Say what you wish about the plan to light up City Hall Plaza, but there's no denying that the building inspires strong feelings like love (from architects and historians) and hate (from everybody else).
Because it's the most visible symbol of Brutalist architecture, it represents a particular era in our development. And while it's a style that generally garners negative impressions of oppression, it's original intent was just the opposite.
Firstly, the name itself: the word brutalism originates from the French béton brut, which means raw concrete. And concrete, in the 1920s, had symbolized optimism because of its boundless potential and endless supply. (The only material we use more of, according to our friends at Slate, is water). In the Roaring Twenties, the material built bridges, highways, sidewalks, and hulking buildings of all sorts.
Back to Boston, and fast forward to the late fifties and early sixties: suburban white flight and the death of manufacturing jobs led to a loss of population in the city. Less people were left to pay sky high property taxes, and real estate development screeched to a halt. (as opposed to the million-mile-per-hour construction pace of today). But what we did get back then was made of concrete, like the Christian Science Center, Carpenter Center, Harvard Science Center, and the Boston University Law School building. And, of course, in 1968, Boston City Hall was born in a very uncertain era.
The building was immediately described as alienating and cold, which are never good ddescriptions for a government building. Over the decades, active neglect has taken over, where politicians have generally avoided needed renovations to care for concrete (which does deteriorate from the inside metal rebar reinforcements). And then the building could crumble from within. We don't want that, do we? At least without a plan.
So maybe Marty Walsh is onto something to light up City Hall in lights. Architects everywhere, who know just how difficult it is to work with concrete because you get just one shot--one pour of the stuff--before it sets and becomes permanently part of your building. You've got to spend time planning the design.
Incidentally, in the sixties, public opinion turned against Victorian era housing. So that was torn down...to build structures that followed a modern and Brutalist aesthetic. Style is a pendulum, and maybe we'll come to love the big, hulking buildings. Right? (I know, I know...not likely).
Ian Fleming, when he authored Goldfinger, gave the namesake villain a moniker modeled after architect Erno Goldfinger, who made a career of erecting these big, bad, Brutalist buildings. James Bond was sicced on him, so that eternal opinion shall remain firmly etched in our societal psyche. The city of London would disagree, though: the Trellick Tower, built in 1972 by Goldfinger himself, is a landmark.
Oh, if nothing else, here's a consoling bonus: concrete is the ultimate neutral background, so there's actually no better place to take a selfie.