Thursday, June 14, 2007

Should I stay or should I go?

I had the honor of moderating a terrific panel the other evening on the subject of Boston City Hall: should the 1969 Kallman, McKinnell and Knowles structure be abandoned to the wrecking ball, as the mayor has proposed? Don't do it, said three out of the five assembled, namely Joan Goody of Goody, Clancy; David Fixler, principal at Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, who has done a number of spruce-ups and rehabs of modernist buildings; and Nathan Glazer, author of the recent book, From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City (Princeton University Press, 2007). Glazer was mostly convinced that contemporary architecture wouldn't give us a City Hall any better; Goody and particularly Fixler made the case that the building was neglected from the start -- light fixtures never replaced, finishes left undone, etc. The structure could be retrofitted, colorized and accessorized, and its barren plaza given edges and life. (A good first step would be to stop using the plaza as a parking lot and storage/staging area. The next step is to tear up the bricks and restore Hanover Street from Congress to Cambridge). While Mayor Thomas M. Menino has proposed a super-green new City Hall on the South Boston Waterfront, Fixler and Goody pointed out that demolishing the old City Hall, with all its stored energy, would take half a century to recoup. George Thrush, chair of the hard-charging architecture school at Northeastern University, dismissed that argument, and pressed for a re-envisioning of the entire Government Center/urban renewal area. Tamara Roy of ADD Inc. urged the same. I was interested in this subject for a number of reasons. One, I worked in the building from 1997-2000 in the Boston Globe's City Hall bureau; I covered the story the first time Menino proposed jettisoning City Hall, or turning it into a big handball court, as he remarked at the time. In addition, in my work on a new book on Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, I wondered what Jacobs would have thought. The West End was slum clearance at its worst, but Jacobs didn't have a knee-jerk reaction to all modernism -- she liked the Seagrams building in New York -- and somehow I think she would have considered working with the building rather than tearing it down and starting over. One universal point of agreement on the panel, put on by CommonBoston with support from the Boston Society of Architects: putting a new Boston City Hall on the South Boston Waterfront is a bad idea. Two things point towards keeping the much-maligned City Hall, coming up on her 40th birthday (Goody's helpful guide to reading the building: its base a reflection of historic red-brick buildings surrounding it to about the 5th floor; City Council and mayor's office, where democracy happens, prominently in the middle; supporting bureaucracy above). One, the city might not be able to get top dollar after all, for a massive redevelopment of the site (and which must include relocating the federal JFK building, the ultimate NIMBY because of security concerns). Second, sources tell me that city officials are reluctantly acknowledging that the proposal to build a new City Hall on the harbor's edge beyond D Street on the South Boston Waterfront is all but dead. If it was 50 years from now, I would say dead in the water.