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The Jury’s Out on Courthouse Design

June 5, 2007

by Sara Hart

Is there a design language that is unique to civic architecture? Critic Robert Campbell posed this question to the architects, judges, and others attending “Function, Form, and Meaning: Design Excellence in Federal Courthouses” last Friday. Hosted by the General Services Administration (GSA), this day-long forum in Washington, D.C., was billed as “a review and national conversation on federal courthouse design.” Campbell’s opening lecture juxtaposed Modern designs with classical models and challenged attendees and speakers to debate whether or not one of these modes is more appropriate for civic buildings.

Taking up Campbell’s challenge, several audience members asked if Modernism has replaced the traditional historical styles as GSA’s de facto style. They cited several high-profile recently completed federal courthouses including projects by Richard Meier, in Phoenix and Central Islip, New York, and one by Morphosis in Eugene, Oregon.

But proponents of classicism were well represented. They included Thomas Gordon Smith, AIA, who, as the GSA’s first Architecture Fellow, brings his commitment to classicism to bear on the selection process, and Allan Greenberg, AIA, spoke about his firm’s dedication to continuing historical traditions in contemporary architecture.

The conference also revealed how just much influence federal judges have during the design process—although the GSA is technically the client for federal buildings—and that the creative tension between architect and user can produce stunning results. U.S. District Court judge Michael R. Hogan chronicled his role in the design and construction of Morphosis’s federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon. Hogan said that he was advised early in the process that it’s more productive for a client to convey ideas and priorities about a project, and then step aside to let an architect design the building.

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Later in the day, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Stephen G. Breyer recounted the time when, as chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, he and judge Douglas Woodlock assumed leadership roles in the development of the award-winning U.S. Courthouse and Harborpark in Boston, designed by Henry N. Cobb, FAIA, of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. He explained the how the sequences of spaces were designed to make visitors’ passage from the street to the courtrooms both eventful and august. Articulate and enthusiastic, Breyer demonstrated a thorough understanding of Cobb’s attention to the smallest detail and clearly relished the architect’s mentoring.

In appreciation of his advocacy of the Design Excellence Program, Breyer received special recognition from the GSA for his ongoing support of architecture as a public art relevant to the administration of justice.

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