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Brian Sirman, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor of History, School of Arts and Science and the Boston City Hall building.

Brian Sirman, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor of History, School of Arts and Sciences, Publishes New Book on the Most Controversial Building in Boston

  • Brian Sirman, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor of History in the School of Arts and Sciences at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS), has an unusual architectural obsession: Boston City Hall, an imposing hallmark of Brutalist architecture that is, depending on who you ask, either a masterpiece or one of the ugliest buildings in the world.

    Professor Sirman’s fascination with the building led him to write the newly released book "Concrete Changes: Architecture, Politics, and the Design of Boston City Hall", available now through Umass Press.

    In the book, Professor Sirman sheds new light on one of the city’s most divisive buildings.

    First off, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us! Let’s talk first about the building itself. For those who haven’t spent a lot of time in the vicinity of Boston City Hall, can you tell us what’s so distinctive about the building? What makes it different from anything else around it?

    If you asked people to close their eyes and ponder Boston architecture, odds are that they would picture something historical, likely made out of red brick, like the State House or a church. Concrete does not first come to mind. So stylistically, in both design and materials, City Hall is different from every other preceding Boston building. It represents a turning point in the city’s architectural history—an extremely influential turning point.

    In what way?

    After City Hall, you started to see many concrete buildings. Boston became a hub of Brutalist architecture within the United States. I have tried to explain why this happened, especially because there is a lot of criticism aimed at City Hall. In 2009, as I was deciding to write my dissertation on City Hall, my mother came to visit. I wanted to show her the building, so we got off the T and climbed the stairs at Government Center. I said, “There it is!” and she said, “Where?” I pointed, and she said “Behind the parking garage?” I had to explain that no, it actually was the “parking garage.” I think my mother’s reaction is pretty typical— “What were they thinking?” This is actually a really interesting question, and one which I took to heart. I wanted to explore why the architects had chosen to put such a different building in the heart of downtown Boston.

    It certainly sounds like a very bold architectural statement. What was the intention of the architects at the time?

    There were a number of stakeholders involved. The first two partners in the architectural firm Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles had never designed a building before; they were Columbia University professors, and my sense is that they had developed some abstract theories about the state of modern architecture in the 1960's. They wanted to take those abstract theories out of the clouds and put them into bricks, mortar, and concrete. They wanted to respond to architectural modernism and reinvigorate it with a big new design. The other big player was the client, the city itself. It is tough for us, living in today’s thriving and economically stable Boston, to imagine a city that was down on its luck. But that was exactly the situation in the 1960s. Moody’s had recently downgraded Boston’s debt rating. U.S. News and World Report called Boston “a city dying on the vine”. Cleveland, where the Cuyahoga River literally caught fire, was considered a better bet at the time! Commonwealth Avenue was predominantly vacant, just a row of boarded-up houses. Boston also had a very checkered past politically: one four-term mayor in particular, James Michael Curley, was a notorious crook. He spent two terms in prison, and his actions not only alienated many citizens of Boston by playing into the Irish/WASP feud, but also really gave the whole city a stain of graft, corruption, and nepotism. When we fast-forward to the 1950s, we find a city trying desperately to turn itself around. Mayor John Hynes, and his successor John Collins, thought that a new City Hall would be one way to show that Boston was a city whose best days were not behind it. They believed that City Hall would be a symbol of a Boston with a future.

    So they wanted to demonstrate that Boston was turning itself around and engaging in civic renewal. But that’s not how the building was received. Can you describe the public reaction to the building?

    There are several myths surrounding the public reception of the building. One is that City Hall was beloved when it was built, and only began to be hated towards the 21st century. Another myth is that architects love the building, while ordinary people hate it. Early on while doing research I found that neither myth was true; the response was more complex. In general, the building received more praise when it was built than it receives now. But it’s worth remembering that the design won a competition; there is a story that when the winning model was unveiled, the mayor at the time, John Collins, turned to an aide and said “What the hell is that?” Collins had to decide whether to actually construct the winning entry, or simply to award the prize money and then go in a different direction! Surprisingly, given his initial reaction, he decided to build it. In fact, he came to love the design so much that he moved in at the very end of his term in December 1967, even though construction was not complete, the building was still unheated, and he caught pneumonia as a result.

    Did future mayors feel the same way?

    The next mayor, Kevin White, was similarly ambivalent about the design at first, but later said that when he moved in, he felt a certain pride of ownership. He reflected this feeling in how he treated the building. Throughout his tenure, White brought in school choral groups, hosted art exhibits, and used the building for parties and other black tie events. The Boston Pops played in the center atrium. When the Apollo space capsule went on a nationwide tour, it was displayed in the lobby. White wanted to show off the building to as many people as possible; he wanted people to come to City Hall for special cultural experiences, not just to pay parking tickets or get their licenses renewed.

    Next, we fast forward to Mayor Menino, who hated the building and was extremely vocal about his distaste. On two separate occasions, he proposed selling or demolishing it. There’s a wonderful image of Mayor Menino in the Boston Phoenix; he’s holding a sledgehammer, about to swing it at City Hall. That really summarized his approach to the building, and I think it reveals a change of public sentiment.

    Why do you think the building is so polarizing?

    Well, obviously the mayors’ views of it changed. Popularly, we see similar shifts in contemporary letters to the editor, from people who were not architects who say that when they visited City Hall, they were actually won over by it. That response has changed over the years, too. In the book, I argue that the political reasons also motivated a change in popular opinion. There was an idea in the 1960s that urban renewal could be accomplished from the top down, and that government should be composed of “the best and brightest”, which is the title of David Halberstam’s book about the Kennedy years. That idea has been criticized over and over again, particularly since the 80’s. The idea of City Hall as symbolic of top-down urban renewal no longer sits well with a generation that grew up hearing Reagan say that government was not the solution to our problems—government was the problem. Our response has been informed not just by changing tastes, but by changing political ideals.

    Additionally, architectural tastes change, just like every form of fashion. One style my colleagues and I use as an example is Victorian architecture: small, dark rooms cluttered with furniture. By the middle of the 20th century, that style was hated. The “open concept” floor plan was all the rage. So Victorian houses were demolished in vast numbers, and it was only at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st that we developed the taste for Victorian architecture again. I’ve spoken with all three of the architects who designed City Hall, and the last one, Knowles, said that “It’s like Grandma’s dress. When she buys it, it’s the height of fashion. Then she dies, and the kids discover the dress and hate it, so they put it back into storage. But the grandchildren rediscover the dress and say, ‘Whoa, Grandma had good taste!’” I think that phenomenon is what’s happening to City Hall. The building is in that trough of public opinion right now, where it’s not new enough to be cool, and not yet old enough to become fashionable again.

    Here’s a simple question that might be tricky: do you like the building?

    The short answer is, yes. However, as I worked on the dissertation and then the book, my opinion has changed a lot. When I started in 2009-10, I was going to prove to the world that this was the greatest building in the history of mankind. But what I found in the process of getting to know the building, digging through newspaper archives, and talking to people who both love and hate the building, is that a lot of the criticisms make sense! There are many objective criticisms of the building that are valid, and I have sympathy for those objections. So, ultimately, while I personally like the building, I can understand why a lot people don’t. It is still a building with problems and real flaws.

    What do you feel when you’re standing near it?

    As I’m looking at it now, I’m not just seeing it as something I want to champion. I’m reminded of all the differing opinions, good and bad, which people have shared. It’s particularly important to acknowledge those viewpoints because the building isn’t just any office building—it’s City Hall! The opinion of the citizens matters as much, if not more, than what some architecture critic has to say. So yes, I’m impressed by it, but I also think about all the other things that have been said about it over the years.

    What lessons do you think architects can take from Boston City Hall?

    That architecture is a powerful change agent—whether you love it or hate City Hall, it helped Boston to recover from its slump in the mid-20th century. So the lesson stretching out from that is that if you are taking those bold steps, you’ve got to expect the criticism as much as you welcome the praise. You can’t let the criticism deter you. If you are an architect, and you want to use your skills to effect social change and to make an artistic statement, don’t be cowed by the criticism. Take the risk.

    The School of Arts and Sciences at MCPHS integrates liberal arts and sciences with professional studies, including a Bachelor of Science Premedical and Health Studies program designed to jumpstart the healthcare careers of future leaders.