City Hall: #1 world's biggest eyesore?

underground

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Ha Ha @ the Modern Lovers! You could also say that you feel like you're out on the "Astral Plain" when you walk across the plaza. Not that the song's really about that.... umm.
 

endus

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Holy moly. That is an impressive post by ablarc. I will be rereading that one a couple of times over trying to dissect it. I immediately searched for La Tourette Monastery and exclaimed (out loud, to no one in particular) "Holy crap...it looks just like city hall".

For a photographer that is primarily interested in architecture, my understanding of the rules and history of the genre are ridiculously poor. Probably I would improve if I studied some. I have "The Legacy of Albert Khan" sitting here because of my newfound fascination with Detroit (socially, culturally, financially, architecturally, etc.)...I am gonna have to dive into that soon as well as many others. I wish I was a more voracious reader.

I have always liked City Hall, though the plaza is starting to bother me. I can see how it would play into the building, especially in light of all that information, but I think something needs to be done with at least the most severe and featureless brick expanses of it. Neither side with the stairs ever bothered me, it's just the part up by the T station that bugs me. I have a feeling anything they did would not fit with the character of the building though...maybe if they hire ablarc.

It's the classic question about art. Are Mondrian's paintings any good even though they're just a bunch of rectangles? There's something to be said for a public building being constructed in a form that a good portion of the public can appreciate, regardless of their level of appreciation for architecture. Is it truly an effective expression of what you are trying to convey if no one can understand it without reading a book on how to appreciate it? Does the incredible level of thought that you put into it and the balancing of subtle rules create a worthwhile achievement even if the end product is ugly when taken as a whole?

It's weird. I'm a pretty introspective and at times calculated person but when it comes to my art it's always been...superficial is the wrong word because in retrospect I find things that are deeply personal and revealing when I look back at my photographs...perhaps visceral is the right word? Instinctive? It's hard for me to create art in such a calculated way. I have to say, though, reading that post definitely gave me an appreciation for City Hall on a number of levels I have never even thought of before.
 

statler

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Boston Globe - November 21, 2008
The not-so-ugly truth about City Hall

By Thomas Gagen | November 21, 2008

BOSTON CITY HALL was just named one of the ugliest buildings in the world - an unfortunate and untrue designation for a building that caught the spirit of innovation responsible for the revival of downtown Boston. Mayor Thomas M. Menino wants to tear it down, but it deserves to be maintained and honored as the most important building constructed in Boston during the 20th century.

A travel website, www.virtualtourist.com, compiled this provocative list of the 10 supposedly ugliest buildings. General manager Giampiero Ambrosi acknowledged that it's not definitive. The list, based on negative comments from people who frequent the website, says more about the popularity of the destinations than the aesthetic quality of the buildings.

Number two on the list, behind City Hall, is the 59-story Tour Montparnasse in Paris, scorned by Parisians and visitors since it was built in 1973. Compared with other buildings of the period, the tower is not that ugly, just a bland high-rise that would fit into any major US city without much comment. The tower, however, disrupts the traditional six-story streetscape and is visible for miles throughout the city.

Boston City Hall is anything but bland. Chosen in 1962 after a nationwide competition, the aggressively modern design by architects Gerhard M. Kallman, Noel M. McKinnell, and Edward F. Knowles symbolized the rebirth of the downtown district after decades of economic decline. Boston was transformed in the 1960s and '70s by the construction of the Prudential Center, the John Hancock Tower, and a series of high-rises in the financial district.

In hindsight, not all of the changes were wise, notably the destruction of the West End neighborhood to make way for the Charles River Park apartment complex. But taken together, this new construction helped to make this city one of the most dynamic in the country.

The capstone of the redevelopment campaign was Government Center, built on the site of the Scollay Square adult entertainment district. Government Center would keep federal, state, and local employees concentrated in downtown, where they would be customers for local businesses. And the premier building in Government Center was City Hall, intended to break the mold of its predecessor two blocks away on School Street. In the 1950s, it was considered - as novelist Edwin O'Connor wrote in "The Last Hurrah" - "a lunatic pile of a building; a great, grim, resolutely ugly dust catcher." (The Architectural Heritage Foundation sensitively redeveloped Old City Hall; proof that once-unfashionable buildings can be brought back to life.)

New City Hall was such a refreshing change that in 1967, Mayor John Collins moved his office into the unfinished building during the last weeks of his administration. Collins welcomed visitors to "the most exciting public building in America." The heating hadn't been turned on, and December winds howled through the building. Collins came down with pneumonia and was bedridden for weeks.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Collins, but in 1976 it made another top-10 list - one of the most significant buildings in US history. And whatever the merits of the architecture, the development of Government Center revitalized downtown Boston. In 1976, Faneuil Hall Marketplace was created out of a set of historic but derelict warehouses just across Congress Street from City Hall. A shopping and dining emporium would have been unthinkable at this location had disreputable Scollay Square loomed nearby.

Three decades later, as downtown Boston continues to thrive, the architectural style of City Hall is out of fashion. Menino, having failed in an attempt to relieve the bleakness of the vast plaza surrounding the building, wants to redevelop the City Hall site and move the municipal offices to the distant edges of the waterfront. But City Hall has superb public-transit access, while the waterfront site does not. That is argument enough to keep City Hall where it is.

As it was in the 1960s, the building remains provocative, assertive, and emblematic of the strength and durability of the municipal enterprise.

If the mayor has his way, a high-rise office building would be built in its place. It might not be as drab as the Tour Montparnasse, but it would be a poor substitute for the icon of modern Boston.

Thomas Gagen, a freelance writer, wrote about downtown development for the Globe Editorial Page.
 

KentXie

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If City Hall is the icon of modern Boston, then modern Boston must have happened many years ago. What City Hall is is a cold ugly building full of jutting raw and naked concrete that is absolutely not pedestrian friendly. The naked concrete and brick combination is the one of the worse combination they can make. It's outdated and definitely does not act as an icon of modern Boston today. It represents the Cold War era. It's a virtual bunker that is supposed to keep things out.
 

Ron Newman

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If City Hall is such an icon, why is it not on tourist postcards? That to me says something.
 

statler

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^^ Because it is so poorly maintained. If Faneuil Hall, the Hancock Tower and the Old State House were as poorly maintained as City Hall you wouldn't see them on postcards either.
 

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Each and every day, I begin to think that with a little TLC, City Hall and Gov't Center could be a very attractive place. I'm trying to picture it, and the design in and of itself is actually amazing-it is the materials (the decay of the concrete, the glass) and the barren plaza that screw it up.
 

PaulC

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^^ Because it is so poorly maintained. If Faneuil Hall, the Hancock Tower and the Old State House were as poorly maintained as City Hall you wouldn't see them on postcards either.
The Old State House was once poorly maintained, covered with billboards. I believe both Henry Ford and Chicago tried to buy and move it.

I went into city hall shorty after it opened and lights were burnt out water coolers were broken and elevators didn't work
 

Pierce

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The Old State House was once poorly maintained, covered with billboards. I believe both Henry Ford and Chicago tried to buy and move it.
all true (don't know 100% about Ford, but seems likely).

but he remains right, you didnt see Faneuil Hall on postcards then, once the city came to value it for its historical worth it was improved to postcardable condition
 

endus

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I think the comments about the place needing TLC are absolutely on point. What bugs me the most about the plaza lately isn't so much the bricks, its the way the whole thing is ill maintained. I don't know...when you don't maintain a huge expanse of brick by a modern building like that, it just takes on a character that says "run down" and "old".
 

kennedy

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The brick is the one thing I hate...I wish it were concrete. Or aluminum plating. And they should soften up the damn plaza, I know it defeats the purpose, but without a major overhaul, it's the only thing that can make City Hall bearable in the meantime.
 

Ron Newman

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I'd prefer to see the brick parts of the exterior replaced with glass.
 

kennedy

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Yeah, same, but I was trying to think cheap.
 

PaulC

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City Hall is divided into two types of functions, concrete parts are office space, the bigger and more prominent the window the more important it's occupant. The brick sections are for the day to day functions ie bill paying. Certainly brick walls on a brick plaza are a terrible idea. Are there any examples where KMK did plazas right, certainly not the Hynes. If the plaza was redone then the brick may not be so offensive but it probably would still be and a redesign in needed.

I still think any redesign should start with looking at what parts of the original design were dropped and having KMK make suggestion as to what they would change now.

I think they feel burnt by this project and that's why the new court house they designed near by is a timid piece of crap. I hope some day it's replaced by the tower that Rudolph originally planned for this site. That along with the replacement of the Government Center Garage will really connect the downtown and north station sections of the skyline. Quincy Market, Fanueil Hall and City Hall will remain a low area, emphasizing their importance as the center of the city(or at least city hall should be the center).
 
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PaulC

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http://www.mcdermottventures.com/tompalmer/saving_city_hall
Saving City Hall

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What the heck should happen to Boston City Hall? Some say tear it down. Some say make it a school or a museum. Everybody says if we're going to keep it let's take care of it, not neglect it. And some say as big as it is it's just a small part of a larger problem, City Hall Plaza. Kairos Shen and Herb Gleason explained it all to us.

The Move Massachusetts meeting on Friday morning at the usual place, the good offices of Brown Rudnick LLP at One Financial Center, was well-RSVP'd, and the only reason there was an empty seat or two, we're sure, was a few didn't venture out because of the approaching storm.

They missed a terrific presentation.

Kairos Shen, the city's chief planner and one of its more articulate and active spokesman, and Herb Gleason, who was corporation counsel for Boston from 1968 to 1979, addressed "The Future of Boston City Hall: Urban Design, Transportation, Financial & Environmental Considerations."

Shen of course inhabits City Hall today, mostly at the Boston Redevelopment Authority on the ninth and top floor, and Gleason moved in in 1968, when it opened, with then-Mayor John Collins.

Shen came armed with a detailed PowerPoint presentation, which matched his persuasiveness in visual terms, and Gleason had a few potent slides that conveyed his points equally well.

The crowd was, as usual, largely a professional and informed bunch, and most who attended probably do want the City Hall building saved.

Mayor Tom Menino, of course, has proposed moving City Hall to a new and notable structure on city-owned land on the South Boston Waterfront, now known as Drydock 4, where the Bank of America Pavilion tent is located. That's the context.

And it's been the context for a rather vigorous debate about whether the 1960s-era Brutalist-style structure -- which has housed city government since the urban renewal that did away with Scollay Square -- should be kept or scrapped.

It may not be widely loved or respected, but many in the architectural and planning community is Boston would be horrified to see it go.

Shen's main point was to set the record straight -- that Menino did not, he said, propose tearing it down. "The mayor has never said that."

He just said that it isn't working, and that city government, in this world that has been decentralized through technological advances in communications, might be better headquartered elsewhere.

But it was the set of larger questions that are being asked, with City Hall's fate one of them, that Shen told MoveMass is the important initiative here.

"Should we still be in Government Center?" is the overall question, he said. (Menino tapped Shen to be chief planner this year and told him this question was his to pursue. "I actually almost didn't take the job because of that.")

Shen said reconsideration of the future of City Hall is part of Menino's effort to get "more collaboration between departments" and figure out ways to deliver services better.

He said the goals are to be "accessible and inclusive," understanding that clearly there is less need for face-to-face contact between officials and constituents; "more relevant and responsive," which is supposedly now being achieved by a tracking system on hotline calls to see whether they're addressed; and "efficient and economical," in particular managing resources to be green and sustainable.

So, he said, it's really about modernizing City Hall, wherever it is located (likely multiple sites).

Shen and staff are reviewing how much is spent being at the current building, and, "Is there a better solution?"

*******

Another big piece of this puzzle, which has three parts, is the South Boston Waterfront, and how to make it better as it develops, Shen said. "What's missing in the South Boston Waterfront? If it's just commercial interests, we won't have the quality we want."

"What needs to be in South Boston? Not just office, commercial, retail, residential," he said. "Something that can elevate this place to it can be the next great place in the city."

The third piece of the discussion is Dudley Square, which the Menino administration has spent a lot of time on improving.

It's "one of the most important neighborhood centers of the city," Shen said, but is lacking in government functions and services.

Previous plans by the state to move workers there have not materialized, so now the city has pledged to finance development of a new 200,000-square-foot office building. He said Menino wants it to be "a model for the greenest public building in the country."

City Hall held a design competition and had 24 responses. On two separate sites, the city wants to build a new police station, redevelop the historic Ferdinand building site, open up land for 120,000 square feet of mixed-use development, add a parking facility, and improve access to the library there.

So, "What should remain at Government Center. What should move to the waterfront?"

Shen argues that the Silver Line -- whose two disconnected ends may or may not get hooked together in an expensive tunnel downtown, linking Dudley Square with the waterfront and Logan airport -- is likely to be sufficient public transportation for a facility located in South Boston.

The waterfront clearly isn't the transportation hub that Government Center is, but then it's presumed many of the services will be disbursed to other places, like Dudley Square. (One city official, he noted, doesn't think the BRA has any business being on the top floor of City Hall.)

Regarding the present building itself, "It has not done its job," Shen said.

"It's fair to say if it had to go through BRA design review today, it would not be approved."

But the '60s were a different time. Boy, were they. And Boston was a different place.

*******

Shen noted that there are three iconic period buildings in the 50 acres or so that make up the Government Center Urban Renewal Plan area, around City Hall Plaza.

They are the Lindemann Center, designed by Paul Rudolph; the John F. Kennedy complex, by The Architects Collaborative; and City Hall, by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles.

"It is time for us to completely rethink the 1960s plan," he said. "The criteria we have for an urban public building is much higher today."

"Adaptive re-use of all three buildings can benefit the growth of the whole area," Shen said. He later added that he believes there is room for an additional seven million square feet of development in a re-thought City Hall Plaza area, even if City Hall is retained.

Shen said the discussion should not be about one building. "We will have missed an opportunity unless we have a discussion about the whole place. If the plaza isn't dealt with (and how many times has that been unsuccessfully addressed?), "the JFK and the Lindemann will be endangered."

The leading element in rethinking this area is already under way, as developer Ted Raymond is out showing breathtaking design ideas for a redevelopment Government Center Garage site, at One Congress St.

Shen said his boss is taking a "realistic" attitude toward timing of these changes. "We have not yet understood the full impact of the economic crisis on the city. We're on alert."

The request for proposals for engineering services to guide the city on redeveloping Drydock 4 is not being released for the time being.

But Shen showed and articulated a grand vision for the South Boston Waterfront, comparing the neighborhood of the future there to the Back Bay -- and likening the Back Bay's proximity to Olmsted's Emerald Necklace, on one hand, to a new Seaport neighborhood's access to the waterfront, stretching around to Castle Island.

"This idea isn't so wacky after all," he said. "Think of Northern Avenue or Seaport Boulevard ... what it could be like in another 100 years."

*******

Gleason had sat patiently through Shen's presentation, and then he had a few things to say about a building he clearly loves.

"I'm glad to hear Kairos say City Hall is not endangered at the moment," he said. In general, he said, "The most endangered buildings are the buildings of the previous generation."

Not everybody liked City Hall from the start, he acknowledged. Mayor Collins looked at it and said, "What the blank is that?"

But City Hall was part of an I.M. Pei plan that had prevailed in a worldwide competition.

Gleason said he had been skeptical of the designed, criticized from the outset, but of 20 proposals, "This was the only original one of the bunch."

There was a feeling by some that it was "much too grand for Boston ... it's so colossally world class it doesn't fit the brownstone image."

But Gleason said what is wrong with City Hall is not City Hall.

"It is endangered by neglect. It is not a failure as a building. It is a colossal failure of housekeeping."

He showed a photo of a disgraceful corner full of lingering construction and debris that unfortunately is the kind of thing that we take for granted in the building.

"I'm just horrified every time I come in," he said.

City Hall is being let go in part because that's what happens to buildings that people think are going to go away -- interim buildings.

"We've got to do something about the interim," he said. "We've got to start taking care of it."

Gleason agreed it is not pedestrian-friendly. But that could be changed, he said, and if more people wanted to come to the building it would be.

"One use of some of the great public spaces might be for a great public museum. You've got to have something in these places that attracts pedestrians."

He said it would not "cost millions" to improve the lighting. (Lighting buildings from the top is "ungreen," he said; light it from below.)

City Hall desperately needs good signage, he said, as well as "an information desk where there is somebody who knows where things are located -- if there is anybody at the desk."

"It would be nice if the elevators were not trashed also."

Gleason suggested there simply needs to be a better understanding about public offices being on ground floors, administrative offices above -- and the fact that the third and fourth floors simply don't connect the two sides.

"There's an opportunity for colorful banners, displays, art -- that is just not happening."

For his part, Shen agreed that there is "no excuse" for not keeping the building up while it is all the city has. "I'm not going to make any apologies for our building management, folks."

*******

Gleason also had a little advice for the BRA, including telling Harvard University "to do some decent planning about Allston."

"What has happened to Allston is a shame," he said. "It's a wreck, a neighborhood that has been blasted," because it, like City Hall, is considered to be in an "interim" stage. All attention goes to planning for the future, and the existing residents get forgotten.

Bob Albee, who worked for the city for years, also moved into City Hall in 1968. "Kairos, he has somewhat swayed me," Albee said. But one of the worst aspects is use of the plaza for vehicles -- by MBTA, police, and other "official" cars.

"It's now a major parking lot," he lamented. There was applause.





The Blackstone Block





It's also known as Parcel 9 on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

The BRA and the Turnpike authority have been holding public hearings for a couple of months, at the Mariners House in the North End, about the fate of that block.

The officials and the public are shaping guidelines (within some bounds of what earlier planning efforts dictated about what would be desirable there), and the process continues.

We've attended a couple of meetings, and then we missed a couple, and at the one last week we noticed things had changed.

The crowd, quite large at first, has diminished to a group that can pretty much sit around a square of tables and talk. There were a couple of dozen there on Tuesday, officials included.

The angry anti-height comments have disappeared. In fact, one participant even worried that the draft guidelines, which were distributed at the meeting, might even invite a developer to do something that is too low. Too low!

Also, while there was once pretty strong opposition to residential or hotel (that is, 24-hour people use) of the block, now there is more measured talk about that possibility -- and what rules should be written into condominium documents to make mixed uses on the block work.

The Turnpike will issue a request for proposals at some point. The city has said it wants a public market accommodated on the lower floor or floors, and it's pretty clear the block will in some way become an extension of the Haymarket block to the south, which does big business on Fridays and Saturdays.

*******

The Boston Museum Project has an eye on the block too, having concluded that its designated parcel, No. 12, with its ramps to the tunnel below, just isn't feasible.

The boston museum has announced it will merge with the Boston History and Innovation Collaborative this coming year.

Announcing the pairing last month, museum project president Frank Keefe said in a press release that it will give the Boston Museum "access to the Collaborative's extensive research capabilities and vital relationships within the region's business and non-profit sectors. In turn, the Collaborative will have a home and a showcase for its work in innovation at a highly visible downtown location."

"At a time when funding resources are diminishing," Keefe said, "we need to find creative ways to continue to build our cultural sector. History is a vital Massachusetts resource. Combined, our organizations will be better positioned to tell the amazing stories of the Commonwealth's 400-year history."

The collaborative will assume a new name, the Boston Museum Innovation Institute, when the museum opens, scheduled now for late 2012. In the meantime, collaborative executive director Bob Krim and his staff will work with the museum's development team on fundraising, exhibit planning, and gallery design.

*******

Following the public meeting on Tuesday, refinements will be made to the "Central Artery Parcel 9 Draft Use and Design Guidelines Framework" document.

"This is helpful, because it sharpens it up a little bit," the BRA's Dick Garver said of a discussion about what type of so- called "community retail" shops will be allowed or encouraged for the block. "People feared creeping Faneuil Hall-ization and that type of thing."

Eventually the project chosen will go through the city's rather involved Article 80 process of design review. "Which you'll all be part of," said Garver.

The block is zoned for 55 feet in height, and several people attending noted that any developer would want to go as high as possible, for financial feasibility. The upper floors will likely subsidize uses on the lower ones.

The height of what is built is supposed to be varied, something like the buildings that were razed in the '50s for the Central Artery highway, and in keeping in character with the neighborhood.

The city commissioned a study on public markets, to guide it on what should be built on Parcel 9; unfortunately we missed an earlier presentation on that, but Garver said a summary of it would be issued.

The well-received study included a description of Vancouver's market. "That's everybody's favorite in the world, I think," said Garver. "It's a star," and a big tourist draw there.

Some excerpts from the four pages of draft guidelines about the future of Parcel 9:

* "It is the City's intent that this district be restored as an animated market zone containing a mix of food-related activity, including vending on its streets, sidewalks, and plazas, and complementary food sales in the ground floors of built structures.

* "Within this context, the ground floor of Parcel 9 is to form the indoor extension of the Blackstone Street market functions."

* "... to be devoted primarily to a year-round, six- to seven-day-a-week food market complimenting the Haymarket pushcart market, both in terms of merchandise and price level."

* "... development proposals shall include a layout of the ground floor and a pro forma establishing the indoor market rents and costs."

* "Upper-story uses should be supportive of and compatible with the Greenway's North End parks."

* "Ancillary parking." (There's no room on or under the site itself.)

* "The Boston 2000 Plan and Article 49 of the Boston Zoning Code establish residential with ground floor retail/services as the allowed use. A housing use raises concerns about its compatibility with market activity, however."

* "As would be the case with a housing proposal, a hotel proposal must demonstrate that the room arrangement and other features would be organized to avoid any impacts from market activities. Pickup and drop-off and taxi staging would present a particular challenge."

* "Civic and cultural uses must be compatible with both the character of the Greenway parks and with the operation of the market district. Such uses must include features that support area activities, such as visitor information and public facilities.... Provide public restrooms, a critical component for customer comfort and public health."

* "The building's four facades will have distinctive responsibilities," with loading and services on the Blackstone side, and elsewhere by and large friendly to pedestrian traffic. And, on the east. "It should not be an object building, focusing attention on itself, but instead a frame or setting for the Greenway's North End parks."

* The ground floor facade should look like a market from the outside....Be simple and functional, conveying its purpose, the sale of fresh food at low prices."

Sharpen your pencils, developers.
 

choo

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I think this market if done right would be great. A well designed market in the proper spot will bring people and tourists to the area, and give it all a great sense of life. Markets I have been to in London and Italy do this very well.
I think if the museum is designed right then this now glorified median will be full of life, and be on its way to becoming the park we were promised (especially cool if the haymarket garage gets done up right).

I'm tired now tho and do not have the energy to think about gov't center.
 

Arborway

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Shen argues that the Silver Line -- whose two disconnected ends may or may not get hooked together in an expensive tunnel downtown, linking Dudley Square with the waterfront and Logan airport -- is likely to be sufficient public transportation for a facility located in South Boston.
Buahahahahaha. That embarrassing, mediocre excuse for a transit line is "sufficient"? That's hilarious.
 

commuter guy

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Shen states in the above posted article that City Hall would not pass BRA design review if built today.

I had to laugh at that one given the absolute trash cleared by BRA design review recently. Notably, members of the Boston Landmarks Commission publically remarked that they were astonished that the BRA design review board had green lighted the design of Druker's Shreve proposal.

The ideas being tossed around for infill of the plaza and Haymarket area sound more promising.
 

mdd

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I actually really like the building itself, but I agree, that the plaza, and the congress street, public interface was a very poor decision. Take this photo for example: (pardon the crappy google street view quality)



If the city were to renovate the congress street fa?ade at street level, adding something that allows the public to enter in and out of the building, via a restaurant, shopping, even a museum of Boston or something that is open and permeable, it would dramatically improve the street life. How many of you choose top walk on this side of the road, when you have something as successful as Faneuil Hall.
 

czsz

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The brick pile just has to go. Not even the most reaching architectural justification can save it anymore. City Hall would seem infinitely better from this perspective if the concrete piers extended to the ground and opened up a daringly transparent lobby to Congress Street.
 

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