Why Preserve a Failed Public Place?

In this column, landscape architect Bill Thompson, FASLA, takes a look at the shortcomings of Boston's City Hall Plaza as a public space and what he feels are misguided efforts to preserve it.

"Project for Public Spaces rated it the worst urban plaza anywhere, and while PPS is controversial among landscape architects, in this case it has plenty of company. Ever since the 11-acre plaza was built in the 1960s, Bostonians have repeatedly called for its demolition."

"Imagine my surprise, then, to read an appeal by Boston architect and architectural historian Gary Wolf to preserve City Hall Plaza. In the Cultural Landscape Foundation's e-newsletter, MoMoMa (www.tclf.org), Wolf calls the plaza 'a grand civic forum' and suggests that any perceived shortcomings could be remedied by 'improvements' to the existing design along the lines of an arcade that was installed in 2001. (In my observation, it didn't help much.) Mayor Thomas Menino has proposed more drastic solutions for the space, from building a hotel to setting up a wind turbine. I personally like the wind turbine idea, but why not a whole wind farm? It couldn't make the place any worse."

"Rather than proposing little tweaks to the existing plaza, a better line of questioning might be: How could landscape architects and others transform City Hall Plaza into a human-scaled, inviting downtown park for the people of Boston?"

Full Story: Land Matters



Boston's City Hall Plaza

Anyone interested in this article about Boston’s City Hall Plaza should see the following letter that I’ve sent to the ASLA in response:

Dear Editor:

Given my whole-hearted agreement with J. William Thompson’s position that historic preservationists should be better at “choosing their battles,” I was dismayed to discover that Thompson was making this point with respect to his placement of me on the front lines of a skirmish that I never joined. (In fact, I’m not sure that it exists!) For the record, I have not made “an appeal” to preserve Boston‘s City Hall Plaza in anything close to its existing form, any more than Thompson has.

Readers of the following paragraphs from the article that Thompson cites—originally published in the Winter 2008 Newsletter of Docomomo/US (http://www.docomomo-us.org/files/DOCONews_Winter08.pdf)—will find my list of the Plaza’s faults and also my concern that it is not only design, but also governmental policy-making, that contributed to these failings.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the proposed improvements to the Plaza developed by the Trust for City Hall Plaza, which I embrace and which Thompson disparages as “tweaks,” include not only the hotel that Thompson himself supports in the next paragraph, but also the idea of re-introducing Hanover Street through the Plaza as the connector along which the hotel would be located, the complete re-design of the open space, the addition of extensive landscaping and tree planting, and a new entrance building for the subway, in addition to the arcade that he criticizes.

No, despite Thompson’s mis-readings, I am not an advocate for the preservation of City Hall Plaza in its current form.

Yes, I am an advocate for a much improved civic space in this location, extensively redesigned “for human comfort, pleasure, and inspiration” and as the forecourt to one of America’s great public buildings. But the battle that I have chosen to fight is the one to save, and to rejuvenate, Boston City Hall itself.

Gary Wolf, AIA
Gary Wolf Architects, Inc.
Boston MA

Excerpt from “Boston City Hall Plaza: A Modern Space for the City Upon a Hill,” in the Winter 2008 Newsletter of Docomomo/US (http://www.docomomo-us.org/files/DOCONews_Winter08.pdf)

“The Plaza is at its best hosting ice cream and chowder fests, political protests, concerts, and sports celebrations. It accommodates tens of thousands, drawn from throughout the region for gatherings that number among the country’s most memorable urban events.

“It is at the everyday level that the Plaza falls short. Critics observe its inadequate response to the climate, the absence of mid-scale structures and spaces, too little nature, and an overall lack of activity. While design improvements can address such faults, city and federal policies must be supportive and coordinated, which has not always been the case. For instance, KMW’s proposed rathskeller was rejected. The subway station was kept in a distant corner. Commercial vendors were banned; a new hotel, nixed. The recessed fountain was shut off, and then covered over. Maintenance has been insufficiently funded. A City Hall designed to welcome the public is now barricaded for security.

“Nevertheless, with improvements such as those proposed by the Trust for City Hall Plaza, the Plaza could find continued validity as a great modern space. It opened a crowded, once failing city with a powerful new symbolic center. It became a grand civic forum. It exposes vistas in a city that was characterized by a lack of visible connections. And it symbolically re-creates Boston’s defining topographic feature, the hillsides that greeted the first settlers and became the raw material forming the ‘City Upon a Hill.’”

Gary Wolf, AIA

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