Post-Professional Design Studio

Post-Pro: Boston


Design and Visualization



Post Professional Studio

Required in and limited to M.Arch. II first year, fall term.

The purpose of the studio is to introduce the incoming class to a number of urban and architectural issues germane to the current discipline, to foster a dialogue between the faculty and students about the status of the discipline and to help students develop their own design project.

Boston and the region

Over the past several years the post Professional studio has looked at the historic development of central New England. Earlier work studied the cities of Southern Massachusetts and their potential revival as sites in a network of connected yet independent towns with their own histories and future potential. A book A Train of Cities was published by the school on that work. More recently the focus has shifted to the hub of that network, the city of Boston.

In recent years Boston has undergone a renaissance. After decades of limited growth and flight from the center city, Boston has revived due to the increased investment in research and development fostered by its major educational institutions and a growing desire for the dynamic life offered by urban living. The past two studios looked at sites along Fort Point Channel and in Cambridge, part of the regional transportation network and slated for new residential and/or lab development. These sites exemplify  the changes to the city that anticipate new patterns of urban development which will bring Boston up to the standards of other international centers of business and research, changing its reputation as a provincial city of small neighborhoods.

Along with this market driven development is a complimentary re-examination and redesign of the public fabric of the city. The most notable change is the construction of the Rose Kennedy Greenway and Ted Williams tunnels which put I95 under the city center and made better connections to the airport. In addition, the city is considering a bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, the subject of our recent second year March I studio. This planning proposal would add to the residential fabric of the downtown and upgrade under-serviced areas of the city, and part of an enduring and broad public debate about the consequences of the devastating changes made to the city during the 1950’s-1970’s period of urban renewal. That period of the city’s history was characterized by attempts to solve the major infrastructural problems of what were essentially a medieval urban fabric and an outmoded transit system.

Though some of these changes were inevitable and did solve technical problems, the general consensus is that aspects of urban renewal, most notably the demolition of the North End neighborhood and the fragmentation of the city by the highway had, at best mixed results with short term gains. Geared to the automobile these interventions tore apart the historic fabric and the large scale buildings and roadways failed to integrate to Boston’s best qualities found in its tight neighborhood residential districts. Urban renewal and the population flight to the outlying suburbs came to be associated with the demise of the city in the 1960s and 70s.

City Hall

The architectural centerpiece of the Urban Renewal campaign run by the Boston Redevelopment Authority under the direction of Ed Logue was the construction of City Hall. I. M. Pei did the master plan for the area and the international competition for the building was won by the then young firm of Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles in 1962. The project took seven years to complete but remained very close to the original entry. The building’s Brutalist style was deemed by the architect’s as a breakaway from the Miesian corporate modernism of its time and a return to an integration between building formal expression and structure. In 1969 City Hall received a national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects and Interiors magazine declared that it was “the best public building of our time.” In 1970, the Boston Society of Architects presented City Hall’s architects with the prestigious Harleston Parker Award for the best new building in Boston. But, during the intervening seven years architectural discourse began to shift too, most famously in Robert Venturi’s attack on architectural ducks and a call for a more complex and contradictory symbolic and more ‘ordinary’ if still ‘ugly’ semantic system, Aldo Rossi’s writing on typology and the architecture of the city, and Colin Rowe’s and Fred Koetter’s work out of the Cornell School of architecture’s urban design program which culminated much later in their 1978 book Collage City. The belated architectural sensibility of the building, in many ways was a last gasp of modernist heroics and came to symbolize the gathering negative public reaction to the concerns of the architectural profession. This schism between architects and the public and within the discipline itself is captured in this anecdote told by McKinnell:

"After we won the City Hall competition, we were walking along Madison Avenue, and we spied [Philip] Johnson coming towards us, waving his arms in typical Johnsonian fashion. 'Ah! I'm so happy for you two young boys who have won this competition. Absolutely marvelous. I think it's wonderful. And it's so ugly!' We thought that was the greatest praise we could get.”

Shortly after its completion the companion project to the urban design proposal, the renovation and restoration of Faneuil Hall, was completed in time for the country’s bicentennial. That piece of the downtown urban puzzle was widely praised by the profession and the public and may have boosted an appreciation for the wonderful older fabric of the city. City Hall’s legacy has faired more poorly. The large public spaces surrounding the building are often lifeless, windblown wastelands and the building has suffered from changes to its interior, and flaws in its design, poor access, environmental problems and an unpopular aesthetic. In June of 2012 The Huffington Post ran an item which put the building as number one in the “25 Buildings to be Demolished Right Now,” and the website Spike, among many others, lists it as the number one “Ugliest Building in America” (slightly ahead of another frequent target, Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project)  The architects at least, seemed to achieve their intentions to provoke just about everyone.

Many small competitions have been run to renovate or reconsider the building. Generally speaking the building’s space requirements are still viable for the purpose for which it was originally intended, but on December 12, 2006, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino proposed selling the current city hall and adjacent plaza to private developers and moving the city government to a site in South Boston. His proclamation speaks to several issues, including the schism between the profession’s admiration and the public’s animosity for the building, and, perhaps, the pressure that development puts on desirable sites such as these. Moving the City Hall to South Boston would displace it from its central and symbolic urban situation. Friends of the building tried to get it landmark status noting that, in contrast to Paul Rudolph’s A & A building which was renovated back to its original grandeur, the City Hall has not been well treated. The 2008 recession, halted Menino’s plans and the building remains, significant yet largely unloved.

Studio Problem

We will design a new City Hall.  Though, as a group, we will look at the issue of renovating the existing building, we are not entertaining a project of physical renovation which for the most part has been only mildly distracting, revealing an atrophied engagement with the architectural issues that the building initially addressed. Most proposals simply green up the building or make its public space into a tepid, user-friendly playscape. Nor are we interested in turning the clock back so as to preserve the pre-urban renewal urban fabric and promote a simplistic return to historic origins.

Instead we are concerned with revisiting the disciplinary moment in which the competition was launched, one which marked the end of High Modernism at the date of the building’s conception. We will want to use the studio investigation as an opportunity to engage the subsequent debate about the role of the building in the city, the idea of a ‘public architecture’ and the concept of the ‘public’ as it might be currently constructed. Today we might imagine the clichés of what the brief for a similar competition might engage – sustainable architecture, public access and a more friendly and accommodating series of spaces and uses. The characteristic responses that seem to be ubiquitous would then be – monolithic and indifferent building envelopes wrapped in decorative patterns or plant material symptomatic of what might be deemed as awkward and somewhat ambiguous response to iconicity and symbol, the temporal and eclectic nature of the contemporary city, and the continuing and complicated problem of fashion and taste in architecture to which the original building - and perhaps no building -is not immune.

The program for the project and the site will be taken directly from the 1961 brief given to you under separate attachment with some modifications of the neighboring districts to acknowledge existing buildings constructed since the competition. In other words, the site proper is as it was given in 1961, but the context is the physical and conceptual problems of the contemporary city in general and Boston in particular.

Over the course of the first few weeks we will examine the brief, trying to analyze its subtext and possible reconsiderations of that brief given contemporary concerns. We will also look at several precedents for city halls and significant works of architecture during the time of the competition and their possible impact on the different entries for the original competition. The class will be making a field trip to Boston in late September where we will visit the existing building, look at the original drawings for the competition, tour the city to see its great public buildings and examine the changes taking place in the city today as well as visit a few significant regional centers of great urban architecture in Providence, Newport and some of the outlying towns and suburbs of Boston.

By midterm students are expected to have made  a larger proposal for the site and preliminary proposals for the building. The final project will consist of a large scale series of drawing and models which engage the urban fabric and drawing and models at architectural scale of the proposals for the city hall.