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April 25th, 2007


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08:47 am - that's the only way the center is ever gonna get better
If you've been feeling rather anemic lately, this shot of irony will undoubtedly help things a bit.

Now that Mayor Menino has announced plans to move Boston City Hall to the waterfront and give up the current Government Center site to commercial interests, a movement has sprung up to grant our current City Hall actual factual landmark status, which would protect it from many forms of future development. City Hall, a shining beacon of concrete Brutalist architecture at its "best" and the desolate brick wasteland of a plaza surrounding it have long been scorned as aesthetically reprehensible and one of the worst examples of community space in the country. But the site, revolutionary for its time, does have its fans. Let's hear what one of them has to say:
"There is little debate that its 200 million pounds of concrete and steel is a great physical and defining presence in Government Center," [City Council President Maureen Feeney] wrote. "In history and architecture, its national awards stand as credentials to its significance as a masterpiece, albeit a rather less than aesthetically pleasing one to many an untrained eye."
You know, she was doing so well up until that last bit, when all of a sudden her nose found itself stuck up in the air and the elitist snide came out. Lady, you don't have to be a chef to know when the pizza is rotten, and many an eye, trained and "untrained", think this particular pizza needs to go -- or at least have its recipe changed.

The Project for Public Spaces, for one, has placed Boston City Hall on the top of its Hall of Shame, and for damn good reason. City Hall does not jibe with the surrounding buildings. It is a bad neighbor. It sticks out like a bad simile, hulking over its plot of land, giving Faneuil Hall the evil eye -- if it hadn't been for that damn festival marketplace concept, pally, you'd have been next! Its offices, elevated above the Common Rabble as they are, only enhances the feelings of inaccessibility in both a physical and bureaucratic sense. The stark, barren, wind-whipped plaza is devoid of any charm, any emotional connections, and is completely uninviting: the exact opposite of how community space should be. Its only redeeming quality is that it has enough space to accommodate the humongous crowds that gather any time we win a sports championship, but frankly, if there weren't electrical hookups around there'd be absolutely no reason to hold any public event there.

The supporters also bolster their petition by mentioning that a Michelin Guide gave City Hall two stars as a tourist attraction, while the Public Garden, State House and the Paul Revere House only merited one star. That's some superb logic for keeping the site and its appeal as a tourist attraction is all oh-so-true. When you ask the kids where they'd like to go when you visit Boston, they all eagerly jump and down and say "City Hall! City Hall! City Hall! Yaaaaay!!" To hell with Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack, it's Le Corbusier for us! Who needs the Aquarium when we can hang out in this sunken, unshaded plaza with precious little place to sit?

There's no denying that the place has seen its share of history, of course. Championship rallies, I'll grant you, are historic, especially Boston's 2004 World Series win. But there've been race riots. There's been unrest. A black attorney was speared with an American Flag during the busing riots in the 1970s and while one famous attack in the city nearby has been memorialized for the ages, Landsmark's attack isn't one anybody should be really proud of. And as a few generations ago proved, you can knock down anything historic and just put up a plaque commemmorating where it happened and gosh, everything will be A-OK.

Government Center was built on a foundation of controversy, eminent domain and the erasure of Boston history. Both Scollay and Adams Squares, comprising over 200 buildings and businesses, were razed right off the map and paved over in the early 1960s to make way for this project. Nearby, the West End was being prepared for a similar fate. There, an entire neighborhood was forced out, its residents scattered to the four winds and its buildings laid to waste for the benefit of several condo towers, advertised on Storrow Drive and I-93 with the now-cliche signs that read "If you lived here, you'd be home by now." While the areas had grown seedy in their last years, it was no excuse to just tear it all down. Rehabilitation seems to work; look at the Combat Zone (or don't look at it, as the case may be these days.)

In the end, all protests to save Scollay Square were in vain, with the sole exception of the Sears Crescent building, which still stands today (it's to your right as you leave the T through the Government Center headhouse.) The bureaucrats had won, the Brutalists had a major victory, and once everything had been flattened just nicely and the subway realigned, Government Center and 1-2-3 Center Plaza came in. I'll grant you that 1-2-3 at least has civic use, as it offers retail and restaurants below its office space. However, the blatant disregard that city planners of the time had shown towards the area, combined with New York's sins of tearing down Pennsylvania Station and other historic buildings around the same time, were the seeds of the preservation movement and the development of the "Landmark Status" to protect that which is deemed culturally, historically and civically important enough to keep around.

But does Government Center deserve that which its very creation had spurred? Is it historically important? Perhaps, but so was the building where Alexander Graham Bell made his very first telephone call. (Fortunately his office was removed, preserved, and kept in the art deco phone company building that Verizon now owns.) Is it culturally important? Well, they have that cool all-you-can-eat ice cream festival there every year, and the Big Apple Circus shows up there too, but... wouldn't you enjoy your ice cream much more if you were on the Boston Common, where there's shade and grass and places to sit and places for sugar-hopped kids to run around? (I vaguely remember it happening on the Common, too, twenty years ago or so.) And there's certainly other space in the city where the Big Apple Circus could put up their tents. Of course, I'm not privy to how these events are organized and there may be reasons which prevent the ice cream folks from using the Common, but by gad, there has got to be a better place for it.

And is Government Center civically important? Consider this: The original designs for the plaza included a sunken terraced fountain which helped enhance things slightly in an End Of Logan's Run kind of way. But the fountain proved difficult to keep operating, a pain to maintain, and apparently leaked into the Blue Line tunnel underneath it. So, instead of fixing it, last year they gave it the ol' Scollay Square treatment: covered it up with a concrete slab.

There is absolutely no reason why this City Hall and its graceless, charmless, needless plaza should be granted landmark status. It is beyond rehabilitation, no matter what some more-eyetrained-than-thou people claim through tightly clenched teeth. No, it would be better to bring the building down, dig up the bricks and start anew, building a civic and commercial space that would be of actual use to the public, something that people would actually want to use for more than just a shortcut down to Quincy Market from Cambridge Street. Something that would actually deserve the honor of being called a true Boston landmark.

(18 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:derspatchel
Date:April 25th, 2007 02:23 pm (UTC)
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Now there's a good point: the group who really does appreciate open expanses, terraces and railings is the one group the city does its darndest to shoo away. Brilliant.

I'm waiting for the green space, too, the Rose Kennedy Memorial Arboretums, Greenhouses And Hedge Mazes or whatever blue sky artist's renderings we've been shown. However at the moment, even just open air where once there was an elevated highway is nice.

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From:ron_newman
Date:April 25th, 2007 02:36 pm (UTC)
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Right now it's brown space because it's all still under construction.
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From:byrneout
Date:April 25th, 2007 02:24 pm (UTC)
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But then where would we find the secretaries? We have to make them feel better, you know.
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From:derspatchel
Date:April 25th, 2007 02:29 pm (UTC)

make em feel better!

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What with email and postage meters nowadays, a lot of time is freed up that once was spent putting stamps on the letters.

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From:derspatchel
Date:April 25th, 2007 02:37 pm (UTC)
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And coincidentally enough, today is indeed Professional Secretaries Day! We can't stop until we see secretaries smile!
From:cropherb
Date:April 27th, 2007 02:49 pm (UTC)
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Not to mention, we got to see some office boys there jumping for joy!
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From:antikythera
Date:April 25th, 2007 02:37 pm (UTC)
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I wonder how many artists say "you aren't capable of understanding it" in order to cover up their insecurities about their own art. It means "okay, fine, it's crap, but I'm sure as hell not going to admit it".
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From:derspatchel
Date:April 25th, 2007 02:38 pm (UTC)
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Oh, that's such a common rhetorical construct for any number of differences, artistically, culturally, even racially.

"It's an XYZ thing. You wouldn't understand."
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From:antikythera
Date:April 25th, 2007 07:34 pm (UTC)
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Racially, it doesn't have to carry any connotation of superiority. I remember taking a campus tour with my mother before starting school, and our tour guide of Korean descent was chatting with us about family gatherings. She described something that happened and said "Anyways, it's a Korean thing" and my mother said "Actually, it sounds a lot like an Italian family too".

Artistically, I mean that they're doing it deliberately. If someone doesn't appreciate the work, that means the work failed to do what it was supposed to do. The artist turns it back around by making it the viewer's fault that they didn't understand.
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From:bedfull_o_books
Date:April 25th, 2007 04:32 pm (UTC)
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Some folks bitched when the New Haven Coliseum was scheduled to be torn down too. It was an awful, brutalist concert space with lousy acoustics and a parking garage that had netting attached to catch the bits of concrete that kept falling off. I don't understand some people.

They finally leveled it though, so there is hope.

The Wikipedia article has a clip of the thing being blown up, which is kind of cathartic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Haven_Coliseum
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From:derspatchel
Date:April 25th, 2007 04:57 pm (UTC)
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It's funny for me to be wishing demolition of a building others want protected, because I'm usually on the side of the preservationists, but if the building is unsalvageable or has no redeeming qualities once its primary purpose has been served... well.

At least the New Haven Coliseum's roof didn't collapse, like the Hartford Civic Center's roof did ... when? Wasn't that the Blizzard of 78? Hmm.
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From:jimmystagger
Date:April 25th, 2007 05:52 pm (UTC)
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From:minkrose
Date:April 25th, 2007 06:53 pm (UTC)
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Aaah, but the boston common is in trouble, too. I was seriously pissed when I read that last month.
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From:ron_newman
Date:April 25th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC)
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I think we can live with a year or two of re-seeding.
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From:minkrose
Date:April 25th, 2007 07:29 pm (UTC)
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My concern is that it won't go away. Personally, I don't really care if the grass looks nice; the events held there are more important. And re-seeding won't actually solve the problem, keeping people off the grass will solve the problem.
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From:firegryphon
Date:April 25th, 2007 07:52 pm (UTC)
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I watched a child die on my doorstep and the cops took 10 minutes to get there and the ambulance almost 15. I could give a rats ass about the preservation of the damned building. It costs money to build a new city hall, money the city needs to spend elsewhere.........like on services to *ALL* it's residents. Not just the rich white ones.

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From:mcduff
Date:April 26th, 2007 11:36 am (UTC)
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Mr Spatchel, I hope you be sending this off to some local rag for them to run in their Grumpy Local Opinion Columns space.
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From:derspatchel
Date:April 26th, 2007 12:26 pm (UTC)
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But, Mr. Greenslade, what do I know about architecture? My eye is sorely untrained and as you can very well see by the attitudes of its proponents, my opinions would be effectively rendered null & void were I to dare pipe up amidst the snootypants and the trained seals eyes.

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