Here’s Boston City Hall Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

Rare sketches of the Government Center building are on display at the Boston Society of Architects' headquarters.

Boston City Hall has been called a lot of things over the years: ugly, an atrocious waste of space, and a public eyesore.

But architect and guest curator Gary Wolf thinks otherwise, and to prove his point, he’s giving people a chance to see the building like never before during a month-long showcase at Boston Society of Architects Space called “Boston City Hall: Drawings By Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles.” The exhibit, which opened October 7 and runs through November 15, unveils dozens of rarely viewed design concepts created by the original architects that envisioned the massive concrete structure built in the 1960s.

“Its design and history both make [this building] significant,” said Wolf, who worked closely with members of Historic New England to collect the drawings, which date back more than 50 years, from the architecture firm that made them.

Despite what people have said about how horrendous the Government Center building may be, Wolf adamantly defends its design, claiming it’s a significant cultural artifact that has been very badly treated—and even neglected—over the years. He added that it’s a relic that was once admired by the Queen of England herself, during a special visit to the country, where she had lunch at City Hall.

As the Globe wrote last month—in a scathing editorial on the side of tearing down the “upside down” wedding cake-columned building—the design concept is beloved “by a small group of modern architecture fans … but it’s panned as the city’s ugliest building by almost everyone outside that tiny club.” Getting rid of City Hall has been a topic again and again since 2006, but has never moved forward.

Wolf is part of that staunch circle of admirers, and he whole-heartedly dismisses that the majority of people bemoan the building. Not only that, but he blames the current administration for not taking better care of the building, merely because they didn’t find it aesthetically pleasing. “Somebody might not like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but the fact of the matter is it’s a masterpiece whether you like it or not. You may not be a person that wants to visit City Hall on a day off, but that doesn’t mean people don’t travel from all over the world to see it,” he said. “Generally speaking, buildings after 50 or 60 years are at the low point of their popularity. It’s just the tides of taste.”

Beyond the 40 intricate drawings and plans created by architects Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles, the exhibit at BSA Space will offer the public a rare opportunity to “explore the genesis” of City Hall from its initial concept, through design development, and the challenges that they faced with their winning solution, celebrating one of the “best-known examples of the New Brutalism in American architecture.”

Wolf said Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles were picked unanimously from more than 256 architects to design City Hall as part of a two-phase competition. He said there are sets of drawings from both phases of that competition. “Very few people have seen these drawings, and [this exhibit is] an astounding opportunity to understand the origins and evolution of the ideas that this building represents,” said Wolf. “The story behind the building is one of the greatest stories of 20th century architecture.”

City Hall