Reimagining City Hall

Let’s face it, our brick-and-concrete city hall is an eyesore. It almost looks like a fort or a military base with its sharp lines and gray facade. That’s why Boston’s city hall was chosen as the subject for Boston Society of Architect’s annual Rotch design competition, which the Boston Globe calls a sort of “American Idol’’ for young architects. The six young architects were charged with the task of reimagining city hall, but that’s not all, the contestants were asked to incorporate a specific element into its lower floors, a Massachusetts history museum.

Unfortunately the competition, and the fine work that comes out of it, is entirely hypothetical, but after Mayor Menino postponed his plan to build a new city hall on the South Boston waterfront, “architects, urban planners, and civic activists have hotly debated what to do with a building that seems to have few friends,” according to Globe writer Casey Ross. Although the design plans that the contestants produced are not to be implemented, Boston’s chief planner, Kairos Shen, said that some of the changes could indeed be implemented, and for relatively short money. Ross continues, “Despite the building’s widespread unpopularity, City Hall officials have resisted calls for its renovation — or demolition — for years. The building, designed in the Brutalist style by the firm Kallman, McKinnell and Knowles, was built between 1961 and 1968. Its powerful concrete columns were meant to symbolize the organization of city government, with large open spaces for the public to gather.” Now it’s concrete columns look more like the bars on a prison cell, keeping all the disgruntled state employees locked inside.

The winner of the competition was Christopher Shusta who contrived a design that would soften the buildings presence with a glass-walled museum along Congress Street, also adding an outdoor terrace above the museum which would connect to the interior courtyard. In theory Shusta’s plan would bring much-needed activity to City Hall Plaza, but infusing life into the plaza has been a challenge, however. Multiple proposals to redevelop the site have been shut down, but now with the Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway opening up the landscape around that part of Boston, our City Hall is more visible than ever, which leaves us with a big question: Should we knock it down? “City Hall has both critics who say it is an ugly mistake from a misguided era in architecture and defenders who want it preserved as a monument to the period of urban renewal that reshaped downtown Boston,” so I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

To check out the other contestants plans, click here to go to the Globe’s slideshow.

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