Boston’s Architectural Behemothology — UPDATED
February 5, 2013 § 3 Comments
Government Center, downtown Boston. It is rare to see such a massive, overwhelming failure of this sort anywhere. Standing outside the T station last fall, I looked across the windswept brick City Hall Plaza, amazed that anyone ever thought this kind of brutalist behemethology was a good idea. Especially in a city like Boston that generally boasts beautiful architecture from the colonial era forward. Indeed, from Government Center, it’s just a few minutes’ walk to Faneuil Hall and the Old State House, or Beacon Hill, or the Common and Public Gardens. Boston’s public spaces are always full of people, tourists and Bostonians taking in the sights and the vibe. The city has even done a great job rehabilitating the old waterfront around Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park. Hell, even the park space over what was the Big Dig and the buried I-93 is used. But City Hall Plaza? There wasn’t a single soul on that desert of hideousness. Not a one. And, looking at this image, you can see why.
Government Center is, well, the centre of government in Boston, this perfect amalgam of city, county, and state government on one location. Government Center looms over downtown Boston like some horrible spaceship from the nightmares you have as a child. The New England Holocaust Memorial is just across Congress St. from Government Center. As I walked through the memorial, which is one of the most effective I’ve seen, I couldn’t help but feel the spectre of Government Center on me. Even as we walked on to Faneuil Hall, Government Center loomed above. It reminded me of that strange ball that followed No. 6 around in The Prisoner, keeping him from ever finding happiness or freedom.
Yes, Government Center is that bad. It sucks joy from the air around it. It stands as an insult against everything that surrounds it. It is, as a friend (an architect) would call it, an aesthetic insult. City Hall Plaza is bad, no doubt, but as that name indicates, there is a City Hall that comes with it. Boston’s City Hall is, not surprisingly, a horrible piece of brutalism, designed to intimidate the poor citizen standing outside of it. Every time I pass it, I imagine a cartoon of some poor, downtrodden sod standing in front of a faceless bureaucracy. Brutalist architecture is designed to be imposing and intimidating. And Boston is certainly not the only city to be marred by this abomination. University campuses are particularly good examples of brutalism, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog.
Winnipeg is a fine example of this. Its glorious initial City Hall, constructed in the late 19th century when Winnipeg was a boomtown, the laying of its cornerstone was a momentous occasion and a public holiday. Looking at the old building, it’s easy to see why Winnipeggers were so proud of it. It was a striking Victorian presence over the city. But, by the 1960s, it was antiquated and, like Boston, the ‘Peg choose to replace its City Hall with a new brutalist design.
However, unlike Boston, Winnipeg’s brutalist City Hall at least has greenspace around it. Interestingly, the introduction of greenery and foliage around brutalist architecture can go a long way to normalising it and reducing its imposition on the landscape. This is, I would think, why brutalist architecture on university campuses, as ugly as it is, doesn’t impose in the same way that Government Center does. Government Center is devoid of green space, there isn’t a single one anywhere on the massive, sprawling development.
What Government Center replaced is Scollay Square, which was created officially in 1838, though the name dates back to the end of the 18th century; it was named for William Scollay, a local businessman. Scollay Square was the centre of downtown Boston throughout its existence. The problem was that by the Second World War, Scollay Square was getting seedy. One of its centrepieces was the Howard Theatre, and by this point, it was starting to slide downscale and attract a sleezy clientèle, mostly sailors on shore leave and, oh heavens!, students. Scollay Square was on the decline. And when the Howard was raided by the city’s vice squad in 1953 and shutdown due to a burlesque show, the writing was on the wall. The Howard eventually burned down in 1961. By the 1950s, Boston city officials were looking around for excuses to tear apart Scollay Square. The area was becoming home to too many flophouses and Boston’s rough waterfront had migrated too far inland. The Howard’s destruction by fire became the excuse to step into action, and it was torn down. Over 1,000 buildings were torn down and over 20,000 residents, most of whom were low income, were displaced.
In many ways, Boston is no different than any other North American (or, for that matter, European) city in the 1960s, undergoing urban redevelopment. Montréal also underwent massive redevelopment in the 1960s and 70s, as a trip through the downtown core shows today. Place-des-Arts, Place Desjardins, Place Ville-Marie, the Palais de Justice and the Palais de Congrès all date from this period. It’s not even the scale of Government Center that sets it apart from other redevelopment. No, it’s simply the massive failure of it, and its horrid imposition on the landscape of downtown Boston. Certainly, breaking up the monotony of concrete and red brick with trees, grass, and other such things would help. But, at the end of the day, as ugly as brutalist architecture is elsewhere, nothing can quite touch the size and grandeur of the buildings in Government Center. Walking up Staniford Street, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed (or maybe the proper term is underwhelmed) by the Government Service Center.
Boston’s mayor, Thomas Mennino, has mused several times in recent years about doing away with at least City Hall and re-locating to South Boston. Not surprisingly, this was met with controversy, as a group called “Citizens for City Hall,” professing to love the building, threatened all kinds of hellfire and damnation should Mennino think about destroying it. Fortunately for them, the recession got in the mayor’s plans. Citizens City Hall sought to have the location designated as a landmark, and also noted that re-locating the seat of city government to Southie, as Mennino planned, would also lead to the dislocation of thousands of residents (again, just as when Government Center was built). At any rate, by 2011, cooler heads prevailed and a new group, “Friends of City Hall” sought to improve the present location and do something to make both City Hall and the Plaza more user friendly. Part of this work will begin this summer, when the MBTA shuts down the Government Center T station to remodel it. Hopefully something can be done to improve Government Center as a whole, not just City Hall and its Plaza, to make this abomination more user-friendly and more aesthetically appealing.
UPDATE: From personal friend and Tweep, John P. Fahey. who grew up in New Haven, CT: Agreed, Government Center suffers in comparison with the architecture in the surrounding area. Urban Renewal was a hot button topic in the 1960s. The idea was to sweep out the old neighborhoods and replace them with new buildings. New Haven did the exact same thing in the 1960s as part of the Model Cities initiative. It knocked down a narrow swathe of a neighborhood that ran from where I-91 starts about 3 miles to Route 34. The City put up an ugly Coliseum that has since been knocked down. When I was a kid I used to ask my mother when they were going to finish it because it never looked complete. New Haven ran out of Urban Renewal money and thus there is this long narrow strip of land extending from the center of New Haven that resembles Dresden after the fire bombing. There was enough Model Cities money to knock down the old neighborhood but not enough to put up the new buildings. If the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum was an example of the type of the architecture that the Elm City would have received, then maybe it was lucky.