Softening Boston's City Hall

Courtesy Halvorson Design Partnership

Boston’s City Hall Plaza has been one of the most dysfunctional and least loved places in the city ever since the 11-acre barren expanse of brick and concrete was built in the 1960s as part of a massive Brutalist complex of federal, state, and city buildings. Known throughout Boston as the “brick desert,” the plaza has few seating options and one of the only signs of nature is a row of dying trees at one of its edges. Doing business at one of the government buildings that front onto the plaza generally requires negotiating the many staircases that traverse it. When it rains, stormwater floods the area.

Now the city of Boston is finally taking some steps to improve the area, which was planned by I.M. Pei and Partners and received prestigious architectural awards in the 1970s. There is a master plan by Utile Architecture + Planning and the landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand that calls for fixing the drainage system, populating the plaza with bosques of shade trees, and adding different seating options. This coming March, work begins on a two-year long project designed by the architecture and engineering firm HDR and the landscape architecture firm Halvorson Design Partnership for rebuilding the Government Center Subway Station and for transforming the area along City Hall Plaza’s border with Cambridge Street, one of the city’s main drags.


According to the designers, it is possible to green Boston’s City Hall Plaza and without disrupting the unified Brutalist aesthetic of the place, which was modeled after the Piazza del Campo in Sienna, Italy. “There is a history there and we respect that,” said Bryan Jereb, senior associate at Halvorson Design Partnership, “but we wanted to make modifications enough to make it inhabitable.”

As a result of the current project, the visitor experience on certain parts of City Hall Plaza should be vastly improved. Sloped granite walks will replace some of the staircases to ease pedestrian access from the redesigned subway station to the entrance of City Hall. A bosque of trees along the Plaza’s boundary on Cambridge Street, one of the city’s main drags, will be planted in an open-joint permeable brick paving system, which will fix some of the drainage issues and prolong the lifespan of the trees. In addition, a new glass head house designed by HDR for the subway station will replace the current brick one, further reducing the visual monotony of the “brick desert.” The plaza will also be better integrated with the rest of the city through new and wider sidewalks along Cambridge Street.

Although the long awaited overhaul of a section of City Hall Plaza will be breaking ground in March, it could be years before Boston is able to fully renovate the rest of the place. It also is unclear when certain features, such as a grayed-out bosque of trees extending into the plaza shown on one of Halvorson’s images, actually will be built. There isn’t the budget to do all of City Hall Plaza, explained Jereb. “We had to be realistic about what the MBTA can pay for.”

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