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Designing Boston: City Hall + Plaza

Boston City Hall and City Hall Plaza were intended to create an open and accessible place for government, an exuberant statement of democracy and civic life. Needless to say, that’s not the prevailing opinion today.

What can we learn from Boston City Hall’s early ambitions? January’s Designing Boston panel focused on the building and plaza, and its original design and intent. The building was designed in the 1960s as a new space for citizens to engage with their government. The plaza was intended to provide a monumental gathering space and welcome all who pass through. Is there an opportunity today to reset the clock?

On Monday, January 11, 2016, over 200 people packed BSA Space to participate in this intergenerational discussion about Boston City Hall and City Hall Plaza.  The crowd included a mix of architects, landscape architects, and passionate city lovers of all ages—one of the most civil and substantive conversations about City Hall in recent years.

The discussion took place at a unique moment in time, the Walsh administration is reinvesting in the City’s primary civic space, striving to make it a public space that is embraced by its citizens, and testing a variety of approaches. Over the course of the past year, we have seen a series of efforts from the temporary to the enduring, from colorful plastic chairs and astroturf to events like the Donna Summer Roller Disco Party, to calls for proposals for short term event programming to artists-in-residence, to a master plan for City Hall and City Hall Plaza, now underway, which will provide a roadmap for permanent renovations.

To share ideas and receive updates on the City's process around the master plan for City Hall and City Hall Plaza, sign up at rethinkcityhall.org.

The panel was anchored by Boston City Hall’s original architect, Michael McKinnell FAIA, who invigorated the audience as he implored the City to be bold.  McKinnell suggested that the building should be changed to adapt to today’s needs, including the evolving ways that a municipal government interacts with its citizens. Architect and educator Mark Pasnik AIA, co-author of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, provided historical and contemporary context. Anita Berrizbeitia ASLA, professor and chair of the department of landscape architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design, spoke about transforming the plaza into a variety of spaces to better accommodate and inspire a range of uses, her presentation illustrated with work by some of her students. Attorney, Boston Globe columnist, and former Boston City Councilor Michael Ross moderated the discussion (as he has for nearly all of the Designing Boston discussions), once again bringing personal knowledge and a journalist's curiosity to bear.

This event is the fifth in the Designing Boston Series, which provides a forum to discuss current trends and concerns in architecture and urban planning that may shape Boston’s future. Recent topics include designing for transportation, walkability, and climate change, and meeting housing demands of this growing city.

Twitter was very active with audience engagement, some tweets included:

""It's like a rock concert for #Architects@BSAAIA #designingBOS explores #CityHallPlaza tonight! #landarch"

"@BSAAIA #designingBoston event on #CityHall. Michael McKinnell hits it out of the park proposing a #MuseumOfBoston to return space to public"

"Michael McKinnell calls for any future intervention at City Hall Plaza to be "bold and self confident" #designingbos"

"Q&A raising the question of transparency. Let's make it participatory! Share and visit http://rethinkcityhall.org  #designingBOS"

""Times will change again, and all future building modifications should be reversible" -Michael Mckinnell #designingBOS"

""Every government project should be a competition" - what a great idea for civic engagement and dynamic architecture  #designingBOS"

""We never thought the building should be finished, continually revamped" @BSAAIA #designingBOS #CityHallPlaza #LandArch #Brutalism"

"Really like the idea of the plaza being responsive to changing context: Rose Kennedy Greenway and new waterfront. Adornment? #designingBOS"


To learn more about how the BSA Foundation is making an impact in communities, please come to BSA Space for a one hour “tour” of BSA Foundation programs. On the tour, board members and volunteers will tell stories about how Foundation programs, and the power of design, are positively changing the lives of real people. Meet the BSA Foundation meetings are held on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month. Events are free, but seats are limited. Check for upcoming dates and to reserve your seat.