LONDON, ENGLAND, 2002

The London County Council was established in 1855, and in 1911 construction began on on the central bay of Ralph Knott’s massive new neo-Baroque County Hall, rising slowly up on the Lambeth Embankment of the Thames across Westminster Bridge from Parliament Square. It was opened by King George V in 1922 and the north and south wings were added in 1936 and 1939.


During my student days in in the middle ‘50s I spent a couple of summer internships with the LCC Architect’s Department at County Hall -- the Mecca of British architecture in those days -- and I still vividly recall how earnest to the task that solemn pile could make one feel, even up in the dormer-lit mansard roof the south wing.

The building was the seat of London’s government for 64 years until Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, intolerant of its leftist leanings, abolished the Greater London Council in 1986 and brought its role to an end. It is now a half-derelict place of lodging and popular entertainment (Marriott’s five star ‘County Hall Hotel’; the Park Plaza, Westminster Bridge; Namco Funscape amusement arcade; London Sea Life Aquarium; The London Dungeon; The London Eye; Azam Retrospective; and London's Death Trap). London itself, meanwhile, has become a little less liveable every day.

The new City Hall was built downstream in Southwark in 2002, in close proximity to such iconic national landmarks as the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.

This was a location from which to see and be seen, an opportunity to heighten the experience and ennoble the place with framed views and judiciously placed openings in walls that would accommodate spaces of purpose and value. There was a time when we all knew how to do this.

Claude Lorrain, framing the setting sun with his Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648.

Paul Letarouilly, View of the vestibule of the Villa Pia, Rome, its buildings and museum

Friedrich Schinkel, vestibule to the Altes Museum, Berlin, 1823-30

Le Corbusier, View from the roof garden, House for Madame M., opposite the Parc de la Folie Saint-James, Paris, 1927.

Le Corbusier,Conference room and roof terrace, Rentenanstalt Insurance Building, Zurich, 1933.

Le Corbusier, Ministry of Education Building, Rio, 1936.

Finding his building abhorrent and suspecting its design to be bolstered by techno-babble I looked at its coverage in Wikipedia. What I learned is that the building does not belong to the Greater London Authority but is leased under a 25-year rental agreement with More London Development Ltd., the company responsible for the entire 13 acre commercial development that surrounds it, all the work of Norman Foster: simple, uninflected rectilinear and curvilinear glass-clad boxes, standing perfectly straight to afford City Hall its singular distinction, that of droopiness.

Reducing the city hall function to the same trite formula of ‘transparency’ that had informed his Reichstag project -- where the public is given access to a large glass dome commanding both the entire surrounding Berlin cityscape and the Bundestag debating chamber down below -- and entirely oblivious to its context, Foster and his designers reportedly saw the building as a giant sphere suspended over the Thames but, lacking the wit or courage to unpack.

Ivan Leonidov’s 1927 idea for the Lenin Institute in Moscow -- which would have offered the possibility of a comradely nod to Tower Bridge at least -- settled on a conventionally supported building instead.

So it’s a slumped sphere, drooping out of a jelly mold. One might think that confronted by the prospect of such an offensive thing the architect would have grasped at a simple cylinder, but even a

squat cylinder of roughly the same proportions, such as Le Corbusier proposed for the chancery of the French Embassy in Brasilia in 1964, would have denied the building the theme park properties which, one must assume, have been deemed by those with say in the matter to be the necessary and appropriate iconographic apparatus for London’s present form of government. Thus its ugliness gives rise to competing metaphors, a cynical game in which the chief representatives of the institution for which it stands are themselves major players: the onion, the woodlouse, the motorcycle helmet, Darth Vader’s helmet, the glass testicle (offered by former mayor, Ken Livingstone), and the glass gonad (a more pithy suggestion from the present mayor, Boris Johnson).

I, myself, find its droopiness reminiscent of the barrage balloons of the Second World War, which became wrinkled and saggy when underinflated, but ’the downed barrage balloon’ is scarcely a match for Johnson’s ‘glass gonad’.

Then there is the techno-babble seeking to retrieve the thing some semblance of credibility. The building’s ludicrous shape is purported to reduce its surface area and thus improve its energy efficiency, but the energy consumption necessitated by its exclusive use of a double skin glass envelope entirely negates any benefit of bulbousness. Despite the claim that it ‘demonstrates the potential for a sustainable, virtually non-polluting public building’, energy use measurements show it to be relatively inefficient: (375 kWh/m2/yr), with a 2012 Energy Performance Rating of ‘D’.

Inside the building a helical stepped ramp of more than 1,600 feet, representing a journey of close to a third of a mile and turning Wright’s tedious Guggenheim Museum spinning top into a techno nightmare,

ascends to the full ten storey height of the building, providing continuous views to the exterior and the interior in the name of ‘transparency’. If there were a Piranesi among us today this place would offer him a model for a new series of ‘Prison” engravings.


At the base the Council meets as though in a fishbowl while at the top there is an exhibition and meeting space with the pretentious claim to be ‘London's Living Room’. Such ridiculous overreaching may have been made in ignorance of the remark attributed to Napoleon, which establishes a certain scale, namely,

that the Piazza San Marco in Venice is ‘the drawing room of Europe’, but how could it have overlooked the existence of Trafalgar Square?

City Hall’s ‘Living Room’ has an outdoor deck that is occasionally open to the public.

TROMSØ, NORWAY, 2002

Tromsø is a town of 72,000 hardy people located in the Norwegian fiords about twenty miles inland from the North Sea and 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle.


This is the civic center of Tromsø, climbing the slope from the harbor and the Market Square to the tilted Town Green with its statue of King Haakon VII, its bandstand and the former Town Hall at its head, looking back down to the water. Framing the south side of the green is the new Town Hall with its large glazed atrium. Behind it, with the shiny metallic roof is the new city library which appears to have been built as a coordinated project with the new town hall.

The former Town Hall seen through the bandstand on the Green, which is now shared with the new Town Hall, off to the left of the present photo King Haakon VII (1872-1957), whose monument is in the foreground, was much revered for his resistance to the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War.



Views of the new Town Hall on the Green. Note that the sloping grade produces a tall lower storey on the east side of the building, which happens to front on a commercial street.

Looking from the Town Green to the harbor.

The view from the harbor edge of the Market Square, with the former Town Hall closing the vista three blocks to the west and the new Town Hall just below it and to the left.

The harbor and the fiord beyond seen from the monument to the Arctic Hunter on the eastern edge of the Market Square. Norwegians have been hunting Minke whales off the shores of Tromsø for a thousand years.

A closer view of the Town Hall front, which immediately reveals its plan: a five storey ‘U’ of municipal offices surrounding a generous glazed atrium that fills out the city block. It was clearly built on a modest budget but it conveys a sense of unpretentious accomplishment and well-being nevertheless.



This is the only photograph I can find of what I take to be a largely subterranean Council Chamber, curiously rustic and ill-furnished and simultaneously chilly.

A University of Tromsø acapella group performing in the atrium.

A view from the new city Library to the tall Grønnegata colonnade of the Town Hall and the Aurora kino Fokus cinemas that occupy its commercial frontage.



The Aurora cinema complex is the venue for Tromsø’s mid-winter International Film Festival, held every January. It contains six theaters with a total of 936 seats offering a degree of comfort that was clearly not contemplated in the Council Chamber. A luxury theatre has leather seats with, small tables and connection to a bar, while those on the street outside take cheer from the building’s illumination.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA, 2005

Now a city of a million inhabitants, San Jose has had two city halls prior to its present leviathan.


The first building was this ornate pile, erected in a once sparsely occupied center city area which, despite the presence of ornamental gardens to its back and front, appears to have been reduced to the hub of a traffic circle prior to its demolition in 1958.

Its site has been combined with the two ornamental gardens to form what is now the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, long the venue for jazz and rock concerts and other popular events.

Jazz Festival in the Plaza de Cesar Chavez

From 1958 to 2005 San Jose’s City Hall was this curvilinear building with a glass curtain wall -- something quite novel in 1958 California -- erected on a suburban lot two miles to the north of the city center and shaped to embrace, not a regathering of magnetically attracted citizens but the automobile and a crescent of one-way angled parking plaza. This view is from the early ‘60s.

The present day building and its parking plaza, mellowed by mature trees.

But the sweeping grace of its concavity endowed this second city hall with an abstract form of civic identity, nevertheless, something that came to be particularly associated with the city of San Jose and, one assumes, would not have been lost to Richard Meier and Partners, the architects for the third city hall, whose far more elaborate and fluid boundary to an emphatically pedestrian plaza seems to carry some of that 1958 DNA, brought back into downtown San Jose.

The architect’s perspective of the proposed new City Hall

This was an undertaking on an heroic scale.

The complex has a total floor area of 530,000 square feet accommodating 1,950 employees and close to 120 meeting spaces, half of which are made available to the public. There are 400 on-site and 1,128 off-site parking places. The budget was $345 million.

The site is a generous two block long double square, 680 feet x 340 feet, which required the closing of South 5th Street to assemble. Using the same Google Earth system of measurement, this is marginally longer than Gratz Park (seen in the upper right in the aerial view below), which, though preponderantly domestic in occupancy and character, is Lexington’s largest downtown open space. The San Jose site is also about 50 feet longer than Lexington’s new Courthouse Square (lower left), and a little more than double the area of Dudley’s Dig (middle left), a site at the very center of the city recently proposed as an appropriate location for a new Lexington City Hall.

Downtown Lexington from Dudley’s Dig to Gratz Park

The plan might be seen as having six major elements composed so as to open out towards the city center to the west:

  • The so-called Wing, apparently known to city employees as the West Wing, a three storey structure framing the south-western triangle of the site and chiefly containing the Council Chamber, meeting rooms and rental space along South 4th Street, currently leased to the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office for Silicon Valley and the West Coast Region;
  • The eighteen storey secretariat Tower closing off South 6th Street, its west front facing the Plaza being set down precisely on the centerline of the site's eastern square, and its first three levels extended out east and west to accommodate service spaces and a so-called Customer Service Center incorporating departments heavily frequented by the public;
  • I don't know what it's called in San Jose but for want of a better term, let's say The Promenades, a multilevel and multi-layered  crescent of outdoor and indoor circulation linking the West Wing to the Tower and embracing the Plaza with a deep and occasionally porous wall, simultaneously rustic sandstone, ivy covered concrete  and high tech metal, a thing of shallow, pergola-shaded outdoor stages, a broad stepped ramp leading to an elevated promenade shaded by a higher  pergola, and a well-lit  curving corridor of constantly varying radius, of sufficiently generous width as to accommodate changing exhibitions and known, I believe, as the Galleria;
  • The Plaza, a broken ellipse, opening out in a gesture of greeting to Santa Clara Street and the city, but distanced and protected from the disturbances of its traffic by the sight and sounds of its intervening cascades, fountains and "vapor flags," all no doubt rendered mute by
    the persistent drought of recent years;
  • The glass Rotunda, in the exact center of the composition, designed before the days of recession, major staff reductions and perpetual anti-terrorist lock-down, as the enclosed portion of the Plaza, the internal public gathering space and the ceremonial anteroom to the Council Chamber, visible to and variously interactive with the Plaza outside its walls;
  • A secondary court in the south-east corner of the site, providing access to the Tower from the south.

 

The images below will follow this order of enumeration.

Ground Floor Plan, shown here with North ‘down’ rather than ‘up’ to relate to the longitudinal section seen below

A typical Tower Floor Plan. Compare the two metal sun screens: the half dome ‘parasol protecting the Rotunda from the south-western sun, both functional and ornamental, and the more rhetorical than functional brise soleil suspended within a diaphanous frame from the western face of the Tower, its curved surfaces attempting to mediate between the the soft curvature of the Plaza enclosure and the assertive frontal plane of the Tower.

Longitudinal Section, looking South. Note the east-west extension of the lower floors of the tower to accommodate building services and the Customer Service Center. The Offices of the Mayor and Council Members are on the eighteenth floor

The Wing


The rental space on South 4th Street

The Council Chamber has an area of 7,000 square feet and accommodates 330 public seats with overflow seating available in the community meeting rooms directly behind the dais. The Chamber receives natural light from a skylight supported on a 40 ton beam running the entire 90 foot length of its south wall, seen here on the left. A city employee has observed that: ‘One of the nicest and most comfortable features of City Hall is the Council Chamber, which, unlike the old City Hall, places the audience above the elected officials.’

School Visit.

Minimum Wage Hearing.

The dais is at the same level as the speaking podium to encourage open dialog between the Council and constituents. The Chamber is fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.

The committee meeting rooms may be scheduled for community use and can be configured to accommodate groups of various sizes.

The Tower

The secretariat Tower seen from South 4th Street. The prominent vertical element at its north end is the elevator tower containing the six main elevators which, I understand, can now be operated only with a key card.

Detail of the sun screen on the Plaza facade.

The Tower seen from the East side surface parking and from the intersection of South 6th Street and Santa Clara Street.

Ramps to and from the sub-grade parking level at the south end of the Tower on 6th Street. The footpath leads to the South Court.

Accommodation for deliveries and city service vehicles at the south end of the Tower.

Staff entry at the north end of the Tower


Public entry at the north end of the Tower. Clutching his hard-won survey of the Leeward Islands to his chest, an embarrassed Christopher Columbus is wondering how he’s come to inhabit the lobbies of two San Jose City Halls since 1958, 4,0000 miles and three centuries away from the place to which he once gave the name of Guadeloupe.

Entry from the South Court

Entries from the Plaza and the second level promenade

The information desk

A view over the Customer Service Center looking toward the south entry.


The booths in the Service Center bring the representatives of multiple city agencies together at the same public interface to offer what the City snappily refers to as its ‘One -Start Service’

The Promenades

View across the Plaza during a Flag Raising Ceremony to the shallow stepped stage shaded by a pergola and behind it, the ivy covered stepped ramp leading to the second level promenade running around the perimeter of the Plaza.

The stepped ramp embracing the stage.

The view from the top of the stepped ramp to the bridges between the Rotunda and the Council Chamber, with the secretariat Tower beyond.

View from the junction of the second level promenade and the bridge from the Rotunda to the Council Chamber, looking down on the Plaza stage-cum-bench-seating.

View from the Rotunda bridge to the Tower. The Galleria is seen behind the railings, hugging the curvature of the Promenade.

The Galleria, an echo of the corridors in the former City Hall, but hosting changing exhibitions, such as those mounted by History San José, to inform and delight those who walk in it.

The Galleria seen from the South Court, with the hint of a photographic exhibition on its inner wall and the illuminated dome of the Rotunda in the Plaza beyond.

The termination of the second level promenade at the elevator tower and the second floor entry to the Customer Service Center.

The Plaza

The approach from South 4th Street

Separation of the sidewalk from the Plaza by the paired cascades centered at mid site on the Rotunda.


A view over the cascades from the Tower, with the water vapor flag poles in the middle ground and the flag poles proper beyond.

Cascade and fountain outlet details

Plaza rocks offering themselves as seats and tables, and a San Jose Sister Cities direction and distance marker inscribed in the plaza paving

The vapor flags in operation

The Plaza is a 2½ acre space and the scene of endless community activity. Here are a few of its manifestations:

Traditional dance at a Korean Flag Raising ceremony

Hiyas Philippine Folk Dance

Bike rally

Police Cadet Graduation Parade and celebration

Trayvon Martin vigil

Womens’ Rights Rally

Gay marriage celebration

School visits

Equal rights rally

Prayer Vigil for Victims of Violence

Parade of Flags Ceremony

Ujam Dance

Hispanic Community demonstration

Immigration reform demonstration

Audio Ballerina performance

An open air market?

An evening gathering in and around the Rotunda

In a tenth anniversary review of City Hall in the San Jose Mercury News for July 16, 2015, Scott Herhold had this to say about the City Hall and its Plaza:

City Hall has fulfilled the job of creating a destination: When people in San Jose protest a decision or commemorate a moment, they gather at City Hall plaza.

The Rotunda


Intended to serve as the ceremonial entryway to City Hall, as the anteroom to its Council Chamber and a venue for indoor events, the lofty Rotunda occupies the center of the site on axis with 5th Street -- closed to assemble the City Hall’s double square site -- and dominates the composition in a manner not unlike that of the Baptistery at Pisa, which magisterially commands the framed double square of the Campo Santo.

This gives rise to a diversionary but maybe useful little tale about Le Corbusier, and the sketchbooks from which he was inseparable.


Early in his first study tour of northern Italy in the Fall of 1907 he had come to Pisa to find one of the two buildings that his much admired John Ruskin had, himself, most admired: Pisa’s basilican church of Santa Maria Assunta, commenced by Buscheto in 1064, establishing the Pisan manner of Romanesque architecture, and the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, commenced in 1340. On arrival, and with Ruskinian fervor, the earnest twenty-year-old architect-cum-interior designer, a decade away from becoming Le Corbusier, studied all the intricacies of the charming tiered arcades on the west front of the cathedral.

Nearly three decades later, in June 1934, a journey by train carried the mature architect-urbanist Le Corbusier through Pisa, where he glimpsed the distinctive cupola of the Baptistery above the passing rooftops.

The sight must certainly have recalled the architectural details to which he had given such devoted attention in 1907, but now he also recollected the dominant role of the Baptistery in the massing of the Campo Santo plan, a moment of recognition prompting this entry in his sketchbook. It was an observation made with respect to the long-debated massing of his own submission in the ill-fated Palace of the Soviets Competition of 1931, set down together with the famous precept from the Abbé Laugier’s Observations sur l’Architecture of 1765: ‘Unity in the details, tumult in the whole.’

His sustained efforts to apply this dictum to the composition of the elements of the Place of the Soviets would have been perfectly familiar to Richard Meier, a lifelong student of Le Corbusier who, as it happens, had also developed a distinct penchant for circles, cylinders and rotundas, and who had at San Jose, moreover, a site demanding comparison with Pisa.

Richard Meier and Partners, the Getty Center, Los Angeles, completed in 1997. The Abbe Laugier would surely have been delighted.

But in contrast to Diotisalvi’s massive, somberly resonant and introverted rotunda at Pisa with its stark banded marble endlessly rotating around the baptismal font at its center, Meier’s rotunda at San Jose has no such singular focus.



It is a transparent domed cylinder, protected from the sun by opaque surfaces and grilles as necessary, its glass walls opening out in a near seamless unification of its gray terrazzo floor with the paving of the Plaza.

The Rotunda is approximately 90 feet in diameter, with a total area of 6,950 square feet, capable of accommodating a group of 350 people at a standing reception or 300 seated. Over the past ten years the Rotunda has hosted roughly 150 events annually, including about 40 private gatherings catered under contract by The Fairmont Hotel, located a few blocks away on the Plaza de Cesar Chavez.









To those who consult its website, the City says this about its building:

The San José City Hall is a landmark building that reflects the City's stature as one of the country's major cities and the pride and stature of our community. ……. City Hall stands as a symbol of our city's cultural and historical roots as well as its technological savvy. More importantly, the new facility brings city services together, resulting in better customer service for our residents and businesses.

…………….More than a building, the new San José City Hall represents our commitment to efficiency, service, and pride.

Project Benefits: San José will save approximately $189 million (net present value) over the next 50 years as a result of the consolidation of city services in one location that minimizes the costs for leased office space in multiple locations throughout the community. As an added benefit, the local economic impact from the project is estimated at $121 million.

With regard to its attributes as a landmark, David Vossbrink, a spokesman for the city, says:

Here’s a place, “a recognizable place” that shows up in postcards and television shots in a way we never had before. All in all, the building is a plus.

Among the programmatic modifications made to the building over the first decade of its occupancy are two to accommodate an increasingly active lifestyle among the employees: a workout room has been installed in the basement and covered bicycle storage area has been added along Sixth Street.

No doubt seeking peace with local businessmen and expecting its employees to patronize the surrounding restaurants, the city made no provisions for a cafeteria in its space requirements for the new building. This appears to have been a mistake. Less than three years after it began work in the new building, the nation plunged into a punishing recession which reduced San Jose's workforce from around 7,500 to 5,000. Finally, in 2011, most of the surviving employees had to take a 10 percent pay cut, which has engendered a significant ‘brown-bag’ lunchtime population whose needs are now at least acknowledged by the replacement of the Bamboo Grove in the South Court with umbrella-shaded outdoor tables. But it’s not a ‘place’, not the sidewalk or piazza cafe that it might have been.

And responding to the human need to memorialize significant people and events close to home, efforts are being made to raise money for a monument to two police officers, Simpson and Silva, who were shot to death with one of their own weapons on February 20, 1989, in the parking lot of the former Winchell's Donut House on this site, at East Santa Clara Street near Fifth Street, now occupied by one of the cascades.

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA, c.2009

This is a horror story.

Anchorage is located just below the Arctic Circle, a latitude that is either discouraging or hostile to outdoor life for at least half the year.

But with close to 300,000 inhabitants, its mayor and councillors can no longer pretend that Anchorage is still a mere frontier town.

Indeed, its pretty little domestically scaled old City Hall of 1936 is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and as long ago as the early 1980s Anchorage boasted a founding chapter of the Liveable Winter Cities Association. But though it is one of the largest of several northern latitude and Arctic Circle cities with recently completed or designed city halls, one would never guess at such a history from its new City Hall.

As with Covington, Kentucky, and Marsden, Massachusetts, the new Anchorage city hall has been furnished by a developer, providing municipal administration space that may or may not include some indoor community facilities but exhibiting not the least concern for any outdoor interaction with its citizens, and only the most casual concern with establishing a civic identity. The Anchorage City Hall has been an office renovation project carried out by Pfeffer Development. “Our team”, they say on their web site, “provided a complete solution for the Municipality of Anchorage City Hall, including interim space to ensure seamless operations during transitions. We used a design-build process to renovate the Hill Building, which MOA [the Municipality of Anchorage] leases from a PD-managed [Pfeffer Development managed] entity.”

Don and Harry Hill in front of the Hill Building construction project, circa 1961.

The former Hill Building is on the corner of West 6th Avenue and G Street in downtown Anchorage, besieged by armies of automobiles arrayed in rank upon rank on the surrounding surface parking lots, and it must be the unchallenged ubiquity of this American urban condition that permitted the Pfeffer design-build team to do everything back to front, to assume that effort expended on establishing some civic identity for the new City Hall on the sidewalks outside its walls was largely a waste of time and that the place to make a show was on the service alley behind the building and the parking lot across from it. But they haven’t been candid about it. Their preferred views of the renovation, those they show on their web site, are taken chiefly from this service alley, but are cropped in such a way as to disguise its nature.


So here on the service alley the first of a couple of swoopy white-tiled protuberances adjoined to the rear facade displays a bold ‘CITY HALL’, while the second half-swoop carries an equally prominent street number over a generous opening, making the clearest possible declaration that this is the building’s front door. The fact that it receives its visitors from the parking lot beyond the flag poles across the alley is not disclosed on the web site.


Never does Pfeffer Development offer us views like these, this one being taken across the parking lot from McGinley’s Pub at the G Street end of West 7th Avenue.

This one from the mid point of the parking lot, framing the entry to City Hall (which now shows no trace of the once prominent street number) with a row of young trees that already obscure the flagpoles at their far end.

And this one, at where Alaska’s Gourmet Subs abuts the other end of the parking lot.

Approaching the building on G Street one discovers that the large protuberance adjoining the entry canopy and bearing the announcement of ‘CITY HALL’ is actually a service bay for city vehicles, a somewhat promiscuous collision of the mundane with the honorific which must be seen as inevitable if ‘back of house’ is allowed to become ‘front’ and ‘front’ to become ‘back.'

Around the corner on West 6th Avenue the building gets its new name impressed in a couple of concrete planter boxes.


Coming to the building from the other direction one finds a tree lined pedestrian path leading down the side of City Hall to the new entrance around the back.

But if you miss that there is always the former front door to admit you if you must, its drab recessed entry gaining no more attention than the neighboring fire plugs, the shiny automated teller machine installed in the sidewalk glazing and miscellaneous items of alarmingly cheerful, Lego-like street furniture. Note also the pair of ignominiously neglected and attenuated trees that clearly have no place here.

So the Anchorage City Hall has been delivered back to front but this has not been broadcast by those involved and appears not to have caused demur among an indifferent public, glad only of uninterrupted municipal services and a cheap deal that may not raise their taxes. But one cannot help thinking that the chief beneficiaries of the deal have been the folks at Pfeffer Development. Here is a gathering of their number just a few doors away from City Hall, taking lunch together in cheerful celebration of something or other, and draining their sober iced tea in the bright Alaskan sun.

SEOUL, KOREA ,2012

More techno-gabble.

This doesn’t take more than a moment: just look at four photos and read a few lines of the gobble-de-gook archispeak offered by Yoo Kerl in explanation of his monstrous extension to the city hall in Seoul of 2012.



‘Major keywords for designing the new building’, Kerl is reported to have said, ‘are traditions, citizens, future. I analyzed low-rise horizontal elements, curvaceousness, and shades of leaves in our traditional architectural characteristics, and I applied these to the design so I can recall comfortable feelings of old things.’

Perhaps something was lost in translation?

BILBAO, SPAIN, 2013

This project could be described as technically adroit and stylistically au-courant, but formally and intellectually lumpen.

Bilbao’s City Hall is this neo-baroque palace built facing the tidal river in the San Agustín district of the city in 1892 by the architect Joaquin Rucoba.

Its elaborate, sometimes Moorish interiors are still home to the mayor and city council, but in 2013 Todaro Architects completed a new technical services complex for a city now grown to a population of 350,000, at least doubling its municipal office space on an infill site directly behind the original building. This is the linked pair of white-roofed buildings standing between the two traffic circles at the base of the hill in the aerial view below.


City Hall and its extension.

The trapezoidal boundaries of the site are bound to cause some irregularity in the plan and its steep gradient can only complicate the spatial problem but no matter how bizarre the site outline, no architect of an eighteenth century French Hotel could ever have been provoked into such a gratuitously wriggly kind of plan and section as Todaro Architects have built here.

Mercifully, these things, whatever they may be, seem not to have grown a tail.

The new offices from the other end with the nineteenth century City Hall beyond.


One can see the architects working to pack the program onto the site while maintaining the city scale, and the excessively techno-heavy detailing appears to be done with care, but these irrationally lumpen forms are no more convincing in their present computer-aided proliferation than they were when the Smithsons introduced them for the Sydney Opera House competition back in the mid 1950s.

BODO, NORWAY, 2013

This is the unhappy tale of a city taking the trouble of holding a competition for the design of its new city hall and getting a fat little Bilbao for its pains.

Bodø is a port city located just north of the Arctic Circle with cool windy summers and relatively mild, wet and very windy winters. With a population of 50,000 it is just one sixth the size of Anchorage.

The municipality recently held an open international competition for the design of a substantial expansion to its existing city hall, receiving more than 100 entries from architects in fifteen different countries. The jury met for six days. Set out below are four of the schemes, the last of which was the winning entry whose architects received the commission. Since I don’t read Norwegian I don’t know what lead to the final selection.

Scheme A


This ten storey building can boast a smaller footprint than the other schemes and was clearly intended to be the tallest structure in Bodø, but in form and color it seems deliberately unsympathetic to either the city or the city hall, dwarfing its existing clock tower and almost certainly becoming an unwelcome accelerant to the winter winds encountered around its base.

Scheme B


This is a much better mannered scheme which has taken pains to reduce its apparent mass and fit almost unnoticed into the urban context. I would need to be convinced about the roof gardens.

Scheme C



The lightness, spaciousness and cheerful luminosity of this scheme, together with its glass screened roof spaces protected from the wind would make it a very attractive proposal were it not for its intolerably clumsy collision with the existing building, for which there was no self evident need and can scarcely be any excuse.

Scheme D



I cannot imagine what merits the Jury saw in this shapeless, scaleless lump. It seems like a great deal of human effort to arrive at so alien an exterior and so altogether conventional an interior, which serves to underscore the fact that design competitions are as good as their juries, no more, no less.

KIRUNA, SWEDEN, 2013

Here is a competition with an entirely positive outcome.

Kiruna, with a population 23,000, occupies the valley between the two mountains of Kirunavaara and Luossavaara, in Lapland, and is the northernmost town in Sweden. The sole reason for its existence in such an inhospitable place is its massive reserves of high grade iron ore. It was established by the LKAB mining company in 1890 and its underground workings are the largest in the world, producing 76,000 tonnes of ore per day.

The expansion of these workings has been permitted to invade the ground beneath the town, parts of which, including its center, are now so severely threatened by subsidence that they must be moved to a new location three kilometers away. The 1953 city hall is one of the structures affected, and only its clock tower can be saved for inclusion in a new scheme.



The late Henning Larsen, the architect for the project, was identified by means of a two stage process of credentials submission and a limited invitational competition. Given the irregular and still variable shape of the new site, he proposed simply to suspend a three level drum of municipal offices above and around the indoor public functions of the building, moving in from the square and rising up through them, as seen in the schematic diagrams above.




The Council Chamber

COVINGTON, KENTUCKY, 2015

This poor city moves inexplicably from less than desirable premises, to unsatisfactory premises, to worse. In its latest move there isn’t even room for a flagpole.

Covington, with a population of 40,000 and seen here across its Roebling Bridge from Cincinnati, has had only a vagabond City Hall for almost fifty years, occupying former department stores and a bingo hall since, for reasons that are not clear to me, its late nineteenth century building was demolished in 1970. Ensnared like everything else in urban America’s Neanderthal utility wires and clumsily overdone and lugubrious it may have been, but no more so than many city halls of the time, built at the hands of H.H. Richardson wannabes who never understood that weight, color and texture in architecture are inescapably matters of composition, only secondarily a matter of piled up materials. So why demolish it to go a-wandering?

Some of its stained glass was sentimentally preserved for reincorporation in some future municipal home.

The city’s home for twenty-three years was the former Coppins Department Store on Madison Avenue, but that building was far larger than was needed and was given up in 2013 for redevelopment as a boutique hotel, the Hotel Covington. Subsequently the city leased the former J.C. Penny location at 20 West Pike Street for $250,000 a year while awaiting the renovation of a much smaller building which appears to be identical to the former bingo hall that it had rented once before, presumably during the ‘70s. Which is all rather curiously circuitous. If 20 West Pike Street met the needs back then why was it abandoned for an additional quarter of a century of municipal vagrancy?


The project was carried out for the city by NorthPointe (that’s right: NorthPointe!) Developers of Cincinnati, who must surely have done more than merely change the front panel on the canvas marquee, enough to fill a dumpster at least. But they made no room for flag poles on this sidewalk.