Sunday, May 1, 2011

This Building Gave Me a Headache


One of the better-written Wikipedia articles that I can recall coming across is the entry for Boston City Hall. Not only does it give a concise summary of the building's unique origins, but also discusses the debate around its architectural merit, with subsections titled "Description of the Architecture" and "Intentions of the Architects" and "Reception of the Architecture" (neutrality disputed). Considered a brutalist masterpiece by many architectural historians, it is reviled with equal fervor, especially among the citizens of the city and the public employees housed within.

There's not much to be accomplished in declaring if the building is ugly, or not. No one can definitely assert this anyway, for an aesthetic judgement is subjective by nature. As long as one person finds the building repellant, then it is ugly, and as long as a single person finds it pleasing, then it is not.

I've spent a fair amount of time in this building over the last ten years, and in using the building, taken an interest in how the argument intersects issues of appearance and performance-- form and function, perhaps.

In a previous position as an administrator of a downtown construction site, I used to have to visit a permitting office on an upper floor once a month to renew the site's public area use authorization in person, often waiting 20 or more minutes in a small alcove, waiting my turn to visit a particular city employee's cubicle.

An iPhone photo of the Permitting Department Ceiling,
taken from the waiting area, while very bored. ©2008 Bauzeitgeist.

Separately, I would have to visit a sub-basement to stand in line to occasionally clear my car of any overdue parking violations. Adjacent to this are the banks of windows where civil unions can be granted. I have often wondered just what the newly wed make of their austere matrimonial venue.

I should generally say that if concrete is your thing, this building really is a joy. The exterior is often extolled, but also many of the less-trafficked areas of the building enjoy a pristine condition which engenders moments of delight. The vacant upper stairwell somehow evokes both the sublime rush of a serene temple and the aggressive minimalism of a perfectly preserved stage set from a James Bond escape scene. The underused space benefits from a lack of wear, soil, litter, and graffiti. This itself is something of a paradox of the building: its best parts are those which are least used (a phenomenon probably not uncommon to buildings as they age).

Many other, more central parts of the building are not in such a like-new condition. Not only are these spaces worn, but these immutable concrete spaces are also in many cases haphazardly modified for their current use. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, when I had to revisit City Hall for the first time in years, and spend the entire day in a meeting on one of the upper floors.

When I left in the late afternoon, I had a headache. Not because I was oppressed by the cruel, ungentle concrete or visually assaulted by the phalaxes of oversized dentil mouldings. But because I had been sitting for hours in stale, overheated air.

As the air conditioning system is binary, the vents were still blasting heat into the offices, despite the warm spring weather. Most of the upper rows of offices lack operable windows, so natural, local mitigation is difficult. The building's circulation system was poor-- a design shortcoming which does not rest quite as squarely with the architect as purely formal issues, in the usual estimation.

HVAC shortcomings may be the leading complaint in buildings new and old. Its an engineering issue that is roughly at the opposite end of the spectrum from aesthetic concerns. Especially factoring in the age of the building, and that it is an overworn, undercared public asset, it seems unfair put the blame on the original designer.

Yet it remains that using this building was simply not physically pleasant--and I was only a visitor for one business day; this was not my place of work. Sitting for hours in this stuffy office, I heard the clerk complain about the general discomfort: too hot in the summer, requiring a clip-on fan at their cubicle partition, and too cold in the winter, requiring a space-heater under their desk.

I wonder how much time the design team at Kallmann McKimmell & Knowles spent considering these people, and their workdays, their minutes or hours of interaction with the building. It is in this aspect that the building's utility suffers from their formal agenda. From the front entrance to the upper office mezzanines, architectural space has been informally reconfigured and edited to conform to daily needs, comforts, and functions. What is grand, bold, and austere is made haphazard, curious, and casual.

This is especially true at the building's entry, which, like so many buildings these days, is the stage for a security zone. What was an open entry hall has been rudely partitioned for this process. The personnel have even installed a length of faux white picket fence to funnel users out of the building. (Presumably the campy irony of this gesture was not intended?)

Nearby, adjacent to the decrepit central elevator bank, is a forlorn row of Bell telephone booths, a privacy alcove now used as easy-access storage for trolleys of event furnishings. A rather nicely-poured stairway, standing apart from the walls a bit like a tree in the corner of a yard, is roped off casually--not to be used.

The view out the large windows, overlooking the brick steppe of the surrounding plaza, shows the overhang of thefortress utilized as a carport for city and employee vehicles. A shipping containers used as maintenance storage has been placed in this cave-like shelter, too.

Looking not down and out, but in and up from this same corner of the entry level reveals a startling gesture of the building. Starting at raised interior platform, which forms the floor of the inner courtyard, a soaring, pristine space transcends the upper levels in a cathedral-like exultation. Light shines down from an unseen source above, trickling down the tremendous cliffsides of banded and layered concrete, appearing both engineered and geological; monumental and flawless surfaces despite their decades of age. This civic alter unites the various floors of the building, its light stretching to illuminates the public entryway.

In all my times into and out of the building, rushing to this floor and that, I had never noticed it, Because of a flimsy barricade blocking the foot of the steps, I could not get closer to stand underneath, to see the source of the light, and understand the building better.

All images ©2011 Bauzeitgeist, except top, courtesy Google Earth

1 comment:

  1. The newly elected mayor wants to demolish the building, just as Menino did, and I think it was sort of an issue he ran on. Demolishing the building would be a silly, petulant thing to do. But I am constantly amazed at the enthusiasm for demolishing buildings, but so much hand ringing over cost when a new building is needed.

    Boston City Hall was conceived on the cusp of the 70's...the single worst decade in the history of mankind for fashion, taste, art, music and design. I think we need to understand the building in the context of the time, and of the bizarre haircut and clothing I was wearing in grade school at that very moment.moment, for instance.

    Kallmann and Mckimmell indulged in the fantasy that Boston was a real and true city like Sienna where the people of the city really use and occupy the public space. It is hard for architects to accept that the vitality of the american city of, say 1915 is just completely gone.


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