Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The debate over Boston’s City Hall lurched back to life late last year in the wake of the huge success of the new Institute for Contemporary Art building and other development on South Boston’s waterfront.

Clearly, the once-blighted and under-used multi-acre flat parcel in Southie, opposite the Financial District and just across the harbor from Logan Airport, is now seen as sexy property. The Big Dig used part of it and the new, behemoth Convention Center with its attendant hotels has gotten Mayor Tom Menino’s attention. He wants to build a new City Hall there, and sell off the cement-slab, hulking 1960s structure, designed by Gerhard M. Kallmann, Noel M. McKinnell, and Edward F. Knowles, three Columbia University professors, which is unrelievedly dark and grim inside. It’s also so badly designed that if you want to go from one side of the seventh floor to the other, you have to take the elevator down, walk across the entire building, and take another elevator back up. Useful for mass rallies, the acres of hard brick pavement surrounding City Hall are considered terrible use of urban space by many, as well as inhospitable and alienating. The whole complex has been derisively termed The Mayan Temple--and worse.

The current city hall replaces a large Beaux-Arts French renaissance-style structure that the city had outgrown; it now graciously houses businesses and restaurants. To build the new one, and satisfy prudish civic outrage at a tenderloin neighborhood adjacent to sacred historical sites, the entire Scollay Square area with its famous burlesque houses was razed in the early 1960s. The Old Howard Theater was vaudeville and burlesque’s last real stand in Boston (strip shows went on further south in The Combat Zone for many years but had nowhere near as much class as the true burlesque at the Howard).

Wednesday afternoon was unofficially Harvard Medical School Day in the Old Howard's balcony—students and professors both, according to reliable sources. Boston’s Blue Laws forbade total nudity on stage unless the girls stood rigidly still, covered with white powder, and in poses suitable to classical statuary (Boston WAS “The Athens of America”, after all!). So the Med School boys came armed with slingshots and paper clips. When the curtains rose on the much-anticipated “Statuesques” part of the production, a volley of paper clips flew out of the Balcony directly at the girls in an effort to get them to break pose. Invariably a stage manager would come out onto the forestage to give his ritual—and totally useless—admonition, “The gentlemen in the Balcony will kindly stop shooting missiles at the noods.”

The new City Hall’s architectural descent is clear. French architectural icon Le Corbusier’s monastery of Sainte Marie de La Tourette (built 1956-60) begat Boston’s City Hall (built 1963-68), which in turn begat the Central Library of Birmingham, England (1974). And lo!, some architectural critics said the begatting was blessed because beautiful; others said the begetting was barren because “Brutalist.” (a recognized architectural style). It all depended on how you viewed 50s-60s architecture in the context of the culture of the era. Then-Mayor John Collins is said to have gasped as the design was presented and blurted out, "What the hell is THAT?" Ordinary people who had to use or work in the building called it a turkey.

Here are the three buildings in order of descent:

Sainte Marie de la Tourette, near Lyon, France

City Hall, Boston

Central Library, Birmingham, England

And a vista of the gash in the Boston’s cityscape caused by the new building:

A very few monks are presumably still cloistered at Sainte Marie, but Boston City Hall and the Library in Birmingham are both the object of passionate calls for replacement—Birmingham already has theirs in development.

We’ll see in the coming months if Menino’s plan gets anywhere; it has powerful advocates and enemies in official circles, but the public has always hated the building and might like the idea—except when tens of thousands of them can cram themselves onto the Plaza for events like yesterday’s celebration of the second Boston Red Sox World Series Championship in four years.

Then they find they like it just fine.


Moving to another kind of art, Argentinian baritone Erwin Schrott is making a big operatic career internationally, and directors are obviously finding ways to show his talents off to the best advantage. Here are two pictures of him as Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Don Juan).

I saw Erwin Schrott sing Don Giovanni Monday evening at the Kennedy Center. The pictures do not do him justice.

And he sings pretty well, too.
I believe that the hotel we stay at (Seaport Hotel) is somewhere near Boston's south the ferry building or something like that.
So Will, what will happen with the Brutalist Behemoth, if the City moves on to new digs? I doubt it could become a thriving reuse project or mixed-use like it's Frenchie predecessor.

The largest, most brutal, and most fabulous skateboard park for the youth of Massachusetts perhaps? Imagine the levels, the ramps, and the open-air qualities that could be achieved. And it's big enough a sizable clinic could be included for the broken bones and strawberries.

When I was in school in the 80s, Boston City Hall was still de rigeur on the mindless architecture history slide memorization list.
and happy halloween to the both of you.
While Boston City Hall is a monstrosity, Scolley Square by all acounts was one of the seediest parts of Boston in those days. My father and other people of that generation referred to the Old Howard as many things, but classy was not one of them.
I don't mind the idea of a new City Hall. I draw the line at the new location. It is too difficult to get to and City Hall for all it's faults is at a T stop.

I know a number of old Bostonians, who still bemoan the loss of Scolley Square.

If I didn't already love Mozart Opera, Erwin Schrott would have me in a theater seat in double quick time. Where do I get me one of them?
EvilG--where do you get one of which? A seat or a Schrott. The seat's easy, the Schrott may be harder to come by!

Greg--I understand about Scollay completely, but the burlesque that went on there was, for all its sleaze, still part of an older tradition and had just a shade more style to it.

Sam--I've no idea who would buy it. Some proposals have been floated about it becoming the centerpiece of a group of buildings that would occupy other locations in the plaza, which would, in turn, be civilized with green areas, gardens and trees. But the centerpiece building would have to be extensively remodeled inside in order for it to be an attractive place for anyone--a kinder and gentler Brutalist building, as it were.

City hall could use some work inside, but that's true of most buildings that are 40 years old that have been poorly managed. And the plaza, which has been the subject of many suggestions, could be considerably improved.

I remember seeing the results of the competition that was held for the building in the early 60's when I was a student. This was clearly the best entry! You couldn't imagine some of the other ideas! There was one that had no windows on the exterior and kind of looked like a huge hollow stump.

Sisters Kallman and McKinnell continue on today and have really good work consistently over 40 years. I'd give them a chance to update the city hall!
Those monks cloistered inside Sainte Marie don't mind the building. They are the only ones who don't have to look at it. A further example of the despicable lineage of Brutalism is the frightening Fort Lauderdale City Hall.
Chris and Tony--I finally found a small picture on the web and will post it on today's blog entry--thanks. At least it's a lot smaller than Boston's!

Hugh--Thanks for that--I never considered that the competing versions might actually be WORSE.
If Boston builds a new city hall, someone should remind the architects that the city is "The Athens of America." I'd like a neo-Classical building with modern concepts like green and solar architecture...Maybe a hanging gardens of Babylon-cum-Parthenon would do it. A solar dome would be cool.

Oh, and Don Juan...whoa.
I can tell you that people from that generation laugh when the word "class" is used in describing anything that had to do with Scollay Sqaure.......
I fear I'm that rare breed: a fan of Boston City Hall (at least the exterior). I regret what it replaced...I much prefer the old network of narrow winding streets.

But the building is unique - especially in an old city like Boston. When you follow the gentle curve of Tremont Street (coming from Boston Common) you can't help but notice the monumental building.

That said, I detest the plaza and would love to see a red-design.

I agree with another commenter that relocating city hall to the Seaport is a bad idea. The current location is MUCH more centrally located (walkable from all 4 subway lines). The Seaport doesn't have a single subway stop (the Silver Lie doesn't count).

Anyway, I'd prefer that a new city hall be built on the useless existing plaza and that the 1960's city hall be kept standing(whether converted to a museum or galleries or shopping or offices or arts-n-crafts mall or something.

Now as for that Argentinian singer...why couldn't I have run into him when I was in Buenos Aires last week!?!?!
Just to tell you that Erwin Schrott is not Argentinian but by all accounts Uruguayan, and that his family's home is in Montevideo.

Even though, it is true that Argentina is very close to Uruguay in every sense.
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