During the can-do boom of the postwar fifties, Boston’s historic West End neighborhood was declared, against the protests of its working-class residents, a blight. The neighborhood was subsequently razed in the name of urban renewal, and in its place was installed the eleven-acre City Hall Plaza, crowned by a newly constructed City Hall, a sort of inverted concrete pyramid built in the modern “brutalist” style. The architects, Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles, approached their commission with evangelical conviction. They wanted not just to impress or comfort the Bostonians who would frequent the plaza, but also to edify them. In an interview about the design of the plaza, architect Gerhard Kallmann said:

We distrust and have reacted against an architecture that is absolute, uninvolved and abstract. We have moved towards an architecture that is specific and concrete, involving itself with the social and geographic context, the program, and methods of construction, in order to produce a building that exists strongly and irrevocably, rather than an uncommitted abstract structure that could be any place and, therefore, like modern man— without identity or presence.

Kallman is not the first to bemoan the intellectual and spiritual homelessness of modern people; it is a long-standing lament among intellectuals on both the left and the right, and is increasingly finding popular expression in the demand for the home-grown, the local, the mom and pop. So when Kallman et al. sat down at the drafting table, they strove to conceive a public space that would be “specific and concrete,” rejecting “absolute, uninvolved and abstract” architecture in order to restore “identity” and a sense of “presence” to modern Bostonians. This is, by my measure, an admirable aim, and not an implausible one.

The public spaces where we live and work and relax have a real, if subtle, impact on how each of us experiences and reflects on our world. One aspiration of the public-minded artist is to help the receivers of his art to see the world differently, and better. When City Hall Plaza, also known as Government Center, was completed, it was hailed as a masterpiece of architectural invention. In 1976 the American Institute of Architects voted City Hall the sixth greatest building in American history.

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Among ordinary Bostonians, however, Government Center is almost universally loathed, and it has come to be recognized by most observers, Bostonian or not, as a travesty of urban planning. (The Project for Public Spaces has named it the worst plaza in America). In their breathy rejection of the “absolute, uninvolved and abstract,” Kallman et al ended up rejecting anything that might have connected the new city hall plaza to the desires and tastes of actual, living Bostonians. Their design threw off the stylistic fetters of regional history—the august federalism of Faneuil Hall and the Statehouse is banished; it threw off the compositional fetters of classical balance and proportion—the building, seen from the ground, is a jutting and thrusting cacophony; it threw off the spatial fetters of human scale—the lonely onlooker feels exposed and disoriented on the aptly-nicknamed “brick desert” of the plaza, and threatened by the literally overbearing top-heaviness of City Hall. This is edification by shock and awe—another attempt to educate the bourgeoisie by making them uncomfortable. In a September, 2009 interview, Michael McKinnell recalled that when he and Gerhard Kallman were told by the architect Philip Johnson that their proposed design was ugly, “we thought that was the greatest praise we could get.”

In pleasant weather, Boston Common and the Public Garden swarm with parents and children, strolling lovers, sun-bathers, and frisbee-players. City Hall Plaza is almost always deserted. And yet, perhaps the public dissatisfaction with Government Center speaks more harshly of the self-satisfied tastes of Boston residents than it does of the architects’ design. Perhaps modern Bostonians are so quintessentially modern that they are simply allergic to any building that communicates a sense of identity or presence. Perhaps we have not, or at least not yet, learned the lesson that Kallman and his colleagues were trying to teach us.

In fact, I think that the problem is not with the students, but with the pedagogy. Consider, by way of contrast, the Piazza San Pietro, or Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City.

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This plaza is arguably the masterpiece of seventeenth-century urban planning, another triumph of the great baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It is a massive ellipse, bounded by a pair of arcing colonnades which are each made up of four rows of Tuscan-style Doric columns. The colonnades open on one side to the stunning façade of Saint Peter’s Basilica, and on the other to the open lane of Via della Conciliazione. At the center of the ellipse stands a red granite obelisk, over 80 feet high, which was originally erected in Egypt in the 13th century B.C.

Setting out to redesign the square, Bernini was confronted with a great many more constraints than were the architects of Government Center. Firstly, the existing layout of the area: the obelisk already stood in its place, with a majestic granite fountain to one side (upending the symmetry of the space). The area of the plaza was surrounded by buildings of historical, religious and architectural importance, which could not be destroyed. So rather than simply raze and rebuild, Bernini operated within the constraints of his environment. He designed his plaza so that the obelisk would stand directly at the center, and sized it so that the surrounding buildings could remain in place. Rather than remove the granite fountain, he built a second, identical fountain at the opposite end of the plaza, thus achieving symmetry.

Further, and more importantly, Bernini was bound by his commission to design a plaza that would communicate, to ordinary people, a joyful sense of awe and wonder, a proximity to the Divine. To do this effectively, the design of the square would have to speak in an architectural vernacular. Bernini could not afford to flout the tastes of the local population in accordance with a brave new vision of humanity. He would have to use the settled (and thus communicative) languages of proportion, scale and symbolism. The result of this cramped undertaking is an exhilarating expanse, bounded by transparent colonnades that embrace without stifling, structured by a pointed directionality that gathers up the various lines at the central node of the obelisk, and redirects them inward towards St. Peter’s high altar, all while remaining capaciously open to the wider world of the avenue and beyond.

Some contemporary architects seem to assume a drastic dichotomy between an ossified, confining classicism, and a creative, spontaneous, liberating modernism. But Bernini’s square belies this dualism. Saint Peter’s Square is a dynamic, open-ended space that flows from a careful, imaginative, humane employment of the sorts of abstract principles of proportion, symmetry, and scale that the architects of Government Center found so oppressive. Bernini was a singular genius, but his achievement was no happy anomaly. The architectural scholar Christian Norberg-Schultz writes of Bernini’s age: “the two seemingly contradictory aspects of the Baroque phenomenon, systematization and dynamism, form a meaningful totality . . . the resulting system was absolute but open and dynamic.”

The juxtaposition of these two squares touches on a great difference between baroque and modern ideas of public art and edification. Bernini understood that the consolations of beauty can actually provide a firm and fertile setting for human cultivation and instruction. Great, uplifting art may be deeply unsettling, but it doesn’t have to be. It is true that the mathematically calibrated design of Bernini’s plaza is naturally palliative to we pattern-seeking, harmony-loving human creatures, and this is just what the much-maligned “masses” want. But giving us what we want does not have to mean leaving us un-edified, coddled, self-absorbed. Harmonious composition, one of the chief markers of classical beauty, creates integral wholes, without obliterating the identity of the parts. It suggests to the receiver that disintegration and enmity are not the last words of existence, that better things are possible, and maybe even actual; perhaps not everything falls apart.

Many of the moral maladies that plague we humans—selfishness, lust, hatred, vengefulness—emerge from our deepest anxieties about our place in the cosmos. Beautiful public spaces can help to soothe such anxieties, and the impulses to which they give birth. The sensitive visitor to St. Peter’s Square is struck by the joyful realization of his individual smallness, and of his deep fellowship with humanity, and perhaps, the divine. By contrast, it seems that Government Center wants to grasp we homeless moderns by the lapels, and shake us into a sense of “identity” and “presence.” This is not just unpleasant. It is ineffective. A better way forward is to design spaces that make us feel that we are not alien, homeless wanderers, that we belong here among these people, and that our deepest longings just might be susceptible of satisfaction.