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Philip Murphy
Brutalism Begone
Good riddance to Beantown’s City Hall.
31 January 2007

Good news for humanity: Boston mayor Thomas Menino wants to sell City Hall and build a new one elsewhere, preferably with a harbor view. With any luck, the sale will lead to the demolition of one of the ugliest civic buildings ever built.

Boston’s City Hall is a notorious concrete bunker guarding a windswept brick plaza, constructed in the 1960s as a near-perfect expression of that era’s homage to expert wisdom. And the wise experts do call City Hall a significant architectural creation. The American Institute of Architects gave the building its highest honor in 1969, and the following year, the Boston Society of Architects recognized it as one of the city’s most beautiful structures.

Ordinary Joes, on the other hand, hated City Hall at first sight. It replaced the perfectly appropriate old City Hall on School Street, a dignified and proud building that invited people to enter, admire, and use it. The new City Hall is a temple of technocracy, a machine for breaking the spirits of living things, threaded by cold, dank corridors of rough concrete. The place houses the city morgue, animal control, and the DMV, all wrapped up in one demoralizing package. At its center is an atrium open to the elements, which in Boston tend to be cold and wet for much of the year. Outside is a vast plaza, created by the awesomely overrated I. M. Pei as a place for what experts call “the masses.” Often represented as stick figures on architectural renderings, these masses are sort of like people, except that they exist only in large anonymous groups. In winter, the plaza is a frozen steppe; in summer, a scorched wasteland.

How could such a dismal failure ever see the light of day? The winners of the competition to design Boston’s new seat of government—Gerhard M. Kallmann, Noel M. McKinnell, and Edward F. Knowles—were three academics with minimal building experience. But they were experts, which I guess is why they used poured concrete—a material that’s clammy to the touch, discolors in contact with moisture, and can’t be modified with anything less than jackhammers and dynamite. If you doubt these professors’ qualifications, be assured that they speak fluent Expertese. Here’s how they describe their baleful creation: “The facades achieve their coherence by means of an elemental composition of aedicular motifs with emphatic hoods at the ceremonial level.”

Look at this picture and dare to find the coherence.

Just as preposterous is the architects’ assertion that City Hall’s “density of image” is “both modern and timeless in nature.” The building is about as timeless as a Peter Max poster. It practically screams: Dick Cavett! Wide neckties! Urban renewal! Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming! This may be the least timeless building in America.

The soon-to-be-sold City Hall exemplifies a cold-hearted, inhuman school of modernist architecture, Brutalism, which was all the rage in the Summer of Love. Sophisticates will say that “Brutalism” derives from the French “beton brut,” which means “raw concrete.” But don’t be fooled: brutality is what it’s all about. In the sixties and seventies, the enlightened experts built municipal buildings, schools, libraries, arts centers, and even public playgrounds in the style of Nazi pillboxes on the Normandy coast.

Brutalist architecture manages to offend a remarkable number of senses. It’s ugly to look at, certainly, but its hard rough surfaces are also unpleasant to the touch, and they reflect sounds that are hard on the ears. Raw concrete also seems to have the same effect on vagrants that fire hydrants have on dogs: it is an irresistible invitation to urinate. So Brutalism may be the only architectural style with its very own smell. It may have a distinctively offensive taste too, but research has its limits.

Back in the mid-1970s, to criticize Brutalism was to reveal yourself an artless rube. And there are still those entranced by it, though even they admit that it is difficult to appreciate without years of indoctrination. Just as Mark Twain once said that Wagner’s music was better than it sounded, Brutalism’s defenders are left arguing that these buildings are better than they look.

So the news of City Hall’s impending sale, and likely demolition, is indeed welcome. It may give way to something even more awful, naturally. But I’m ready to take that chance.

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More by Philip Murphy:
Teachers Against the Poor
More . . .
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