Michael McKinnell. Courtesy of the architect’s family.

Michael McKinnell (1935–2020)

Brutalist architect Michael McKinnell, whose career was launched when he entered and won a competition to build Boston’s City Hall with his late partner Gerhard Kallmann as a graduate student in 1962, died on March 27 in Beverly, Massachusetts, at the age of eighty-four. The New York Times reports that McKinnell’s wife, Stephanie Mallis, confirmed that the cause was COVID-19.

McKinnell was born Noel Michael McKinnell in Salford, Manchester, England, on December 25, 1935. He came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship and enrolled in the graduate school program at Columbia University in New York, where he was a teaching assistant for Kallmann, a German-born architect and theorist, when the colleagues submitted their design for one of Boston’s most important municipal buildings. Once completed in 1968, the monumental concrete structure, which stood apart from the city’s traditional red-brick aesthetic, became a leading example of Brutalist architecture in America.

While some Boston inhabitants viewed the structure as controversial, the building helped spur an urban revival in the 1960s and ’70s. “People are married here, families record their births here—it’s a living building at the heart of our community,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said at the building’s anniversary ceremony in February 2019. Rather than act protective of one of his most celebrated designs, McKinnell, who cofounded the firm Kallmann McKinnell and Knowles in 1962, viewed City Hall as a symbol of democracy and wanted another generation of architects to make their mark by adding to it or making changes.

Boston’s City Hall. Photo: Wikipedia.

“This isn’t a building where the pattern is frozen, where if you move one detail you ruin everything,” McKinnell told the Boston Globe in 1969. “The process of democratic government is the meaning of City Hall. It should never be finished.”

Following their first project together, McKinnell and Kallmann were commissioned to design a half dozen other buildings across Boston, and both joined the faculty of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. In 1974, however, their work slowed as the country entered a recession, but four years later it picked up again when the firm, which became Kallmann McKinnell & Wood (KMW) in 1965, was commissioned to design the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Other buildings realized by the practice include a mixture of civic, education, and government institutions, such as Boston’s Back Bay Station (1987), the Visitor Center at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park (2001), the United States embassies in Dhaka (1989) and Bangkok (1996), and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) World Headquarters in the Hague, the Netherlands (2000).

KMW also led the renovation and expansion of the DeCordova Museum & Sculpture Park’s art school and gallery in Lincoln, Massachusetts, (1998) and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (2001), and built the University of Colorado Boulder’s Visual Arts Complex (2010), the Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art Center for Ceramic Education at Alfred University in New York (2010), and the Mari & James A. Michener Gallery & Edgar A. Smith Building for the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin (2006).

In recent years, after McKinnell departed from his firm, the architect completed several projects in Israel with Mallis. After a 2015 interview, Debbie Hagan, an art critic who visited McKinnell, who was also a painter and avid collector, at his studio in Rockport, Massachusetts, wrote that even decades after the architect left England, he was “still distinctly British—charming manners, rounded vowels, and tea in the afternoon with fruity cake (baked himself). Congenial and reserved, he’s just the opposite of the person one expects from a leader of brutalist architecture.”