Boston City Hall
Photo © Ernst Halberstadt/Wikipedia
Boston City Hall was completed in 1968.

Some competitions immediately catapult architects into architectural history. Gerhard Kallmann, who died June 19 in Boston at the age of 97, earned his place in the pantheon early in his long career when he and his collaborators, Michael McKinnell and Edward Knowles, all teachers at Columbia, won the competition for Boston City Hall in 1962. There were 256 entries in two rounds; the final vote was unanimous.

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Boston was in decline. Architecture, as a means of shaping society and revitalizing cities, was ascendant. Their design for the historic site at the center of the old city was a masterpiece, self-confident and inventive.

What Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles offered was a heroic portrait of contemporary civic government. The concrete structure grew up from a vast field of brick on Herculean concrete pilotis that supported a floating block of offices enclosed by a modular façade of precast concrete panels. The pilotis liberated the ground, creating open public space where, in the spirit of the times, demonstrators could gather on staircases designed for sit-ins, or for spontaneous meetings in the central courtyard, ringed by the doughnut of offices above. The vast plaza was sized for the large demonstrations.  The people owned the building.

Deeply and conspicuously democratic, the massive and uncompromising design was also a critique of the increasingly anemic Modernism of the period, when unimaginative boxes with flat curtain walls were impoverishing skylines and street life.  

With its overhanging mass of offices, City Hall commanded the surrounding urban space with an authority appropriate for the seat of civic government. Unlike the nearby office buildings, there was power and authenticity in the concrete left raw, plus a countervailing warmth in the carpet of red brick that flowed from the plaza through the building to the escarpment of brick out back.

A systems building with repetitive modules on the façade of the offices upstairs, the design projected exceptional sculptural forms cantilevering off the façade, housing special functions, including the mayor’s office, Council chamber, and library.  The formal complexity was not gratuitous, but designed to visually chart function and hierarchy for the public reading the building outside. The design rivaled even Paul Rudolph’s efforts as America’s pre-eminent practitioner of Brutalism (a term too often tied with the English word brute rather than the original French word brut, or raw).  The force of the structure resided in the strong presence projected by “unvarnished” materials and transformed the precedent set in France by Le Corbusier at the monastery of La Tourette.

Somewhat brooding, the design has been controversial from the beginning, sharing the fate of other Brutalist buildings. One mayor proposed tearing it down, though the more reasonable solution to its perceived problems is the proposal to upgrade the building systems to current standards. 

Kallmann and his partners went on to design other robust buildings in Boston, including the Government Center Garage (1970) and the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank (1973), that flexed their precast concrete musculature. Kallmann enlisted as a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where he would teach design studios for decades. I was one of his students, and he patiently encouraged us to use drawing as a tool to study their projects: if it was not on paper, he couldn’t and wouldn’t see it. Drawing was the discipline for understanding and developing the idea, for seeing just how to turn a corner. The master frequently sided with students in their dealings with the school bureaucracy: he lent his considerable stature to the vulnerable.

The Brutalism he practiced so brilliantly proved unsustainable in the face of cumulative social change, and popular taste gravitated to more obvious expressions of history, especially in the Northeast. The libraries, headquarters and embassies the firm went on to design took on regional coloring, making more conspicuous references to history and context.  The nearly domestic typology of the firm’s American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge (1981), with hipped roofs, was a turning point to a more obviously contextual architecture.

Kallmann, who was born in Berlin in 1915 and trained at the Architectural Association in London before moving to the United States in 1948, was deeply cultivated and principled, and the common thread that ran through his buildings was their high degree of civility, especially their humanity toward users. His gaze civilized every design that passed across his drafting table.