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'I wanted something that would last'

At 89, an architect stands by his plan for City Hall after four decades of both condemnation and praise

If you believe in Boston folklore -- that is, if you believe that the spirit of Mary Dyer haunts Boston Common and the ghost of the Lady in Black roams Georges Island and the curse of the Bambino hovers over Fenway Park -- then what about Boston City Hall?

Is there a pox on the building?

Exhibit 1: In the 1960s, wincing from criticism that the Prudential Center was misconceived, the city decided the designer of a new city hall would be chosen by competition. Four architects and three businessmen met at the Museum of Fine Arts, and after three days of judging, when a veil was lifted, the winning design was greeted by a few cheers, a

few gasps, and a voice that said, "What the hell is that?" Exhibit 2: Eager to be the first mayor to occupy the building, John Collins, in the waning days of his administration in 1967, moved from old City Hall on School Street to the new $26 million cement structure that already had been ridiculed as looking like the crate Faneuil Hall came in. The building, months from completion, was cluttered with scaffolding. The escalator didn't work. The clock was four hours fast. The pen on the mayor's desk didn't write. And, alas, working in December in a building without heat, the mayor fell ill with pneumonia, was bedridden, and missed the inauguration of his successor, Kevin White.

Exhibit 3: After decades of debate about the drab gray ce-

ment building designed in Brutalist Modern style by a group of three architects, and as Bostonians continue to adjust to City Hall's unusual architecture and baffling floor plan, not to mention the great expense to heat empty spaces that rise nine stories, a proposal was made this year by City Councilors John Tobin and Paul Scapicchio to sell City Hall and move the municipal offices to the Hynes Convention Center. A few weeks later, in the City Council chambers, an 80-pound mahogany panel came loose in the ceiling and plunged 30 feet, crashing on Scapicchio's desk and burying Tobin's in asbestos. "Cursed?" says Mayor Thomas M. Menino. "Nah, it's not cursed. C'mon, it's just had a bad beginning. It's a tough building, though, confusing, too much wasted space, expensive to heat, and it's modernistic and not typical of Boston."

Ridiculed by lay people, City Hall is nevertheless admired by designers. In 1969, the American Institute of Architects chose Boston City Hall for an Honor Award. Writing in The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable said Boston City Hall was magnificently monumental and "without a single one of those pompous pratfalls to the classical past." At the nation's bicentennial, in an AIA poll of architects, critics, and historians, Boston City Hall was judged to be tied with Boston's Trinity Church as the sixth proudest achievement in the history of American architecture.

After three years working in the sixth proudest achievement in the history of American architecture, however, Councilor Tobin still gets lost on the upper floors because, as he says, there's no logic to the floor plan.

It confuses some people to enter from the plaza and then take the elevator up two floors only to find they're not on the third floor but on the fifth because the plaza entrance is on the third floor. Others are perplexed that on the south side there's no fourth floor and on the north side no fifth floor.

"If architects had to work in buildings they design," then-city councilor David Scondras once said, "they'd design them differently."

The anonymous architect
Across town, at the Tennis & Racket Club on Boylston Street, in the offices of Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood, Gerhard Kallmann, now 89, the architect who collaborated with two young colleagues in the design of City Hall, listens patiently to a reporter's questions about the design of Boston City Hall and the 11-acre brick plaza that evokes as much debate as the design of City Hall.

It was only after several appeals that Kallmann agreed to talk, having assiduously avoided interviews for the past 40 years.

"I'm a very private person and not interested in attention," he says. "Architecture is not about self-expression. Unlike painters or poets, architects themselves are not relevant to their work and therefore should be anonymous."

As the architect whose firm designed the Hynes Convention Center, Back Bay Station, the Boston Five Cent Savings Bank, the Brooke Courthouse, and the World Trade Center West, as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge and Shad and Hauser halls at Harvard, Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood has left an imprint on Boston that will probably endure beyond the 22d century.

"You know," Kallmann says in a voice softened by age, "City Hall is unpopular just now, but we can wait. At the time, it was shocking to some because it was at the edge of advanced architecture. But my partner, Michael McKinnell, and I wanted something that would last and not be just a fashion of the moment. The nature of public buildings is that they're signature buildings and, therefore, should be of interest over time.

"You have to be careful not to be trendy, but also to say something distinctive so that the building can be remembered. At the time, we reacted against an effete kind of glass architecture, a watered-down version from the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, who built the Seagram Building in New York City, which is very beautiful but not what we wanted to do. For a monumental building, we wanted more gravitas."

The Brutalist style, named for the French term for raw concrete and popularized by Le Corbusier, is characterized by rough concrete and a large blockish design that is difficult to modify and often criticized as ugly.

Ridiculed for looking like a bunker, City Hall differs from another creative structure of the time, Harvard Square's Design Research building, now occupied by Crate & Barrel, which was built of glass to merge life on the street with that in the store. Architect Ben Thompson said the design was meant to convey openness and, in the decade of riots, to express confidence in the future of American cities.

"Interesting point," says Kallmann, "because in the design of our building, the very first idea was accessibility of government. To have accessibility, a building need not be of glass architecture, which is more appropriate for shops, where you want to display things. A building can be accessible and permeable by other means. City Hall was meant as an extension of the city streets. In sketches, we showed passage through the building and down to Dock Square. When the riots of the 1960s came, the doors were closed. But our goal was to convey the gravitas of the ceremony of government, and the South Hall has proved to be a very nice place for gatherings, especially for schoolchildren."

Surrounding City Hall is the windswept brick plaza that has been criticized as barren, and within the plaza is a nagging symbol that something is amiss -- a fountain that never has worked. Years ago, a reporter, Ed Quill, wrote a story that said the city was determined to make the fountain functional. The next day, Quill received a call from the manager responsible for the fountain, who said it was unfair of the reporter to raise people's expectations.

"I once got the fountain to work by jiggering it," says Menino. "Then we decorated it with flowers, but it leaked into the garage and we had to shut it off."

Former mayor Kevin White admired City Hall, and Edward Logue, the urban planner who redesigned Boston in the 1960s, told Kallmann he was running for mayor because he couldn't bear the thought of anyone but himself in so beautiful a room as the mayor's office, overlooking Faneuil Hall. On the other hand, Menino and former mayor Raymond Flynn say that they would have been more comfortable with a design that recalled Boston's Colonial past.

"We preferred a contemporary statement," says Kallmann. "Remember, this was the time of optimism, of Jack Kennedy. We wanted a modern building that acknowledges surroundings and also long-past history in the recall of ancient precedents, of ramparts and templelike structures. It wasn't just minimalist modern architecture. Besides, if we made a square, glass building, it would have looked like any other corporation office.

"City Hall is strongly related to its site, the way it stands on the edge of the foothills, the way it descends, with the lower floors an extension of the contours of the hill into New Congress Street. My partner, Michael, who runs our firm and is 20 years younger than I -- he says that architecture is invention and memory, and when you design, there are memories you are not aware of that go into whatever you create. Though allusions may be made to architectural history, they are not ironic, as in postmodernism, but resonances of cultural memory."

On the defense
In recent years, says Kallmann, criticism of City Hall has softened.

"I get a sense I may live to see City Hall come back into fashion. People come up to me in Cambridge, where I live, and they tell me they like City Hall. Of course, people who don't like it may just not talk to me."

Asked how an artist endures four decades of ridicule of his best-known work, he leans on his cane and smiles.

"Speaking for myself and not my partner, I've never been upset by criticism. I understand that people feel critical when they confront something with which they're not familiar. But I suggest they not judge City Hall from the outside, but go inside, and also look at the building from the marketplace, from the southwest, the best corner."

In 1988, Kallmann told the City Council that he agreed with some complaints but asserted that elements of the original design had been eliminated or altered.

"He's right," says Menino. "The city never finished the building. There was supposed to be padding on the walls, which would have made the building warmer. But it would have cost millions, and so it wasn't done."

Regarding specific complaints, Kallmann has answers.

* Difficult heating: "Matters of maintenance," says Kallmann, "and, in any case, thanks to our brilliant engineer, William LeMessurier, City Hall was advanced in design in the way ducts are threaded through open beams so that, if need be, they could easily be replaced."

* Too much open space: "You'll find those are not spaces where offices could be, and in fact, it is the generosity of those spaces that makes City Hall inspiring."

* Confusing floor plan: "The building is sited on a hillside, which makes it complex and exciting. We didn't want it on a platform, away from the city. On the Faneuil Hall side, we brought the entry down to the marketplace, and that makes for some confusion. So it's a trade-off, and frankly, as architects, we have been known for liking labyrinthine spaces. In many of our buildings, we change what might be a long corridor into places of informal encounter, the purpose being to enhance the quality of life in the building."

* Barren plaza: "There are three subways under the plaza, which makes the planting of trees difficult. But we regarded it as a hard-surface plaza in contrast to the green of Boston Common. My regret is that we couldn't put more life at the edge. We proposed a beer garden in the building, but that went down like a ton of bricks."

* Architects love it; others loathe it: "That's not unusual. It's similar to people's views concerning modern art."

* Aesthetics versus efficiency: "A civic building is an opportunity for artistic expression, and the iconic aspect becomes more important, but you pay for the beauty in some way. We are interested in images of complexity and stability that can hold our interest over a long time, and architecture that is not iconoclastic but a celebration of contemporary life and its institutions." Menino says he dreams of putting a restaurant on the top floor to take advantage of the view, but in any case, he predicts the building will serve as Boston's City Hall into the next century.

"It's got a long life expectancy, because it's built like a bomb shelter," he says. "You could hit it with an atomic bomb and windows might quiver, but the building won't move."

Kallmann, who never married and has slowed with age, nevertheless comes to the office every day as an emeritus. Although he rarely makes the trip across town to see City Hall, he says the building is never out of his mind.

Kallmann was 45 and McKinnell 25, both teaching architecture at Columbia University in New York, when their entry won the Boston competition, and as Kallmann recalls, his decision to move to Boston was made one afternoon while the two men were strolling along the promenade on Commonwealth Avenue.

"I said to Michael, Boston is a place where I could live. I looked around at the plantings and saw that every facade was lovingly different, and yet it all worked together. I'm interested not so much in buildings that are autonomous on their own, but that link and make a city.

"Boston is a city of great architecture," he says, "Trinity Church, the Public Library, Hancock, the Christian Science Building, Commonwealth Avenue. We're privileged to work in the city of Bulfinch, Richardson, and McKim.

"I've had an extraordinary life. I've lived in and have cultural ties to three countries: Germany, England, the United States. I had my youth in Germany, my architectural education in England, and while teaching at Columbia, I met and formed a partnership with Michael, my design partner for City Hall, and that began an artistic collaboration that has lasted 45 years.

"But it was the United States that gave us the chance to build, and for that I am grateful, because if you are an architect, that is what you want to do and that is what you need to do. You need to build."

Jack Thomas can be reached at thomas@globe.com. 

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