The Back Page: Form, Function, Future

Getting past problems with the recent past

In 1969, Yale University's Art and Architecture Building, commonly known as "the A & A," suffered a disastrous fire. Although arson was never proved, many people remain convinced that students started the blaze because they hated the building so much.

When it opened, the A & A was splashed across the pages of architecture magazines and given a top award by the American Institute of Architects. Meanwhile, the people who worked and studied in the building became increasingly and emphatically unhappy. Art students complained that their studios were too small, poorly lit, and inconveniently located. Even architecture students, who supposedly occupied the "best" spaces, found plenty to dislike: To gain some privacy, they transformed the open studios into a warren of jerry-built cubicles; to get some relief from heat and glare, they covered the big windows with cardboard and aluminum foil; and to avoid damage to their own skins, they learned not to brush up against the rough concrete walls that were a hallmark of the Brutalist style then in vogue. As time passed, more and more people decided that the A & A might indeed be handsome—though considerable difference of opinion on this point remained—but it simply didn't work.

Fast-forward to 2007, and the same things are being said about Boston's 1968 City Hall. Designed by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles, City Hall was the centerpiece of a massive project that flattened an area known as Scollay Square and replaced it with a complex of government buildings around a vast plaza. In the opinion of many, it wasn't a good tradeoff. Generations of young men had gotten their first taste of sin (or what passed for sin in those days) in one of Scollay Square's burlesque houses, and even "proper" Bostonians lamented the loss of the neighborhood's crooked streets and old buildings.

Naysayers' voices were drowned out by the chorus of praise, richly studded with adjectives such as "powerful" and "monumental," that critics heaped on the new city hall. Having won every award in sight, the instant landmark settled into a seemingly permanent slot in textbooks on modern design, and it continues to rank high on lists of America's most notable 20th-century buildings.
Architects may like it, but lots of other people don't. Some joke about it: Turn the "tails" side of a penny upside down, they say, and the Lincoln Memorial looks like Boston City Hall. Others note wryly that a hulking building with a top-heavy silhouette and a mazelike plan is the perfect symbol of municipal government. Occupants and users are more outspoken, saying that the building's layout is hopelessly confusing, offices hard to heat and cool, and public spaces wasteful and intimidating. Mayor Thomas Menino, one of whose predecessors reportedly got pneumonia from his drafty office, wants to sell the thing and build a new city hall.

As you might expect, preservationists are in a quandary. Some—you know who you are—aren't prepared to fight for anything that isn't Georgian or Greek revival, and even the most ardent fans of what is reverently called The Recent Past get a little queasy at the notion of saving examples of 1960s Brutalism. (They're so … brutal!) Of course, many Parisians once considered the Eiffel Tower an intolerably ugly affront to their city.

But that's only part of the issue. Equally important is whether the building can be made to work well. After all, as the English architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner pointed out in a 1963 speech, the purpose of a building is to function. Note: The occasion for that speech was the dedication of Yale's A & A Building.

If Boston's climate were a bit more like Alabama's, we could just plant kudzu and let City Hall be swallowed up in greenery. But it's not going to be that easy, here or elsewhere. Lots of recent-past buildings like this are coming of age, and figuring out what to do with them (or even whether to bother) is going to require some serious thought. My head is pounding already.

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