On February 10, 1969, one of the most iconic Brutalist buildings in the United States opened to the public. When Boston City Hall was completed, the city celebrated with a week-long run of celebrations, from a concert by the Boston Pops to a performance by the Boston Ballet, finished by a champagne toast. Attendees received a metal lapel pin as a memento.
Now, the building, designed by architects Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles, is 50—and the pin is back. Joyce Linehan, chief of policy for Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh, still has an original pin, which local designers Chris Grimley and Shannon McLean used as the basis for a reproduction. Their new pins, cast in bronze and hand-patina’d, depict the reverse-ziggurat structure as it might look warmed up by the sun.
Grimley and McLean’s studio, OverUnder, is selling the pins—issued in a limited run of 50—for a non-trivial $250 each. But each one comes with a letterpress card with one of the original competition sketches for the building, signed by one of its architects, Michael McKinnell. And according to the designers, a “significant percentage” of proceeds will be donated to docomomo US, a nonprofit that works to preserve modern architecture, landscapes, and design.
Boston City Hall probably hasn’t gone a day of its 50 years without criticism. (One critic said it looks “like the crate Faneuil Hall came in.”) Brutalism remains a controversial style, with some decrying its raw exteriors and monumental scale, and others, like Grimley, appreciating the progressive design and its association with a robust public realm. Grimley prefers to call such architecture “heroic” rather than Brutalist.
Back in the 1950s, Boston faced corruption and financial troubles. John Collins, who became mayor in 1960 and announced the design competition for a new city hall in 1961, believed that “by erecting grand, modern buildings, Boston could demonstrate that it was not just a dying city with a distinguished history, but rather a city that was embracing the future,” Brian Sirman, author of a history of Boston City Hall, told BU Today.
Grimley agrees that the building was a much-needed, refreshing boost to Boston’s declining fortunes.
“The heroic architecture of Boston … was made at a time of necessary change in the city,” Grimley wrote in an email. “The architecture reflected a bold, forward-looking vision for the city at a time when it was in danger, in the words of The Boston Globe, of being lost to the backwaters of history.”
City Hall may not be aesthetically pleasing to some Bostonians, but Grimley makes the case for its practicality. “Boston City Hall is, in a sense, a more traditional city hall than the formal, classical buildings that many other cities have,” he argued. “The main levels contain everything that you might need as a citizen, the functions of government are above, and those who work for the city are at the top of the building. It’s first and foremost a civic building, meant to be used by the people of Boston.”
Whether people love it or loathe it, City Hall is nevertheless an icon of Boston’s skyline and its tumultuous past. Now, Bostonians can wear a little piece of history everywhere they go.
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