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Boston's Government Center is the least successful of the city's architectural achievements—and that's a compliment.

 


 

 

Nearly a century ago, Boston's Scollay Square was where sailors and students would go to drink in taverns and watch vaudeville and burlesque shows.

It was rowdy. The city fathers (there were no city mothers at the time) hated it.

Urban renewal in the 1960s wiped Scollay Square off the map and replaced it with Government Center, a complex of federal, state and city government office buildings surrounding a vast 8-acre (3.2-hectare) brick-paved plaza.

Centerpiece of the complex is Boston City Hall (1968), a modern fortress-like structure designed by three college professors in the "brutalist" style that is as true to Boston's cultural and architectural traditions as a dumpster.

What a mess! The federal and state office buildings look straightforward enough—no architectural kudos, but they don't offend (except for the grotesque metal sculpture in front of the federal building which earns my award as World's Ugliest Public Monument. Your tax dollars at work!)

But Boston City Hall is a building only an architect could love.

The vast plaza, designed by I M Pei and known popularly as the "brick desert" for most of its life, has now been softened and made less desert-like with some trees, plantings and benches. But most people still march through it at top speed, as they do in all I M Pei plazas.

Luckily, the Sears Crescent (1840) on the south side of the plaza somehow survived the architectural jihad and now provides something pleasing to look at as you race across the plaza.

You'll probably see Government Center on your way to neighboring Faneuil Hall Marketplace, a triumph of historic preservation as urban renewal, thronged daily with people who like being there—just the opposite of Government Center.

On Friday afternoons and Saturdays, the Haymarket Square open-air fruit-and-vegetable market takes place just east of Government Center. That, too, is real life, untidy, but not purposefully ugly.

—by Tom Brosnahan


Faneuil Hall Marketplace

Haymarket Square

North End

Financial District

Beacon Hill

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Paris Girls Secret Society, the new novel by Tom Brosnahan

 

City Hall, Boston MA

Above, Boston City Hall: good for defense against cannon attack.

Below, World's Ugliest Public Monument: you paid for it.

 

Ugly Sculpture, Boston MA

 

 

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