Launch Slideshow

Gerhard Kallman

Gerhard Kallman

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    Wikicommons

    Boston City Hall

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    Courtesy Kallmann, McKinnell and Woods

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    © Anton Grassl / Esto

    Brandeis University, Mandel Center for the Humanities

“That is not a window,” Gerhard Kallmann, who passed away last week at the age of 97, said to me when we sat down for my first desk critique. “A window is taller than it is wide. It is scaled to the human body. A modernist window is long, because it tries to destroy the building and open it to the landscape. A window that is square is nothing. It is a cliché.”

He was absolutely right, at least about the square window part. This was the era of Aldo Rossi and Michael Graves, and square windows with cross mullions were de rigeur for many of us, though we didn’t really know why. (I later figured out that the neutrality was the point). I quickly caved and produced a façade with tall windows marching across a stone veneer façade I capped with a proper cornice, based with ashlar stone, and rendered with all the Prismacolor skills I could manage.

I had been placed in Kallmann’s studio to learn discipline, and that I did. Kallmann had long since moved away from the Neo-Brutalist mode that had made his partner, Michael McKinnell, and him famous. Together they won the competition to design the Boston City Hall, built in 1968. Kallmann was by the early 1980s a kind of classicist, producing buildings with abstractions of classical orders inside and out, perfectly proportioned and arranged with an elegance that became especially popular among the better research institutes.

He taught me discipline. He taught me not to be ashamed to look at Schinkel and John Russell Pope. He taught me that every element in a building has to develop in clear relationship to the human body and to both the immediate and the cultural context in which it will exist.

I hated him for it.

I wanted to be free to design buildings that would explode out the site and would blow your mind. I wanted to do everything different. But, I buckled under, and tried to learn how to do things the proper way. It stood me in good stead when I helped renovate my sister’s apartment in a pre-War building in New York and it gave me the basic tools that would ground me as I started experimenting.

Maybe I did not absorb his lessons fully because today I am a recovering trained-as-an-architect who just looks at and talks about buildings. (I never got that license, so have to be careful with what nomenclature I use here.)  

Including, I must say, those buildings by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles. We have all come to appreciate Boston City Hall, even if the current mayor wants to tear it down. I have a lot of respect for the firm’s later, stricter, and less exuberant work. I even have to admit that I like some of their earlier, more classicizing buildings, such as the 1986 Becton Dickinson Headquarters, better than recent efforts, such as the Mandel Center for the Humanities at Brandeis. I am grateful for what Gerhard Kallmann taught me, and for the legacy of beautiful buildings he left us.