Bringing the Best Out of City Landmarks

UN v City Hall 2Boston’s City Hall has had more than its fair share of criticism over the years. Its high concrete walls, the surrounding plaza commonly referred to as the “brick desert,” even thinking about the many steps it takes just to enter the building, this Brutalist structure is long overdue for a major facelift along with City Hall Plaza. Instead of looking like an abandoned castle on the hill, City Hall should feel like a welcoming place for residents and tourists to learn about Boston’s rich history and politics. It should be a destination to discover what makes Boston such a great city to live in or visit. But as it currently stands, the building looks more like a mid-century museum artifact in the middle of downtown Boston rather than an engaging piece of architecture that is an activated destination in the city. Don’t get me wrong, being an Architect I love brutalist buildings. They had their time and place. But like other brutalist buildings, they need to evolve based on new market conditions, demographics of people, and technology.

While some landscape interventions have improved a portion of the plaza as the Architect’s Newspaper reported earlier this year, much more can and should be done because the site has such great potential. I’m confident that Mayor Walsh will address this much debated issue that has long plagued our city.

Imagine if we modestly installed sections of glass to the exterior, implemented an efficient lighting system throughout and enhanced some of the urbanistic elements, and implemented an improved program to really activate the plaza…What if we added cafes with outdoor seating, restaurants and an amazing visitor center to the ground level? More green space and benches? Outdoor sculptures? Colored lighting at night? Digital art installations? All of these amenities would bring commerce, business, entertainment, but most importantly, people to a location that has been stagnant for decades.

The same thought occurred to me about the UN’s Secretariat Building in Manhattan after walking by it on a recent trip to NYC. What would it be like if the building had been designed to be more engaging and attractive from the outside as opposed to how it looks now – like a sculptural urban fortress?

Like City Hall, the UN’s campus has no real community interaction. When you think about what the building stands for and the values it represents, it should feel like a friendly international gateway. It needs to be more integrated into the neighborhood. Even the public parks around the UN are frequently empty. The entire campus, including its landscaping, could be repositioned and better programmed in a way that makes the UN feel more inviting for visitors and employees instead of shielding them off by security and a large fence. Granted, security needs to be there, but it doesn’t feel as welcoming as say, the White House – arguably what is perhaps the most heavily guarded building in the world – despite the recent news. Furthermore, the materiality and finishes of the Secretariat building look old and unappealing.

When you think about all the UN buildings around it – UNESCO, UN Plaza, etc. – they all seem distant from each other when they should really be talking to one another, complementing each other. The Secretariat is even situated on prime real estate right on the East River, which for the most part only houses residential buildings. Could we expand the campus to connect a greenway to the water? Could we add in a Tourist Center? If you have a building that is supposed to represent the world, it should look and feel the part.

That’s why I love what we do here at CBT. It’s exciting to think creatively about what a building and its surrounding areas could be. If you have thoughts and ideas on how we could create a more socially-integrated City Hall in Boston, a more approachable UN campus in Manhattan or suggestions for other underutilized places and spaces, shoot me a note or leave a comment. I’d love to hear them and discuss. Let’s activate!

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