City hall as happening place

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The fun city hall of Kiruna, Sweden, 95 miles above the Arctic Circle. (

Still feeling the glow from “Introducing Gerhardt Fjuck,” and figuring I had dipped too often into the bottomless well of Monty Python’s “Architects Sketch,” I happened upon a piece from Kristen Richards’s ArchNewsNow by Emily Nonko on the website Fast Company. It is a serious laugh riot: “The community hub of the future isn’t a library or a shopping mall, it’s city hall.”

Seriously? The writer wonders that so few municipalities around the world have felt the need to transform their city halls into “community hubs.” In contrast to “the monumental city halls of yore, with echoing corridors and forbidding facades,” Nonko applauds those architects and planners who are reconceptualizing the staid old idea of city hall and

replacing it with something more human and playful. To their mind, city hall is a space for citizens to act out democracy alongside their elected officials—and perhaps grab a coffee or see a show while doing it. In the face of global unrest, online polarization, and the increasing commercialization of public space, city halls are quietly becoming the communal living room of the future.

Nonko moans that places like Kiruna, Sweden, 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle, have taken the lead from more stick-in-the-mud places like the United States. She notes that Kiruna City Hall has no guard station and you don’t have to sign in. Berlin’s national assembly has a glass dome by Norman Foster from which Germans can look down (their noses?) at their representative government at work. Democracy! Transparency!

What if local government stepped up and invested in a living room for all its citizens? What if our city halls welcomed us in, not just to submit paperwork or gawk at architecture but to celebrate, protest, peruse artwork, sunbathe, and read, right alongside our elected officials?

Nonko’s article goes on and on, with laugh line piled atop laugh line, for why indeed shouldn’t government be fun? Maybe some civic constituencies want municipal cafés and cinemas to compete with private tax-paying enterprises beyond the walls of city hall. Perhaps, after paying their taxes or attending in person their representatives’ latest follies (maybe viewed from above such shenanigans are easier to perceive!), citizens just want to stick around to embrace the inner child of their democracy. Sounds reasonable to me!

No. A thousand and one reasons leap up, waving their arms for attention in the competition for why city halls do not have cafés, cinemas and tanning salons within their capacious walls. Nonko ignores them all, and the result is a humorous tour-de-force that, long as it is, rewards perusal. Have fun!

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to City hall as happening place

  1. Pingback: How modernism is killing us | Architecture Here and There

  2. Pingback: Destroy Iran’s history to save it | Architecture Here and There

  3. LazyReader says:

    Big Government builds big edifices to itself. The Wisconsin state house is not all that different than any other domed legislature house. Except this ones crafted from over 20 different types of stone imported from several countries, replicating what royalty built. In frugal Wisconsin, this place is a palace. The desire for government to surround itself with greater interior space echos the philosophy “We’re growing at your expense”.

    According to Critics, the design of Bostons City hall, with it’s inverted trapezoidal base, was to invoke classical cornices common in buildings in cities in the east. The problem with pure concrete is the material, it simply doesn’t age gracefully. Unless you smooth and sand it down to a granite like finish it’s pourous microscopic surface texture will absorb everything, including filth, pollution, water, cigarette smoke, bacteria and organisms, vandalism paint, UV light. This was the limit of the technology of the day. Design wise it’s plaza is a mess. A brick desert with no discernible public life. The Piazza works in Europe because it’s a ecosystem of daily urban life, business, tourism, food, drink, procession, display and government if need be, all consolidated into a perimeter of buildings. The City Halls of Boston or Dallas do not do that, they’re fortresses to government bureaucracy and thus anti-thesis to good social desirability. Which is why the local government has to actually plan events to put the plaza to use.

    The largest city squares are often built for prestige and see little actual use. Because the largest plazas and squares exist in nations with totalitarian regimes. Nature abhors a vacuum and oppressive regimes love it. Piazza San Marco is only 130,000 square feet, Tienanmen square is over 30 times larger.

    redoing boston city hall, helfands idea is a good start


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