Land Matters: Can This Urban Plaza Be Saved? Should It Be?

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I visited Boston’s City Hall Plaza in the company of one of our LA forums (“In Search of Public Space,” August 2001), and the place struck me as an urban design disaster—a featureless expanse of brick on which pedestrians look dwarfed and lost. Our forum included four big-city landscape architects and an expert on urban spaces from Harvard. Not one of them had a single good thing to say about it.

Their bad opinion is widely shared. 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? One thing’s sure: Any satisfying redesign would require the demolition of much if not all of the existing plaza. As I write this, however, any suggestions may be moot. The mayor is trying to build political momentum to sell the whole place and build City Hall somewhere else

More broadly, are historic preservationists good at choosing their battles—or do they really think that every historic landscape, anywhere, should be preserved? Some modernist-era landscapes, for example, merit preservation, but many are cold, inhuman expressions of architectural arrogance—such as the “windswept plazas” of which City Hall Plaza is perhaps the epitome. In any case, doesn’t the preserve/demolish debate leave out the important third voice—those who advocate extensive redesign of failed places for human comfort, pleasure, and inspiration?

J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA

Landscape Architecture Editor / bthompson@asla.org

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