Hidden Section
| More

Stimulating Architecture

If we're going to rely on public works to turn the economy around, let's build well.


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

As American city halls go, the one in Houston is neither the most beautiful nor the most imposing. Eleven stories high, it is all but dwarfed by the high-rise office towers that surround it. Seventy years old this month, it is in part a ceremonial building now. The mayor and city council have offices there, but many of the agencies departed a long time ago for newer, bigger structures nearby.

But there is a stateliness about the Houston City Hall that nearly everyone notices, a quality of order and sensible proportion that is enhanced by the park and reflecting pool in the square that leads up to it. People have been gathering at that spot ever since the building opened, for festivals, concerts, protests and less formal gatherings of every conceivable sort. All in all, the city hall complex has survived the years as a pretty nice urban place.

There's something else important about Houston's city hall. It was a project of the federal government, one small part of a massive effort by Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration to spend money on public works and create jobs that might bring an end to the Great Depression. The federal Works Progress Administration, or WPA, put up almost half the money, and used 800,000 man-hours of labor to finish the project in 20 months. The WPA built literally hundreds of city halls and county courthouses in the late 1930s. Few of them were as big as the one in Houston, but nearly all came out looking something like it: orderly Art Deco buildings that are still in use in every corner of the country. Art Deco has been an architectural fashion for quite a while now, which is one reason why this building made the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

As you have probably heard, we are soon about to embark on another federal stimulus program aimed at heading off (or at least softening) another economic collapse. A large proportion of the stimulus money, perhaps most of it, will be given to states and localities to spend on infrastructure. When people use the word "infrastructure" these days, they nearly always mean roads and bridges, or, as the phrase invariably goes, "crumbling roads and bridges." But I wonder whether some of that money might be set aside for public buildings, either for renovating them or to help pay for something new that is as good as the Houston City Hall.

Government buildings, whether they house a city council, a county board, or a state legislature, are the tangible manifestation of American democracy. From a civics perspective, it makes all the sense in the world to invest in doing them well, as Roosevelt and the WPA generally did. Would this make short-term economic sense? I can't say I know the answer. But I think the question is worth asking.

THERE WAS A TIME in America when almost every big city felt it a matter of obligation and pride to build an imposing edifice for conducting public business. Odd as it may seem, I was reminded of this when I saw "Milk," the new fictionalized film biography of Harvey Milk, the gay activist and city supervisor who was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone, in San Francisco in 1978. Most of the audience was riveted on the uncanny acting of Sean Penn, who played the title role. I was, too. But I also was struck by the performance of a supporting character, one that did not act, speak or even move. It was the San Francisco City Hall.

As it appears in the movie, San Francisco's city hall is awe-inspiring -- so immense and beautiful that you almost think you are looking at the capitol of a sovereign nation, rather than the seat of local government in a city that never reached a population of a million people. Two full blocks square, with an elaborate grand staircase and the fifth-largest dome in the world, it seems to beg for an emperor, rather than a mayor and 11 district supervisors.

But that is the kind of building San Francisco wanted to build after the devastation of the 1906 earthquake. And that is what it managed to complete in 1915, all 500,000 square feet of it, at a cost of $3.5 million -- roughly $400 million in today's dollars. There are those who say it is the most beautiful public building anywhere in America. I have no grounds to disagree with them.

But it did not take an earthquake to create a splendid city hall in those years -- it just took a lot of money and civic pride. And urban America had both of those in the years before World War I.

If San Francisco's city hall has a genuine rival in grandeur among public buildings of its era, it is the city hall in Philadelphia. That building has nearly twice as many square feet of space, was the tallest building in the world when it opened in 1901, and was legally required to remain the tallest in the city until 1989. Nobody was allowed to build anything higher than the William Penn statue that graced the top of the building.

No one should try to draw a connection between the architectural grandeur of a building and the personal or political virtue of the office-holders. It was in the majestic city hall of San Francisco that an elected supervisor shot Milk and Moscone, and one could make a safe bet that enough money has changed hands illegally along the ornate corridors of Philadelphia's city hall to pay for much of the current renovation.

GREAT PUBLIC BUILDINGS do not guarantee that politicians who work there will be honest, nor do they motivate all ordinary citizens to be good. What they do is express the self-confidence of a city and, ideally, create a public space where residents can gather as a community. The inability or unwillingness to build impressive public buildings is a sure sign that civic confidence has somehow been depleted.

And that has been the story in urban America, more or less, since the end of World War II. Except for a few diehard modernists, nobody has much good to say about any sort of architecture from the 1950s and early 1960s, but civic architecture from this period is the worst of a bad lot.

Like the private office buildings built in those days, the postwar city halls tended to be stripped-down modernist skyscrapers, shorn of decoration or any attempt to depict the values or identity of the city. From the outside, they are indistinguishable from the sterile bank buildings and insurance company towers around them. Inside, they are usually worse. At least the private office towers were well maintained by the corporate owners and tenants; the skyscrapers built as city halls often grew dingy within the first decade due to the limited public money available to keep them up. If you want to see what post-war modernism did to civic architecture, take a look at the Coleman Young Municipal Center in Detroit. Or the City-County Building in Indianapolis. Detroit tore down a splendid 19th-century city hall building when its new one was finished.

The later 1960s and 1970s produced a few ambitious attempts to restore the proud tradition of city hall design. Most notable was the Boston City Hall of 1967, one of the most bizarre public buildings of the 20th century, built in the briefly popular modernist style known as brutalism. It was an asymmetrical sterile fortress rather than a public building in any conventional sense.

The Boston City Hall was so unusual that it did spark a measure of civic pride and a fair amount of critical acclaim in its first few years of operation: In 1976, a panel of architects voted it the seventh-greatest building in American history. But its experimental open plan was always a mess on the inside, confusing to the visitor and, what's worse, difficult for the employees to work in. By the 1990s, it was almost universally being denounced as an impractical eyesore. Mayor Tom Menino has spent years trying to build the public support needed to tear it down and start over again with a with a 21st-century city hall that would rise on the waterfront in South Boston.

The 1990s produced a wave of innovation in municipal architecture, but almost all of it came in the form of libraries and museums, rather than city halls. It isn't hard to find the reason. Voters often can be persuaded to support bond issues for libraries, especially when these are pitched as an investment in the city's children. This is what produced interesting and generally popular new libraries in Chicago, Denver, Seattle and a host of other cities during the past 15 years. And museums can attract big money from private donors. City halls possess neither of these advantages. Voters tend to see a grand new city hall as an extravagance of bloated government rather than an investment in the city's future or reputation.

And so there has been relatively little innovation in the way of new city halls during the current decade, although the few cities that have tried it -- notably Seattle, San Jose and Austin -- all have come up with noteworthy buildings.

I would argue that the time is ripe for a reconnection between civic architecture and civic identity -- obviously not one that would reproduce the city halls of San Francisco or even Houston, but one that might create a new form appropriate to the current moment.

Could a federal stimulus package tilted toward infrastructure help cities do this? I don't know. What I do know is that there are worse uses for the money.

You may use or reference this story with attribution and a link to

Most Viewed


GOVERNING in the states and localities provides intelligence and analysis on management, policy and politics to help guide and inspire innovative leaders across state and local government.

© 2011 e.Republic, Inc. All Rights reserved.    |   Privacy Policy   |   Site Map