What the architecture of City Hall communicates

A new book titled City Hall looks at the design of city hall across American communities:

“Our democratic heritage goes back to ancient Greece, and so it stands to reason that when America was born, so to speak, in the late 18th century, municipal buildings referred to the Greco-Roman architecture, with the pillars and pediments and cornices,” he says. But as the country matured, different forms of architecture began to emerge. “Then it becomes, ‘Do we still embrace the neoclassical style architecture, or do we start embracing our own time?’” he adds. (That argument more recently played out at the federal level, when former President Donald Trump tried to make neoclassical architecture the default style for all national buildings in his controversial “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” effort.)…

In many of these examples, governments used their city halls to express civic pride, and to be “at the forefront of progressive building technologies and changing architectural styles,” architectural historian Thomas Mellins writes at the beginning of Drooker’s book…

Regardless of the architecture, there is a recognition among mayors and architects that municipal buildings are ultimately places for the people, and that the designs need to convey a message of approachability. In San Jose’s new city hall, which opened in 2005, Richard Meier’s postmodern design made extensive use of glass, making a statement about government transparency as well as energy efficiency. The building’s unusual three-part structure emphasized that theme: There’s the rotunda and the city council chamber, and in between them at the heart of the complex is an open plaza that then-mayor Ron Gonzales and his administration wanted toserve as the “people’s living room.”

Public or civic buildings present a unique opportunity to highlight particular values and create public space to be used and enjoyed. This can be done in a variety of architectural styles or forms, affected by trends in architecture, regional differences, the size of the community, the resources available, and more.

This reminds me of James Howard Kunstler’s critique of Boston’s City Hall, a building designed by noted architect I. M. Pei. Kunstler argues that the space is not inviting and not a worthy public space. The Brutalist architecture does not necessarily invoke warm fuzzies about local government.

In contrast, many suburban communities opt for modest city halls in either more traditional styles or simpler postwar forms. Many suburbanites like the idea of smaller local governments and the suburban structures can highlight tradition and/or efficiency.

West Chicago City Hall depicted on Google Street View.

Part of the approachability of these a city hall or civic building involves how well they fit with the surrounding landscape. A Brutalist building could be more approachable with lush greenery around it. A plain suburban city hall could be more inviting if it did not sit behind a large parking lot. More broadly, American communities would benefit from inviting public spaces that are connected to civic buildings.

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