating his music within the spatial design..

    Very cool concept...it never got done..it was moved to Vancouver I think..

    Too much red tape here..

    Posted by ESF March 12, 09 03:50 PM
  1. There's a reason this style of architecture is called Brutalism. The city hall building and the plaza are horrible spaces. I guess that some would argue that the building reflects the politicians that reside inside city hall, but for people outside this is a depressing place to be. The space just drains the life and joy out of people unfortunate enough to be nearby. It would be nice to see the space made friendly to the people of Boston, and the plaza would be a good place to start.

    Posted by Jerry Vandesic March 12, 09 03:58 PM
  1. Ahhh. So many memories of peeing in the plaza in my 20's, on my way home from a night drinking.


    Posted by Hymie Goldberg March 12, 09 04:14 PM
  1. Horribly conceived design with the goal of thrusting the city of Boston into the next century.
    Great place to have a sports/political rally. Horrible place to visit the other 364 days a year.

    Posted by thearchisuck March 12, 09 04:19 PM
  1. Was the guy that designed this named Madoff?

    Posted by paul March 12, 09 04:38 PM
  1. City Hall Plaza really is outdated, an eyesore, and a waste of space. It would make great sense to redevelop it (including demolishing City Hall) and rebuild either another public space, more buildings, or a combination of both.

    No need to save it - let's change it significantly.

    Posted by Edge March 12, 09 04:44 PM
  1. As a memorial to the attempt to create a truely civic space during the disasterous 'urban renwal' apocalypse of the 1960's, Boston City Hall Plaza warrants a place in history, but alas, viewed 50 years later, it's far too 'leaky' a rendition of the space it was meant to emulate, the Piazza del Campo in Siena. The success of the Piazza is due in large part to it being a real 'outdoor room', with enclosing walls, and no vehicular traffic. City Hall Plaza could be that kind of space, but is would take vision, commitment, and talented design. Anyone up for an annual Boston Palio?

    Posted by George Lovely March 12, 09 05:22 PM
  1. Knock down that prison-like City Hall (and Haymarket Gargage), as well. It turned out to be about as modern as that space-aged elevated central artery. Let's not cling to bad ideas just because they are old. I think Boston has finally moved beyond that kind of thinking. Let's continue the trend of making downtown Boston a desirable place for people to gather.

    Posted by CB March 12, 09 05:57 PM
  1. The plaza should be broken up with planters, small lawns and flower beds, maybe on a grid or an arched grid pattern following the terrain and street plan. Then , large trees MUST be added to slow the wind and provide shade. With a nice amount of canopy and green spaces to sit on or by, I gurantee people will start to collect there. It's just too broad and too hard with NO SHADE. The plazas in Europe are so much better because they are typically lined with collonades (man-made trees) , have fountains, or beautiful architecture surrounding them!

    Posted by JohnEK-1 March 12, 09 06:31 PM
  1. Copley Square was a lot like Government Center in the 70's, 80's. 1960's urban designers had no clue. The new square is alive.

    We need to get the Feds to allow Government Center to be redeveloped. (They are the block -- the JFK Federal Center has veto authority over any major "security" moves). The square is DEAD without redesign.

    Posted by Jeff Hovis March 12, 09 08:04 PM
  1. These photos, with the focus on background scenery and interesting lines, actually make the plaza look much better than it does in real life and real use. They also spare us the idling cop cars parked around the T station exit.

    Posted by jk March 12, 09 08:40 PM
  1. I haven't been to City Hall plaza in years, but if you know anything about it, you know that the plaza was never finished as planned. Let's get the rest of the buildings meant to be there built, and see how it works before destroying what could well be one of the best spaces in the city.

    Symphony Hall with two and a half walls missing and the roof only half done would not work very well, would it? So let's finish the thing before condemning it.

    And Brutalism as a "style " is no better or worse than any other style. It all depends on the building itself. From the outside, City Hall is rather good. One day, I'll go on in and find out about the inside. ( And I even liked it when I was ten years old, so maybe you who hate it might consider letting go of some of your pre-conceived notions about what a building is "supposed" to look like and see what City Hall actually is?)

    Posted by ferd March 12, 09 09:39 PM
  1. I agree with jk. Among the many problems with city hall plaza is that it only looks good from the vantages that no one uses. Was it supposed to resemble waves of water coming ashore from the view of the JFK Federal Building? Interesting. Because from every other viewpoint it looks like a bricked-over wasteland.

    Posted by Doug March 12, 09 10:10 PM
  1. USA has no soul, when I eneter the U.S. from another country it feels soul-less.

    Posted by John September 28, 09 01:13 AM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


Browse this blog

by category