Capturing the Love in Boston’s Much-Unloved City Hall

A documentary project wants to show that good things happening inside that hulking mass of concrete, too.

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Boston has never been sure about its City Hall. The Boston Globe’s Jack Thomas has written about the moment when, in the 1960s, plans for the raw concrete complex were first presented: “[W]hen a veil was lifted, the winning design was greeted by a few cheers, a few gasps, and a voice that said, “What the hell is that?”

But no matter. For nearly half a century the hulking, Brutalist building has served not only as the seat of city government, but also as home to one of the most intimate moments two people can share: The day they get married. That’s the theme of Married in Boston, a documentary project that captures the weddings taking place inside City Hall.

Filmmaker Michael Lawrence Evans, a developer and designer with the Office of New Urban Mechanics, the Boston mayor’s in-house innovation shop, has an office that sits on City Hall’s third and ground floor, where he can easily spot couples passing in and out. “It never gets old,” Evans says, “and I just wanted to tell that story.”

That story now has a trailer:

Evans, now in his early 30s, describes himself as “basically a Silicon Valley kid.” Growing up in Palo Alto, he went on to UCLA and later served as a Code for America fellow in Philadelphia, before joining the noted San Francisco design firm Stamen to do data visualization work. But a listing for a job with the New Urban Mechanics appealed to him, so he headed to Boston. The city, he said, was “a foreign land to me,” and City Hall especially so. He talks about it with words like cold, dark and drab. “People,” he says, “sometimes describe it as a parking garage.” You generally go there, he says, for something unpleasant, like attending a dull meeting, paying taxes or taking care of a parking ticket.

One day Evans was dealing with some bureaucratic headache and waiting for an elevator in City Hall when the doors opened, he says, “and there was this beautiful, modest couple standing there.” They were dressed simply but purposefully, and thus gorgeously. “I just found it a really lovely contrast,” Evans says.

To get participants, couples are pitched when they register to be married on the idea that the city is conducting a documentary project on City Hall weddings. When they come back on their wedding day, Evans and others set up a backdrop and lights on a mezzanine. Getting it right isn’t easy because of all the harsh concrete. Evans takes the photos, and couples are emailed a link to a set of high-resolution copies posted on Flickr. If they like the photos, they go up on a Tumblr blog. Using the platform was intentional — the goal is to get people to share the moment.

In a way, the Married in Boston project is something of a pointed rejection of the “Keep Government Out of My Medicare” line of thinking. Even if no one thinks about the mayor on his or her wedding day, “government” is there by virtue of its sanctioning of the union. Evans says that he takes inspiration from outgoing Mayor Tom Menino’s hands-on, deeply personal interpretation of the act of governing — what the Globe described as an “uncommonly intimate figure” in a look back at his tenure last spring. Evans also reminds me of how, in July, Menino wrote a letter to the president of Chick-fil-A after the latter made comments disparaging vocal supporters of same-sex marriage as “prideful” and “arrogant.”

Wrote Menino, “There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it.” Evans takes particular pride in the project representing the full pageant of modern marriage in Boston.

But his very favorite photo? “Someone mentioned that there was a dog with a bow tie on outside,” he remembers, in accordance with the building’s no-pets rule. When the dog owners’ ceremony wrapped, Evans took his camera outside and captured the moment.

With only a handful of people actually getting married in Boston’s City Hall each week, and it taking “nearly a full day” to get the backdrops and lighting set up, coordinate schedules and finally take the photos, the process can be slow going. Thirty-six weddings have been documented since the project started in May.

In a bid to both streamline the process and make it more sustainable, Evans is coding together a “photo booth” package he calls Warhol. (The source code is posted to the code-sharing site GitHub.) Warhol will connect a digital SLR camera to a computer with Internet. A web-based interface, probably hosted on an iPad or similar tablet, will control the camera. Couples will choose how many photos to take and approve them once they are taken. The best ones will be uploaded automatically to Flickr and emailed to the newlyweds.

The thinking, Evans says, is, “‘Hey, really awesome things happen in City Hall.’ We get a lot of flack, so we’re trying to capture some of the wonderful things that happen here, too.”

As for rehabilitating the image of City Hall, the building, that might be too much to ask. The blog Universal Hub recently featured the Married in Boston trailer.

“Yea but,” one commenter wrote, “they still have to put a backdrop there so the beauty isn’t drowned out by Escherian dark grey brutalist gloom.”

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Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

Tags: public spacebostonshared cityarchitecturecity hallcivic techthomas menino

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