Edifice complex

By ADAM REILLY  |  August 2, 2007

The continued existence of Fenway Park is also a sort of Menino legacy. First, the mayor helped quash the Red Sox’s interest in building a new stadium in South Boston; then, after publicly backing the construction of a new Fenway near the old one, he quietly did his part to preserve the original. More recently, Menino has called for a 1,000-foot-tall office building that would dominate the downtown skyline; he’s also planning to reconstruct the historic but empty Ferdinand Building, in Roxbury’s Dudley Square neighborhood, and fill it with a yet-to-be-determined slate of city departments.

And then there’s City Hall. If you’re new to Boston, it may seem odd that anyone would object to the prospective demise of either that building or the plaza that surrounds it. (While Menino hasn’t called for City Hall’s demolition, just its sale, the chances of any developer spending to convert the building to an alternate use are slim.) The plaza is a sweeping brick wasteland rendered even more desolate by the assorted bits of life — a few trees, a tiny farmer’s market, people exiting the Government Center T stop — that cling to its edges. City Hall itself is, to the untrained eye, an unwelcoming hulk of a modern building, distinguished externally by severe angles and pockmarked, dirty-gray concrete walls. (The architectural term for City Hall’s style — “Brutalist” — is a descriptive adjective that’s become a pejorative.)

Things aren’t much better inside. The building’s cavernous lobby is dominated by a massive, little-used staircase that’s slowly becoming a sort of civic basement: you’ll find a brown grand piano of indeterminate make there, a child-size podium, and some decorative urns Boston received from Kyoto back in 1968 (one of which now houses some used Kleenex). As for the murky dimness of the interior, three things are responsible: almost none of the lamps mounted on the ceiling seem to work; there aren’t many windows; and the windows that do exist are filthy.

Stroll around the rest of the edifice, and you’ll find the occasional detail that leavens the gloom: artwork on the walls, stray bits of color, even a few little outdoor garden plots up on the ninth floor. But you’ll also find acres of dirty linoleum and plenty of exposed wiring and ventilation up in the ceilings — along with way too much fluorescence, way too little sunlight, and countless sheets of that grim, stippled concrete. And that’s just the aesthetics: in 2001, 300 city workers signed a petition calling City Hall a “sick trap” that had burdened them with assorted symptoms. (The Menino Administration disagreed.)

But City Hall’s bleak present is a far cry from its celebrated past — which explains why a sizable contingent believes that the building’s demise would be an architectural and historical tragedy. Take Gary Wolf, a Boston architect and authority on architectural modernism, who’s been working to drum up public opposition to the mayor’s plan. According to Wolf, City Hall “should be regarded as one of the great public buildings of modern architecture in the world. It’s published in books and journals worldwide, and its influence was significant. There were buildings that were modeled after it or inspired by it; cities were emulating what Boston did at the time. . . . You know how everybody knows the Frank Gehry museum in Bilbao? This building, at the time, was the [Gehry] Bilbao of its day.”

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