The Beauty and the Brute in Boston

[Ian Macready]

Boston is not entirely sure whether it loves or hates its City Hall: local newspaper editorials repeatedly request the wrecking balls are taken to it, while the American Institute of Architects rate it as one of the top ten US achievements in architecture. The idea for the City Hall was born out of an idea from the 1950s when Boston was mired in corruption and economically stagnant and so an architectural competition (the first of its kind in the US since 1912) was launched in 1961 to relaunch the city on to the world stage with a dynamic new city hall. In the optimism of the JFK era, the entry by two architects – Mckinnell, a 27 year old from Manchester, and Kallman a German architecture professor at Columbia University – to the cries of “What the hell is that?” was awarded the winning entry. A project of monumental brutalism, it’s inverted pyramid shape reflects the functions of the building. On ground level the building engages (debatable today given the security measures in place) with the public city plaza and as you move higher up the building the council chambers and the mayor’s office are located with the top floors being the administration offices. The exterior is characterised by its precast vertical elements and its jutting assymetrical facade. Brutalist paradise for many, but on the California Home + Design site, they cite it as one of the top 25 buildings to demolish.

So if this one ain’t your cup of tea, it’s a bit of a walk (30 minutes) to the MIT campus, and this chapel by Eero Saarinen, one of America’s most exciting architects, from a decade earlier could not be more different. A hardly noticeable brick cylinder in a small patch of woods, the entry is through a compressed corridor of clear and violet glass which leads into the spectacular 10m high circular space of undulating brick walls, with the dramatic shimmering altar screen lit from above, by Harry Bertoia – not apparently part of Saarinen’s scheme but today seems an essential element of the space. Yes, Harry Bertoia of those grid steel rod chairs that graced many university campuses in the 70s, and now to be found in fancy boutique hotels. The lighting comes on automatically in the space as you enter, but hover outside the room for a few minutes and the light goes out and you get the full effect. The building was refurbished a couple of years ago but luckily on a normal summer weekday afternoon, nobody else was around to disturb this beautiful contemplative space.

The view from the main square of the City Hall
A corner view of the bravura concrete supports
Another view of the ground floor concrete supports
The view along the plaza
The MIT chapel set within its small moat
The London Plane trees that surround the chapel with the Kresge Auditorium also by Saarinen in the background
The compressed entrance hall leading into the chapel
One of the few simple elements are the simple wooden chairs in rows
The rippling brick walls
The marble altar with its stunning screen suspended from the sky light
This time with the lights on