In-Depth & Data

The World’s Ugliest Beautiful Building: Looking at Boston’s Complex Relationship with City Hall

By Devan Colby

Boston University News Service

Even on a sunny spring day, the structure can seem intimidating. It towers over a mostly deserted plaza, wind blustering around its jagged, gray edges and beneath its many overhangs. Strands of pedestrians’ hair are whipped into the air as they hustle past on their way to Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market or Washington Street.

The exterior of Boston City Hall, as seen from the side facing Franklin Ave on the sunny afternoon of March 26, 2023. The portrait of John F. Collins, who was the mayor of Boston when construction on the building began in 1963, is visible. (Photo by Devan Colby/BU News Service)

Those who do take a moment to observe the concrete facade of Boston City Hall have a lot to say about it.

“It’s so very boxy and utilitarian,” said Boston University graduate student Jackie Reynolds as she paused her reading to look up at the building from a bench across the street. “You could put that building in the middle of some sort of dystopian landscape, and it would fit right in.”

On another bench not far away, Rick Smudin, the Threat Product Lead at IBM, and John Mark Wilson, who works in Government Relations at Applied Intuition, spoke of the building’s emphasis on “function over form.” However, Smudin said he still finds the building “ugly.”

“I can see it out my window,” he said. “It’s kind of an eyesore.”

Comments like these are not unfamiliar to the staff at the Boston Landmarks Commission.

“Boston City Hall has an amazing history and creates so many strong opinions,” said Chelsea Blanchard, the staff architect for the Boston Landmarks Commission. “It has gained fans, and it has also gained critics over the years.”

Her colleague Dorothy Clark, the assistant survey director for the Boston Landmarks Commission, agreed.

“It’s definitely a conversation piece,” Clark said. “People have very strong feelings about it.”

According to an article published in The Boston Globe on April 25, 2007, strong feelings like these once led former Mayor Thomas M. Menino to suggest selling the building and creating a new city hall. However, Bostonians came to its aid with a petition for Boston City Hall to be made a landmark. 

Clark said landmark petitions are “citizen-generated” and must collect signatures from 10 Boston voters for the Boston Landmarks Commission to accept them for consideration. Boston City Hall currently has pending landmark status while it awaits a final decision, which Clark said could come as soon as the end of this year.

This fact came as good news to Mark Pasnik, a professor of architecture at Wentworth Institute of Technology and a founding principal at the architecture firm OverUnder.

“I think it’s deserving of landmark status for sure,” Pasnik said. “It’s architecturally important … It’s an original work that has worldwide acclaim.”

Indeed, the building, which was completed in 1968, has earned multiple awards during its long lifetime. 

According to the website of the Kallman McKinnell & Wood architecture firm, the descendent of the firm responsible for the building’s design, Boston City Hall won three awards in 1969.

A closeup of Boston City Hall’s Plaza Entrance on the sunny afternoon of March 26, 2023. This picture showcases the complex concrete architecture of the building, which was designed by architects Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell. (Photo by Devan Colby/BU News Service)

In 2019, renovations that added lighting to the exterior won an A+ Award from Architizer, according to the firm that worked on the project.

Pasnik said that Boston City Hall’s significance to the architecture world isn’t the only reason he hopes it becomes a landmark.

“You can also think of all the things that happened in it as part of its value,” Pasnik said. “Queen Elizabeth came in 1976 and toured the building, and numerous civic events and public life of the city have occurred in and around that building.”

When asked about the ping-ponging public opinion toward Boston City Hall, Pasnik said that he sees it all as a part of the typical life cycle of aging buildings.

“When they’re fresh and new, they tend to be more admired. And then 40 to 50 years later, they’re aging.” Pasnik said. “It’s not old enough to be old, and it’s not new enough to be new. It’s sort of in some netherworld between those two things where it’s often in rough shape and requires new investment.”

Pasnik said he believes that Boston City Hall and other buildings that people have classified as “brutalist” or “concrete modernist” works are now becoming better appreciated.

“Today, I find that younger students of mine are fascinated by the building,” Pasnik said. “There’s a huge growth in the market around admiring brutalism as a movement that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago.”

As Reynolds sat on her bench, book in hand, looking thoughtfully at the hulking building on the other side of the road, she didn’t say she admired it. But she did say it seemed at home in Government Center.

“It jars, but also, it fits with the general landscape,” Reynolds said. “All of the buildings here, none of them fit together. And yet, because of that disorder, the lack of following one particular pattern or norm, it doesn’t seem off-putting.”

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