Remembering GSD professor and Boston City Hall architect Michael McKinnell (1935 – 2020)

Michael McKinnel
Image courtesy  of the Boston Society for Architecture

Michael McKinnell, a fixture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and in the architectural canon, died on March 27 at the age of 84 from COVID-19-induced pneumonia. He is survived by his wife, Stephanie Mallis (MArch ’78), and two daughters, Caitlin McKinnell Klatz and Phoebe McKinnell Ventola.

McKinnell enjoyed the career and legacy of which many architects dream: in 1962, while a graduate student at Columbia, he collaborated with his professor Gerhard Kallmann and architect Edward Knowles to enter and then win a competition to design Boston City Hall. As Architectural Record observes, their scheme for a brutalist “hill town” was selected out of 256 entries. McKinnell, then just 26, would move to Boston as a co-founder of the firm Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles—later Kallmann, McKinnell and Wood.

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

To say “and the rest is history” would be to understate the breadth and richness of McKinnell’s contributions to architecture, especially in Boston and Cambridge. McKinnell and the firm would go on to offer us Boston’s Hynes Convention Center; the Cambridge headquarters of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and the redbrick Independence Visitor Center in Philadelphia. McKinnell’s portfolio also includes embassies, courthouses, and libraries, and a number of buildings for universities, including Harvard Law School’s Hauser Hall, with its immaculately detailed, brick-curtain facade. In 1984, Kallmann, McKinnell and Wood won the AIA’s prestigious Firm of the Year award.

Drawing of Boston City Hall
Boston City Hall (drawing). Courtesy of the Frances L. Loeb Library

At the GSD, McKinnell enjoyed a storied teaching career, joining the Department of Architecture faculty in 1966 and being named as the Nelson Robinson, Jr. Professor of Architecture in 1983, a role he held until 1988. Generations of architects and designers have praised McKinnell’s balance of—and equal dedication to—practice and pedagogy. As Alex Krieger wrote in 1998, commemorating McKinnell’s GSD Gropius Lecture that year, “What two generations of American architecture students know well… is that Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell have pursued the teaching of architecture with a vigor equal to that for their practice. While many architects combine teaching and practice during the course of their professional lives, few are willing to sustain the demands concurrently over any length of time. For over two decades—and to the direct benefit of both their architecture and their students—Kallmann and McKinnell have shown an equal devotion to both enterprises.”

McKinnell’s most personal design may be his final one: a small square garden outside his Rockport home. Speaking by telephone with his wife, Stephanie Mallis, he requested “a flat granite stone at the far end,” with white roses all around—a final resting place. An architect, Mallis is a principal at Kallmann, McKinnell and Wood.

“I have a drawing here,” Mallis told the Globe by phone on Monday. “I was trying to sketch it while he was talking.”