November 28, 2012

"A Wretched Excuse for a Public Space"

Scollay Square in 1906 - a thriving
commercial center (click on any of
these photos for a full-screen view).
In 1795, a merchant named William Scollay purchased a four-story building at the intersection of Court and Cambridge Streets in the burgeoning town of Boston, Massachusetts. With his name affixed to the structure, it wasn’t long before everyone began referring to the intersection as ‘Scollay’s Square’.  By 1838, the city of Boston officially named the site ‘Scollay Square’ and, through the 19th Century it was a thriving shopping and entertainment area, just a few blocks from the refined precincts of Pemberton Square and Beacon Hill. 
Scollay Square in 1947

By the middle of the 20th Century, the venerable Scollay Square neighborhood, like the adjacent West End, had declined in social standing.  The buildings were still solid, but the commercial activity ran to tattoo parlors and bars.  Some theaters closed; the ones that remained tended to show low-budget horror and ‘peep’ shows.  If you were on shore leave, it was the place to go.  If you were a proper Bostonian, it was to be avoided.

By the early 1960s, a new movement had taken hold in America.  The concept was ‘urban renewal’ and it posited that the answer to gritty neighborhoods like the West End and Scollay Square was to simply bulldoze them out of existence and build anew.  Drawing from the French model championed by Le Corbusier and his Plan Voisin school, slums were cleared and modern apartment blocks built on the same site.  In America, it was called ‘The Radiant City’.

1962 - Scollay Square is razed
Convinced that the ‘Hub of the Universe’ was sliding into insignificance, the city of Boston, armed with $45 million of federal funds, conceived of a vast ‘Government Center’ with tall buildings and broad avenues that would bring people downtown and be a magnet for further development.  The site of this bold venture?  Scollay Square.

I.M. Pei's inspiration: Siena's Piazza
del Campo
In 1962, bulldozers began clearing 90 acres – more than 20 city blocks.  No less an architect that I.M. Pei was commissioned to create a master plan for the site.  His centerpiece was a public square modeled on the concept of Siena’s Piazza del Campo which, like its Old World cousin, would be at the foot of City Hall.

In theory, Kallmann, McKinnell &
Knowles designed a plaza that mimicked
the Piazza del Campo.  In practice...
Interpreted by the architectural firm Kallman, McKinnell & Knowles, an eight-acre plaza was designed.  Construction began in 1963; the resulting ‘City Hall Plaza’ was dedicated in February 1969.  Honors followed: that year, the American Institute of Architects named Boston’s new city hall, “the sixth greatest building in American History.”

City Hall.  The less said, the better.
I will not dwell on Boston City Hall, except to say that it perfectly exemplifies the ‘Brutalist’ school of architecture and that in 2008 it was voted ‘the World’s Ugliest Building’ by the readers of  Also in 2008, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino floated the idea of building a new city hall on the South Boston waterfront and selling the City Hall Plaza site to developers.

This being a gardens and gardening blog, I'll focus solely on City Hall Plaza, billed as ‘Boston’s front yard’.

From Congress Street, City Hall Plaza
is an inaccessible two-story-high
In 2004, the Project for Public Spaces identified City Hall Plaza as the worst plaza in the world.  I have not seen every plaza in the world, so I cannot state with certainty that Boston’s is the worst, but it is the worst that I have ever stood in.  It is eight acres of brick interrupted occasionally by strips of concrete.  In form, it resembles the Piazza del Campo in that both are built of brick.  But I have been to Siena.  The Piazza is enclosed by wonderful, low historic buildings and the first floor of those buildings house nearly a hundred restaurants and cafes.  It is beloved equally by residents and tourists.

From Cambridge Street, a bleak,
alienating and uninviting prospect of
brick as far as the eye can see.
By contrast, City Hall Plaza is a vast, wind-swept (and restaurant-free) plaza.  On the Congress Street side, it presents a two-story-high wall of impenetrable brick for much of its length, separated from the rest of the city by a six-lane divided highway.  The more accessible Cambridge Street side (also a six-lane divided highway) offers a bleak, alienating and uninviting prospect of brick as far as the eye can see.  One critic called it, “a sucking void in the heart of the city.”  My favorite description is that of DavidKruh, the author of ‘Scollay Square’, who calls it “a wretched excuse for a public space.”

In 2002, a million people
jammed City Hall Plaza
to cheer the Patriots.
What is baffling is that the site has been recognized as a failure almost from the day it opened.  It has hosted a few memorable moments – mostly tied to celebrations of championships by Boston sports teams – but it usually deserted.  How can a failure go un-rectified for 44 years?  It has not been for a lack of design competitions.  Beginning in 1968 and continuing to this year, there have been a steady stream of re-design invitationals that are international in scope. (One such design is show below).  None have been implemented (Mayor Menino’s trial balloon of moving City Hall may have a lot to do with the lack of action since 2008), but what of the prior decades?

One 2010 entry to re-design the plaza.
One ‘improvement’ ended in  ignominious disaster: In 1969, a fountain was built on the Cambridge Street side of the plaza.  Barely a week after the fountain was first turned on, the filtration system malfunctioned and, according to newspaper accounts of the time, "began spewing brown and green foam that no duck would wet his feathers in." Soon, water from the fountain was leaking into the Blue Line subway tunnel below it.  In 2006, the fountain, dry for decades, was paved over.

The Piazza Del Campo 'works' because
it is enclosed by human-scale
buildings with things that attract
lots of activity
My own guess is that there is a two-part answer to the question of why nothing has been done.  The first is that City Hall Plaza is what City Hall deserves.  A Brutalist, dehumanizing structure fits a barren brick plaza that is devoid of human activity.  The second answer is that site is too large and the scale all wrong.  Siena’s Piazza del Campo works exactly because it is enclosed by those human-scale structures with their outdoor cafes.

Would horticulture help?  At present, greenery in the plaza is restricted to a pathetic rectangular grid of trees adjacent to an office building.  The 'grove' is almost painful to look at.  Could the bricks be torn out and the entire eight acres turned into a park along the lines of Boston Common or, even better, the Norman Leventhal Park at Post Office Square?  It would be an improvement.  Like that park, such a project would need to be built with private donations (my next mystery envisions a murder potentially tied to fund-raising for ‘The Garden at Government Center’).

In the end, though, I think Mayor Menino got it right back in 2008.  City Hall Plaza was an ill-conceived and horribly executed idea; the product of a design era of which, today, we shake our heads and wonder, "what were they thinking?"  After fifty years, it's time to admit that it was a mistake.  Sell the site to the highest bidder and require that it include a publicly accessible park, a la Post Office Square.  Use some of the proceeds to build a new City Hall, with the lone proviso that it look nothing like the current one.  In short, let a new Scollay Square bloom.

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