Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The chain-link fences are finally down at Boston’s long-closed Government Services Center, thanks to some clever design updates.
A vast public plaza inside one of the more polarizing Brutalist complexes in the U.S., designed by architect Paul Rudolph, is reopening after being closed for more than a decade.
On Thursday, Rosalin Acosta, the Massachusetts Secretary of Employment Labor and Workforce Development, hosted an official unveiling of Hurley Plaza at Boston’s Government Services Center (not to be confused with the nearby Government Center, which has a more substantial plaza revamp in the works). Chain-link fences—put in place after the plaza failed to meet contemporary building codes—have come down, and design changes have been made not only for safety, but to keep the spirit of Boston’s heroic concrete architecture alive, despite its flaws.
The Government Services Center consists of two buildings from the early 1970s, the Charles F. Hurley Building and the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center, supporting various offices of the state of Massachusetts. The center is anchored by an elevated concrete plaza that leads down to a modest green space and a parking garage tucked underneath it. The design of these two buildings was overseen by Rudolph and executed by the firms M.A. Dyer, Desmond & Lord, and Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott.
A 23-story tower by Rudolph was originally planned for the space, and would have completed the architect’s vision. But the tower was canceled and, in the late ‘90s, a neo-traditionalist courthouse was constructed instead, making for an abrupt transition from the aggressively expressive Brutalism that dominates the site.
Architect Stephen Moore of Boston-based ICON Architecture has come up with some clever interventions that play off Rudolph’s trademark corduroy-concrete facade treatments, in an effort to bring the plaza’s most dangerous spaces up to code. Wide gaps between the plaza and the building facade (see above) lead down to the parking garage below, making for a surprisingly easy fall. “No one thought it would be a bad idea,” Moore said dryly of the original designers.
ICON was the third firm to take a crack at what seems to be an easy project on its surface. But design integrity and budget constraints made it quite a challenge. Moore devised a series of curved steel panels that add significant height to the edges of the plaza and a contemporary take on the Great Society facade, with circular cuts in each panel that look like they could almost fit over the concrete ridges just behind them. “So much of it is a layering, a backdrop with clear moments to see the concrete architecture,” explained Moore. “We couldn’t get out of making it more visible, but we minimized our object as much as possible.”
Original concrete bollards, used over the years as makeshift trash cans and toilets by plaza visitors, have been turned into planters and are now rearranged around a main entrance to the Lindemann Center, establishing a predictable pedestrian flow in and out of the building by artfully blocking off a narrow and potentially unsafe section.
Now that the plaza is up to code, Moore is eager to do more. “I am hoping to make the big pitch for a subsequent stage of repairs being the ‘grand stair’ that would re-connect the plaza to the city from all sides, as per the original public intent,” Moore said in a recent email.
While the solutions for the plaza appear simple, what should be done with the intensely dramatic, expressive spaces inside is unclear. The interior of the complex includes wildly curved staircases and rippling walls “which workers finished by hand, first casting the concrete in ribbed wooden molds before using bush hammers to chip away at the aggregate,” explained Madeline Bilis in Boston Magazine in 2017.
Clients roam within the center’s confusing corridors and abrasively textured interior walls, but its chapel has been closed off for years—a shame since the natural light that pours in from above the concrete pulpit creates an almost spiritual effect. One function of the complex is providing mental-health services, which has long been complicated by Rudolph’s uncompromising architecture. In a scathing critique of its design in relation to the needs of its vulnerable users, architecture writer Philip Nobel once wrote that “Rudolph made the building ‘insane’ in order to express the insanity within.”
Eventually, the state will have to do something about the years of deferred maintenance inside the complex, whether it wants to or not. “However reviled it may be as an object of art, however many flaws it may have,” Moore said, “it is an amazing piece of architecture.” For now, a modestly improved entrance that smooths out some of Rudolph’s trouble spots will do.