The seat of power defines how a city is run but the buildings can also project an idea of place. We highlight some of the best, from Aarhus to Mumbai.
Governments at all levels have a big job on their hands but city halls are playing an outsized role in helping municipal economies remain afloat while maintaining confidence in urban communities and ensuring that neighbourhoods keep their groove.
Why? Well, they’re nimbler and more connected to their constituents than their national or regional counterparts, allowing them to quickly tackle issues that affect the daily lives of those they represent, such as housing, employment, transportation and education. Take the town of Rockford, Illinois (population: 145,000), whose government turned $15,000 (€13,000) loans given to businesses hard hit by the pandemic into grants, thus relieving them of the need to repay. Other cities, including Bergen in Norway, are embarking on grand projects that will revitalise down-at-heel districts.
These are decisions made in the debating chambers and meeting rooms of civic institutions. Which begs the question: what does the actual building where such calls are made say about those it represents? These places should inspire politicians and the public to make good decisions and offer spaces for the community to convene.
Here we celebrate seven of our favourite such buildings from across the globe that do just that. They were ambitious when built and, importantly, continue to shape the ambitions of their cities now.
Architects Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulsson designed Oslo City Hall to house the capital’s administrative and political arms, as well as its ceremonies and celebrations. And according to the city’s mayor, Marianne Borgen, that’s how it still operates today. “The city council is in one tower, the administration is in the other and our grand function room is in the middle,” she says. In that grand hall, beneath a 21 metre-high ceiling, the Nobel peace prize has been presented in front of the world’s media every December since 1990. It is also where Oslo’s newly educated nurses and police officers are presented with their diplomas. “City Hall was built for democracy through togetherness and solidarity,” says Borgen.
Plans for the functionalist civic building were drawn up in 1915 but took another 35 years to be realised, partly due to the outbreak of the Second World War. City Hall eventually opened in 1950 and many of its exterior and interior artworks and murals reflect the social-democratic values prevalent in Norway at the time. Those values remain strong, as does a high level of trust between citizens, politicians and institutions in a city that has a reputation for protecting its residents’ wellbeing.
At present, Oslo is working towards becoming emission-free by 2030. To reach this goal, there are schemes in place including a 19km-long railway tunnel to the commuter city Ski, which will boost rush-hour capacity by 63 per cent; and a housing project called Oen that will create more energy than it uses. So although Oslo City Hall is made from red-brown brick, its future looks decidedly green.
When the design for Boston City Hall was unveiled in 1962, someone in attendance was heard to say, “What the hell is that?” From its inception, the building, designed by Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, has divided opinion. “It’s the premier example of brutalist architecture in North America,” says Patrick Brophy, Boston’s former chief of operations, who was responsible for managing construction and infrastructure projects in Massachusetts’ capital city for more than 25 years. “There are people who hate it and people who love it. I really like it.”
His affection for the building doesn’t extend to City Hall Plaza, the “windswept brick tundra of nothingness” that surrounds the structure. Happily, an extensive renovation is planned that will introduce features including a playground, accessible pathways and a public art space. “These interventions bring the plaza back down to a human scale, creating a more welcoming and inviting place,” says Brophy.
The refurbishment is part of an atmosphere of broader change in Boston. In 2021 the city elected Michelle Wu, a 36-year-old lawyer, as its new mayor. Wu’s platform, which includes the introduction of fare-free bus services and divestment from the fossil-fuel industry, will make Boston one of the most progressive large cities in the US.
Of course, even the most thoughtful renovation won’t win over all of City Hall’s detractors. Brophy doesn’t mind. “I’ve heard many times that it’s a hideous building,” he says. “But it’s ours. It’s unique to Boston and it serves its people.”
Transparent, accessible and free-flowing, Ciudad Casa de Gobierno, designed by UK architects Foster 1 Partners, helped porteños to envisage a more integrated Buenos Aires when it opened in 2015 with a progressive city government in residence. Though originally commissioned as the headquarters of a bank, the building’s four storeys of full-height glass windows, staggered terraces, landscaped courtyards and a spacious auditorium blur traditional boundaries between interior and exterior, the state and the people.
“This sustainable building is a metaphor for how we consider good government to be,” says Fernando Straface, secretary-general of the city of Buenos Aires. “It should be open, accountable and self-sufficient, promoting good communication between city departments and citizens while serving the people.”
Nearly seven years on, the area surrounding City Hall is flourishing. Trees planted in the adjacent park have grown tall and provide shade to picnicking families, while free-to-hire Ecobici bicycles and an extended metro line connect thousands of residents to the area. The building and surrounding landscaping is part of a wider transformation of the formerly industrial Parque Patricios neighbourhood into a technology hub, prompted by tax incentives set out by former city mayor – and ex-president of Argentina – Mauricio Macri.
All this, says Straface, when coupled with the events of the past two years, has accelerated the “urban and digital transformation” of Buenos Aires. It’s a trajectory that city hall plans to continue under current mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta by investing in hard and soft infrastructure, including a new museum and revitalised historical quarter, as well as the launch of Creación Vivamos Cultura, a free streaming platform for on-demand Argentinian cultural productions. The hope? That the capital, like the building itself, will remain a place that’s accessible to and can actually be used by its people.
Mayor Jacob Bundsgaard is proud to call Aarhus City Hall his office. A jewel of Danish modernism designed by Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller, it opened in 1941. “Having a grand piece of art at the centre of decision-making is of vital importance,” says the recently re-elected 45-year-old Social Democrat, who has been running the Danish city since 2011.
The large concrete structure, plated with blocks of Norwegian marble, is defined by a uniform grid of square windows. The building’s interiors include spiralling staircases leading to spacious rooms fitted with furnishings by Danish designer Hans Wegner. Here, walls are lined with rows of narrow timber panels and floors are a mix of geometric parquet patterns and black-and-white mosaic tiles.
The mayor’s favourite room is the 100 sq m main hall, where imposing three-storey-high glass panels provide a sense of openness and transparency. “All the light that streams through reflects the way that we want our city’s democracy to work,” says Bundsgaard.
Aarhus is in the middle of an ongoing development that will transform its former industrial harbour into a mixed-use district with housing, swimming pools, a theatre and cafés. Other projects include a new hospital on the outskirts of the city, the conversion of a freight-train station into a cultural hub, and the first line of the Aarhus light rail, which will help the city to reach carbon neutrality by 2030.
Once all of this is completed, Aarhus will have some of Denmark’s finest cultural buildings, health institutions and public spaces, befitting of its status as the country’s hip second city.
When Toronto’s new City Hall opened in 1965, it was a modernist totem in a city that was still wedded to its conservative, prohibitionist and colonial past – a place wary of the future. Designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell, the building was a statement of intent; a complex where two tall, semicircular office towers rise above and encircle a futuristic concrete dome. From the front of the building stretches a grand public square, easily viewed from mayor John Tory’s second-floor office.
“It’s great to look out at,” he says. “People skate here in winter; there are big concerts and protests. It all goes on here and it fills me with confidence about the city.”
If the building’s architecture was preoccupied with the future, the city has a similar focus now. “You could spend all of your time on the pandemic but you can’t afford to stop looking at the future,” says Tory, noting that city hall will have an important role to play in shaping the trajectory out of the pandemic, not only for Toronto but, as the city is Canada’s largest urban centre, the rest of the country too.
“Job one is building back confidence,” says Tory. Large-scale, long-term developments, such as major buildings by Moshe Safdie and Studio Gang, have a part to play in reasserting the city’s sense of itself, as do more localised initiatives, such as allowing restaurants to establish outdoor dining spaces in some kerb lanes across the city during the summer months. “We need to make sure that the building blocks are in place for Downtown to resuscitate itself in a robust way,” says Tory.
By any measure, Tokyo is a whopper. The metropolis proper comprises 26 cities, three towns, one village and the prize draw: the 23 special wards that make up central Tokyo. In addition there are two island groups in the Pacific Ocean that are administered by the capital. That all adds up to an area of 2,194 sq km and a population that hovers around 14 million. The financial side is gargantuan too: at ¥107trn (€835bn), it has the biggest city economy in the world.
So it should be no surprise that when Kenzo Tange, Japan’s most influential postwar architect, was commissioned to design a new city hall in Shinjuku, he went big. He designed three buildings, the main one of which is 48 storeys high. Part microchip, part epic cathedral, Tange’s Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – completed in 1991 and known as “Tocho” for short – is a bombastic statement that says much about Japan at the pinnacle of its economic prowess.
For its current occupant, city governor Yuriko Koike, it’s a towering perch from which to view the sprawling city. Koike faces formidable challenges in 2022 and pandemic management remains top priority. But the governor, now in her second term, is pursuing her “Grand Reform of Tokyo 2.0” policy, focusing on digital technology to make the metropolis a more globalised, outward-looking city.
“Now is the time to take action, or Japan will be left behind in the world and the happiness of the people of Tokyo – and the rest of Japan – will not be realised,” said Koike, on announcing the policy. “[I’m determined to] create a Tokyo where everyone can shine vibrantly, by accelerating digital transformation immediately to become a global destination.”
Tokyo might be less confident than it was in 1991 but it is home to an industrious, creative population who have consistently proved that they will adapt to whatever life throws at them. Let’s hope that 2022 does indeed allow them to “shine”.
It was built at a time of colonial domination, then thrown into disarray under a flourishing democracy. But in the past decade the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (bmc) building has blossomed into its own Indian blend of historical glamour and practical governance. The unusual V-shaped building in south Mumbai, home to a civic body that serves a population of more than 20 million, picks up on Indo-Saracenic and British neo-gothic architectural traditions. But in the 20th century its verandas were turned into offices, aluminium partitions were installed, gold leaf painted over and stencils lost behind pedestrian-looking tiles. By the turn of the millennium the roof was leaking and the timber was rotting. This wasn’t serving the people, never mind the employees of the country’s financial capital. So restoration began in the mid-2000s to turn it into a more functional and efficient city hall.
“The bmc building is both the nerve centre and administrative centre of Mumbai,” says conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, who led the restoration project. “It’s a part of people’s lives. It’s not a museum piece but a living, breathing building.”
The renovation speaks to the ambitions of the people: Mumbaikars love their city’s unique architectural history. That’s why all eyes are now on a grand bungalow in Shivaji Park, another example of Mumbai’s fusion architecture, as it undergoes renovations to house a memorial for controversial politician Bal Thackeray. The more practical, though, are awaiting the opening of the bmc’s 10km coastal road, set to be completed by the end of 2022.
Photographers: Thomas Ekström, Cody O’Loughlin, Javier Agustín Rojas, Jan Søndergaard, Andrew Rowat, Ben Richards, Anurag Banerjee