Michael McKinnell (1935-2020)

John Hill
1. April 2020
Boston City Hall (Photo: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons)

Michael McKinnell, whose firm Kallmann McKinnell & Wood designed Boston's famous Brutalist City Hall, died on March 27 following complications from COVID-19.

The news of McKinnell's death comes after Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti and New York-based architect and critic Michael Sorkin both succumbed to the coronavirus. McKinnell may not be as familiar a name as Gregotti and Sorkin, but the Boston City Hall he designed with Gerhard Kallmann, his professor at the time, is one of the most famous examples of Brutalist architecture in the world. 

Kallmann McKinnell and Knowles won the competition for the building in 1962 (the firm changed to Kallmann McKinnell & Wood after Henry A. Wood joined the firm in 1965) and the building opened to the public in 1969. The concrete and glass building departed dramatically from the city's traditional brick palette, though it fronts the expansive, brick-paved City Hall Plaza, a public space mandated in the master plan developed by I.M. Pei in 1961. 

Widely praised when completed, the building has been criticized a lot in the ensuing decades, particularly for its "dysfunctional" interior and barren plaza. But when Boston celebrated the city hall's 50th anniversary last year, it announced improvements to the interior and plaza that will overcome its shortcomings but maintain the character of the architecture. The growing appreciation of Brutalist architecture this century no doubt helped in staving off potentially more dramatic changes to the building.

Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley describe Boston City Hall and the numerous other Brutalist buildings that would be erected in Boston in the late 1960s and early 1970s — many of them unloved by Bostonians — as "heroic," the name given to an exhibition they mounted and book they subsequently wrote on the city's late-20th century concrete architecture. The trio, in a tribute to McKinnell at The Architect's Newspaper, describe the late architect as "warm and gregarious, fascinating and funny, incisive and generous." Michael McKinnell was 84.

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