It’s easy to hate on Boston’s City Hall and the surrounding City Hall Plaza pavilion. City Hall anchors the expansive, unremarkable red brick courtyard wedged into a part of the city above the historic Faneuil Hall marketplace and shopping enclave. Aside from the occasional music fest or when the circus literally comes to town, the plaza typically remains deserted. There is nothing inviting about it. I have a loose theory that even pigeons alter their flying patterns to bypass the plaza. The hulking mass of City Hall—a building home to the city’s loathed bureaucratic set—does little to draw the casual citizen to the area.
Built in 1968, City Hall is a multi-tiered building rising up on concrete stilts. Its upper-floors march along in a tidy geometric pattern of windows like honeycomb made of stone. City Hall’s design was heavily influenced by something called the “brutalist” style of architecture. This trend ran from the 1950s to the early-1970s, producing work characterized by immense size made out of stark concrete and brick. “Fortress-like” and “raw” are descriptors often used in conjunction with this approach. To this I would also add “masculine over-compensation.” City Hall is ludicrous in its unexceptional, beastly nature (seriously, East Germany called, it wants its mall from 1982 back) and completely out of step with the rest of the city’s elegant and stately building landscape. Some Bostonians embrace both City Hall and the plaza for its rugged simplicity and its unapologetic functionality. Others declare it a “wicked terrible eye-saaahhhrr that’s like, frickin ugliaaaahhh than yaahr mom at a Jaahhrdin’s Furniture 60% sale!” Translated from Boston to English: It stinks. It stinks bad.
Even though it’s quicker to cut through the plaza on my way to Faneuil Hall and all the other juicy points that lay beyond—The North End, The Rose Kennedy Greenway, the Aquarium—I almost always circumnavigate the concrete Sahara. If I do happen to walk through the plaza, I treat the space with indifference bordering on disdain. The plaza as generic and bland and tedious as a high school hallway.
But the other night I left a friend I had met downtown for dinner at the edge of Faneuil Hall. We exited the restaurant to a cold, light rain, the first truly-chilly-scarf-hat-approved evening to hit Boston since last March. I could shave frosty minutes off my walk to the subway by bee-lining it through the plaza, I reasoned, or I could take any number of more scenic, longer streets to get to my stop. Tired and lazy from the delicious ribbons of pasta I had shoveled down hours ago at a North End restaurant, I opted for the shorter path.
I hustled up the plaza’s two tiers of stairs, shoulders hunched up against the raw rain, head tucked underneath my umbrella when a shimmer of light and color reflected in the wet pavement caught my eye. I stopped and looked up.
The Government Center subway station is situated at the front end of the plaza. Like every other part of Boston’s ancient, ramshackle subway system, the station was in dire need of a major overhaul for about the last four billion years. A recent two-year renovation produced a surprisingly sleek, modern design. A large, airy glass enclosure houses the station entrance. At night the station gently pulses with multi-colored LED lights. A group of trees flank the station’s sides, softening the urban scene.
It was a small thing of beauty. Unexpected. Simple. Clear glass, colored lights, the warmth of the trees’ golden leaves, the collected tones winking in the rain slicked sheen of the pavilion—a combination of elements arranged in a relatively ordinary way rendered momentarily extraordinary in this bit of architectural wasteland.
It’s easy to dismiss, to discount, to write something off as not worthy of attention. We’re getting pretty good at appointing ourselves personal critics, judges, and juries conferring value on everything from our grocery stores to our career paths and spiritual beliefs. We’re stratified and polarized because we’ve stopped seeing and thinking for ourselves and, instead, we swallow the opinions and perceptions of others as easily and gratefully as if they were spoonfuls of chocolate mousse.
I’m sure I looked like a hopeless touron stalling around in the rain, ogling a damn subway station, but I couldn’t help it. I felt proud of my city for sneakily gifting me with something so surprisingly lovely. I felt grateful for the discovery, my sense of this place transformed by the gentle nudge to always keep my eyes and mind open.