A pedestrian passes through Boston's City Hall Plaza. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

The much-maligned U.S. civic center could learn a few things from its recently updated concrete brother to the north.

Toronto and Boston’s city halls opened to the public within three years of each other (in 1965 and 1968, respectively). Built as the result of international design competitions, both Modernist concrete complexes are flanked by expansive plazas intended to serve as a front step to their cities. But while Toronto’s city hall and its adjoining Nathan Phillips Square are beloved local symbols, Boston’s have been reviled by citizens and politicians alike.

As Boston churns through its Rethink City Hall! consultation process to “reinvigorate and enliven one of Boston’s most perplexing buildings,” Bostonians might consider Toronto’s own long, fraught renovation, which eventually gave the city its largest publicly-accessible green roof and garnered a Governor General’s Medal for the architects behind the project this past May.

Toronto’s city hall square renovation just may hold some key lessons. Here are five things for Boston to consider:

1. Fight the urge to fill it up.

Delaware North, the food and hospitality company that won a three-year contract to remake Boston’s plaza in the shorter term, suggested an artificial beach, skating rink, concessions, and a Ferris wheel. Chris Grimley, the Boston architect and historic consultant for Rethink City Hall!, calls it a “carnival”—a solution that’s only fit to be temporary.

The firm behind Toronto’s renovation, Plant Architect, did the exact opposite. In a controversial move, they made the square even emptier, relocating the Peace Garden and its Flame of Peace, lit by Pope John Paul II in 1983, from the center to the southwest side.

A view from the new garden on the grounds of Toronto City Hall. (Plant Architect)

Chris Pommer, founding partner at Plant, recalls the decision and ensuing blowback with a wary “here we go...” But when the newly emptied square received hundreds of visitors and inscribed messages following the death of New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton in 2011, Pommer says he exhaled a small sigh of relief. “What we did was okay,” he says. Their work made space for public gatherings and unscripted gestures of joy and despair.

2. Activate the hell out of it.

Open spaces shouldn’t be feared, says the designer Adrian Blackwell, who collaborated on the Toronto project. That emptiness is key: it provides space for discussion, protest, and celebration. Toronto’s square plays host—over half the days of the year, says Blackwell—to free farmers’ markets, art fairs, and music festivals, like last summer’s concert series held during the Pan Am Games. Pommer says there were so many scheduled events, they had to juggle jackhammers and the Jazz Festival during the renovation.

Ken Greenberg, a Toronto-based urban designer and consultant on Boston’s 2030 urban plan (the city’s first in 50 years), agrees that Boston’s plaza has a “topography [that] needs activation, needs life.” While protestors and sports fans have gathered on its steps over the years, an expanded, glassy ‘T’ station and a new lighting strategy could leave the site poised for expanded use.

Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino proposed selling City Hall to private developers in 2006, saying it would "galvanize the vitality of our downtown." (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

But different levels create distinct zones and make access difficult, says Grimley. In Toronto there’s no grade separation, which helps create a sense that the outside and inside are connected, says George Kapelos, author of Competing Modernisms: Toronto’s New City Hall and Square, a book devoted to the 1958 competition won by the Finnish architect Viljo Revell. “There is freedom to move… People feel like they own it and have a right to it,” he says.

3. Words sting—and stick.

You can only call it “the ugliest building in the world,” a “brick desert,” or “windswept eyesore” so many times before you develop a deep-seated complex.

Boston City Hall, designed by Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles, is the building Bostonians love to hate. Despite the architects’ good intentions, the building opened to mixed reactions. And while some members of the public saw it as a bold and appropriate expression of the time, many have since followed former Boston mayor Thomas Menino’s lead in declaring it “tough, confusing, wasted space.”

The hearse bearing the body of former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino passes City Hall in Boston, Monday, Nov. 3, 2014, en route to funeral services in Boston's Hyde Park. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Menino left the mayor’s office in January 2014 after holding the position for 20 years. (He died in October 2014.) Grimley says that so many years of disparaging language from the city’s highest office was influential and damaging.

By contrast, Toronto made its kooky city hall its official emblem. An abstracted version of the two towers hugging the council chamber adorns the City of Toronto flag (selected in 1974 and reinstated in 1999). It also makes up the city’s logo. Adopted 18 years ago, though not universally admired, it has achieved and bestowed legitimacy through use and ubiquity.

4. Political commitment, across administrations, is paramount.

It turns out that whoever is in charge inside city hall has a huge impact on its state of repair.

Grimley says* the Menino administration “left [the plaza] to rot, literally and figuratively,” adding up to 20-plus years of neglect. Although Toronto’s late Rob Ford did not approve of the renovation, mayors before and after him embraced Nathan Phillips Square—and that has made all the difference.

“City leadership has a huge impact on whether a project happens and its long-term success,” says Pommer. The competition, announced in 2006, that led to Toronto’s renewal project was part of former mayor David Miller’s beautifying and greening campaigns. The square, which celebrated its 50th birthday last September, needed some upkeep anyway, creating an opportunity to make changes.

Pommer calls it “the biggest house renovation,” a huge responsibility and a “political football,” in turn. Large parts of the renovation have yet to be completed—including, critically, the raised walkways and eastern edge. Like any major urban project, “it will unfold over time,” says Pommer. And consequently, it shouldn’t be considered the responsibility of a single administration.

5. Be (even more) patient.

Grimley reminds us that before Brutalist buildings were in the public crosshairs, Victorian architecture was seen as oppressive and excessively ornate. But who would think that of Boston’s Trinity Church now? Or Toronto’s old city hall, which sits across the street from Revell’s design? Kapelos agrees that styles will fall into disregard, but “circumstances change, allowing for reconciliation with the past.”

A Brutalism comeback appears to be underway. The controversial style is receiving a new wave of media attention, just as many of its exemplars are being demolished. Grimley thinks Boston’s fine Brutalist building and plaza can handle a “challenging” renovation, but asserts that appreciation takes time.

In any case, and thankfully, it would require “a small nuclear device to take it down,” he says.

Workers erect giant letters spelling out ‘Toronto’ in Nathan Phillips Square in July 2015. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Meanwhile, Pommer is cautious about temporary installations, like those proposed by Delaware North, because of their potential to become permanent plaza residents. Toronto got its very own iconic sign for the Pan Am Games, which is still hanging around (and dutifully drawing public funds). Judging by social media impressions, people seem to like it. But absent crowds from across the Americas, the sign is not only meta in a way that seems unnecessary, but poorly kerned, to boot. After all, reminds Pommer, the city just spent nine years and $60 million CAN ($45 million USD) emptying the square.

Maybe Toronto has more to learn, too.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify Chris Grimley’s comments regarding Boston City Hall’s plaza under former mayor Menino.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A Fifties-style diner with blue booths and chairs and pink walls.
    Design

    Why a ‘Memory Town’ Is Coming to Your Local Strip Mall

    Weeks after opening near San Diego, a model town for treating dementia is set to be replicated around the U.S.

  2. Design

    How Boston Got Its ‘T’

    Designers Peter Chermayeff and Tom Geismar talk about how they gave the MBTA an enduring makeover.

  3. A large tank truck parked in front of new apartment buildings.
    Life

    The Divides Within, and Between, Urban and Rural America

    Economic growth is not only uneven between urban and rural places—it is uneven within them, too.

  4. A crowd of onlookers watches fire consume the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro on September 3.
    Perspective

    Rio's National Museum Fire Was Not Just an Accident

    The fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro was part of a larger campaign of disinvestment aimed at the country’s history and culture.

  5. A mother and two children riding bikes in the Netherlands
    Transportation

    Cycling Is Key to Safer, Healthier, More Vital Cities

    In their new book Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett use the example of the Netherlands to show how a cycling culture promotes community building and health.