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Will Today’s Ugly Buildings Be Tomorrow’s Historic Architecture?

Boston City Hall. It was built 1968 and is an example of Brutalist style.

Boston City Hall. It was built 1968 and is an example of Brutalist style.

On every list of ugly buildings in Boston, one in particular usually lands at the top. You know which one we’re talking about. It was built in 1968 and has been widely hated ever since: Boston City Hall. Its style is “brutalist,” which looks exactly like it sounds: big, blockish, hulking. Basically, a fortress of concrete.

There are constant cries to tear it down. And there’s not much love for other Boston buildings from that era, like the 1966 JFK Federal Building and the 1972 Johnson Building addition to the Boston Public Library. But what if these homely structures are actually tomorrow’s historic architecture? What if we just don’t appreciate them yet, and later generations will embrace them even though we think they’re monstrosities?

WBUR’s Sacha Pfeiffer tackles those issues with today’s guests and asks them what, ultimately, makes a building worth saving.


Ruth Graham, writer and author of “Can Buildings Be Too Young To Save?

David Fixler, architect with the Boston firm EYP and a specialist in historic preservation. He’s also co-founder and president of DOCOMOMO New England, a non-profit dedicated to documenting and conserving modern buildings.

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  • Kathy

    Brutalism is hideous on its face and even worse when mixed into a beautiful city like Boston.

  • Wahoo_wa

    I think we will find that as the urban landscape inevitably changes we will appreciate these buildings with time. The answer is not to erase our material culture simply because current taste does not appreciate the aesthetic.

  • Wahoo_wa

    The plaza is a work of LANDSCAPE architecture. Not architecture. “Landscaping” is an awful term that does not give enough credit to the field of landscape architecture. It is akin to putting an architect on the same level as a contractor.

    • Gary Welch

      As a Landscape Architect, I would revise your statement to read:
      “The plaza is a work of LANDSCAPE architecture… as imagined by an architect.” :) Thanks for recognizing the profession!
      The plaza is far from a welcoming experience; it seems to exist only to pay homage to the building itself. I think that an experienced LA would have provided far more amenities for pedestrians. It is more and more keenly felt as this area has experienced renewal since the building’s construction.

      I am sensitive to the desires of the preservationists – looking back to the Chicago Columbian Exposition, one of the hated buildings of that time (Sullivan’s Transportation Building) eventually became one of the most admired.
      However, I think that City Hall should be demolished, mostly for the message it sends. It is an inverted pyramid, signalling that one encounters more and more bureaucracy as one ascends. Hardly a welcoming thought. Revising the plaza without addressing the building would be akin to putting lipstick on a pig.

  • Justin Schmidt

    What was the name of the school in Boston built into a hillside that was demolished?

    • sachapfeiffer

      Hi, Justin — it was The Country School in Weston, Massachusetts, built by architect Hugh Stubbins.

      • Neil Levitt

        The Country School, which my son attended, was NOT demolished. It was added to and modified, but, for the most part, the original Stubbins building still stands. As an architect and a member of the Weston Permanent Building Committee, I had and have an interest in this school. The minute that I first saw it, I recognized it as a very special building. This was reinforced by my experience when walking through the building. I was not involved in the project when expansion was proposed, and I do not like the additions, but the original school building is still there and largely unchanged.

  • Cambridge Classicist

    It’s wonderful that we are having these conversations. We too often conflate the art of experimental architecture with the politics of slum removal and building maintenance. Many in my generation wish that We could build such bold and permanent buildings. The stuff built today won’t last to face these questions. I fear Ruth Graham’s suggestion that buildings ought to be less memorable. It’s like saying: “history is tough, so let’s avoid it.” Her article in the Globe carried a different tone, and Fixler’s call for ‘due-diligence’ seems similarly sensible. The real world examples of Grand Central Station and the B.U. Law Tower point out the shocking pertinence of this topic to our sidewalks and skylines! Thank You Radio Boston!

  • Neil Levitt

    As an architecture student back in medieval days at the beginning of the ’60s, I first encountered Boston City Hall as a series of huge construction drawings pinned up in the hallways of Givens, Washington University (in Saint Louis) School of Architecture building. One of the architects was in town to speak and I missed the lecture. But even these technical drawings clearly showed that it was going to be special–even an important and generative building once built. I made it a point to visit Boston after graduation when I was looking for a place to live and work. What I discovered was a city of immense history and variety both architecturally, socially and intellectually. I found employment almost immediately, and never returned to Chicago, where I had been offered a job and cancelled an interview at the I. M. Pei office in NYC.

    My expectation was an 18 month stay and then to move on. I’ve now been in Boston since 1968 and have stayed through good times and bad. Its historic richness and civic, institutional and architectural variety continue to keep me here. City Hall was one of the most powerful draws. And I should point out that the Government Service Center designed by Paul Rudolph, another of the “ugliest buildings” even in its incomplete state (the third tower section was never built and now is the site of the Brooks Courthouse) was another important reason why I stayed.

    I’d like to make two points: First, both of these buildings have one major, basic fault. They do not address the city/public at the ground plane, i.e., at street level where they are both blank and dead and deadly. This is an important fault, and it can and should be fixed. Second, both make some attempt at designing a major public space–City Hall Plaza in one case and the interior courtyard of the Rudolph complex. The Rudolph building and the newer courthouse can now begin to further develop that interior space and put it to a real public use that will draw an audience into the space. In the case of City Hall, as perhaps the most important civic building in Boston, has offered one of the largest truly urban spaces available to the city. I always recommend the lesson of the city of Sienna which also has a huge, open paved space in its center. The Palio (sp.?) race and its associated colorful events is run there every year and has been for centuries. It is the place where the city celebrates. Just as City Hall Plaza has been for a few years. The Siennese plaza has taken 4 or 5 hundred years to reach its present, universally appreciated “design” and World Monument status. WE have to allow Boston City Hall Plaza at least another two hundred years of adjustment, testing and development before we write it off as a failed experiment. Who knows what we’ll think then.

  • Stephen Ritchings

    I’m with architect Levitt. I lived in Boston when the City Hall was built; I had been listening to Poulenc’s organ symphony at the time that I first saw drawings, and I wanted to make a film about the building using that music as a score. Power ! Order ! A sublime combination of material. What wasn’t to like ?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/rowlandw/ George Williams

    They should enclose it in a light, airy and warm glass envelope with eateries, shops and park space inside, to cover over some of the surrounding brick desert that is now one of the nastiest places to cross during the winter.

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