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How 'What the Hell Is That?' Changed Boston Development

Once upon a time, Boston was a dying city. Urban decay accompanied residents' mass decampment to the suburbs, the civic EKG recording but blips of sporadic interest in the once-admired, now cautionary metropolis' future. Then came a national design competition in the spring of 1961 for a new City Hall, and everything changed. That's the compelling argument made by The Globe's Leon Neyfakh over the weekend:

It was in this context that the city decided to demolish the neighborhood known as Scollay Square and build in its place what would come to be called Government Center. Forceful and bewildering, Kallmann and McKinnell’s Boston City Hall would be the centerpiece of this controversial plan to revitalize Boston’s economy and convince its citizens?—?and the world?—?that the city was changing. When the winning design was unveiled in the spring of 1962, “It sent a signal that the city was taking itself seriously,” said Keith Morgan, an architectural historian at Boston University. “That the city wanted to be something better than it had been.”

Two plucky young architects—actually, they weren't licensed yet, so they had to get a bonafide T-square jockey to sign on—won the competition and the initial opprobrium that came with it. Simply put, everyone was baffled. The building that Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell conceived of seemed ugly as mortal sin.

On May 3, 1962, a crowd of 300 people, including city officials, journalists, and many of the competition finalists, gathered at the MFA to hear the results [of the competition]... When the sheet was lifted to reveal their model, there were gasps in the room. One person reportedly exclaimed, “What the hell is that?” Dazed and elated, the winning architects went to shake hands with a no less befuddled [Mayor John] Collins.

While even a half-century later Kallmann and McKinnell's conception has yet to fully grow on the body politic (if it ever will), the architectural community went immediately gaga. And not just for the design itself, but for the potential it heralded for our wheezing city. Said Yale architecture dean Robert A.M. Stern: "[Boston was] seen as the great new urban experimental center, where new work could go side by side with Faneuil Hall."

A straight line psychologically, if not design-wise, can be drawn from the new City Hall/Government Center in the 1960s through Faneuil Hall Marketplace and the John Hancock Tower in the 1970s to Copley Place in the 1980s to the revitalization (or gentrification, if you prefer) of neighborhoods like the South End in that decade and the one that followed to the construction boom we're seeing, ever so slowly, right now (one that includes work by architects of Stern's gravitas). Boston was back, spurred by a building that was, as Kallmann told Neyfakh, "not pretty-pretty, easy on the eye?.?.?.?.That is operetta stuff. That is Rodgers and Hammerstein?.?.?.?.That is not what we did."

· How Boston City Hall Was Born [Globe]
· The Year of the Shovel: Hub Development in 2011 [Curbed Boston]

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