For all of Boston’s celebrated and historic architecture, no building attracts attention quite like its City Hall, which has been alternatively celebrated and reviled by critics. Its unapologetically brutalist design is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever wandered near Government Center over the last 50 years.
What even those with the strongest opinions might not know is that Boston’s City Hall was the first building designed in part by a Columbia University graduate student named Michael McKinnell, who passed away at the age of 84 last week from COVID-19-induced pneumonia. Over the 58 years since McKinnell and Gerhard Kallman—his professor and eventual firm partner—won the international contest to design the famous New England building, McKinnell forged a reputation as an architect who reshaped a city, and as an academic who passed down his wisdom to future generations.
Though British by birth, McKinnell co-founded Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood in Boston, completing local projects like the Hynes Convention Center, Cambridge’s American Academy of Arts and Sciences building, and Back Bay MBTA station. The firm’s work on projects like the Becton, Dickinson and Company headquarters in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, and Washington University’s School of Business and Public Administration won them wider renown, culminating in a Firm of the Year award from the American Institute of Architects in 1984.
In addition to McKinnell’s work designing buildings for Ivy League campuses like Princeton and Yale, he also distinguished himself as a lecturer. He was a fixture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design for 25 years, additionally teaching at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. McKinnell was also an AIA, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Royal Institute of British Architects fellow.
While the Boston Globe notes that even powerful local figures like five-term Boston mayor Thomas Menino wanted to scrap McKinnell’s vision of City Hall and start fresh, the late architect joked that getting rid of such an imposing concrete structure would be all but impossible. “As we all know, Boston’s political establishment has at times wanted to sell or tear down City Hall,” McKinnell told Mark Pasnik, who co-authored Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston. “But as our engineer Bill LeMessurier once said, it will take a controlled nuclear device to get rid of this building.”
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