Building History

The new glass-and-steel federal courthouse shatters the image that government structures have to be stodgy

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Broomfield leans out over the rail on the fourth-floor balcony of the new Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse in downtown Phoenix and points out the gridwork of a freshly sealed patch of glistening gray terrazzo floor.

"That floor is different from every height. If you go up another level, the pattern, that grid, changes. Same if you go down another level. I think people are going to notice these kinds of subtleties."

Broomfield, who normally spends his days pondering civil and criminal cases, has been taking guests on what people call "the Bob tour" for as long as the nearly completed courthouse has been safe to amble through. His pride is almost paternal.

Paolo Vescia
The $102 million courthouse reflects a new image for the federal judiciary.
Paolo Vescia
The $102 million courthouse reflects a new image for the federal judiciary.

He knew the building when it was just a dirt pile. He served on the panel that selected acclaimed architect Richard Meier to design it. He attended many of the design meetings over the six years the project has been in the works. And he watched the building rise from the ground, beam by beam.

The $102 million structure is a big public gesture; its soaring atrium, its place in the city's history are as much a reflection of Broomfield's vision of the judiciary's role in American life as it is an expression of Meier's architectural leanings.

"Although my name is outside, Bob's heart, soul and effort are part of the very foundation and fabric of this building," Justice O'Connor told the crowd gathered for the building's dedication in late October.

Broomfield and Meier were initially an unlikely pairing. Broomfield is a quiet, conservative man with a conciliatory frame of mind. Meier is a devout modernist who single-mindedly pursues the salvation of elaborately sculpted white -- and only white -- spaces.

Best known for designing the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the High Museum in Atlanta, Meier's architectural lineage extends back through the sleek, reductivist forms of Le Corbusier. Among the elite of contemporary architects, his powerful sculptural sense and use of light earned him the Pritzker Architecture Prize -- often characterized as the Nobel award for architecture -- in 1984, when he was just 49 years old, younger than any other winner.

"Meier is not just a modern architect," says John Meunier, dean of the College of Architecture at Arizona State University, who also served on the government panel that chose Meier to design the new courthouse, "he is a classical modern architect, in the sense that many of his buildings have some of the characteristics of classical dignity."

Still, Broomfield at first doubted that Meier's brand of modernism could capture the identity of the judiciary.

The building, which opens in January, is proof, he says, that "architecture really can change one's views."

Critics rant that the new courthouse -- at Fifth Avenue and Washington Street -- is a "dirty glass greenhouse," a "trial terrarium," a blinding white hulk of government waste.

Admirers see it as something more along the lines of a covered outdoor plaza, a rabbit pulled out of an urban -- and often overheated -- hat.

The building's soaring spaces and innovative use of evaporative cooling in the atrium make it one of the region's finest new architectural additions. Admirers see it as a cultural trophy that lends substance to the "world class" spin that city boosters have been trying to put on downtown's redevelopment.

What's clear is that the building's striking presence represents a profound shift in the direction of federal architecture. That change is transforming the stodgy formality of the American courthouse, and encouraging architecture geeks to think the feds really do care about design.

That's difficult to believe.

For decades, the government filled America's declining downtowns with concrete boxes manifesting the most dehumanizing aspects of modern design. Federally funded architects supplanted the subtle proportions and scale of modernism's best works with a low-budget range of concrete simplicities.

But in the past decade, the government's construction agency, the General Services Administration, has been building what planners expect will be more than 150 new federal courthouses.

The civic openness of these new buildings is a reassuring sign that Timothy McVeigh hasn't driven federal architecture deeper into bunker aesthetics. The buildings also exemplify the judiciary's efforts to reclaim its place at the center of urban life.

Broomfield sees that return as a necessity.

Federal court buildings, he says, are "the functional equivalent of the nation's capital out in the country's communities."

"When people want to demonstrate and exercise their First Amendment rights," he adds, "they don't go to the IRS building or some place where the Department of Commerce has rented space. They come to the federal courthouse."

The O'Connor building is the second courthouse Richard Meier has designed. The first, also dedicated last month, is in Islip, New York. That building has been praised for its clear, inventive structure and rich use of light.

Neither project would have happened without the Design Excellence Program of the GSA, the government's landlord and architectural agency.

Ed Feiner, the GSA's chief architect in Washington, D.C., says the innovative program was started in 1994 to make the government a "leader in the design and construction community."

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Speaking with years if construction experience I must disagree with the thesis of this article. I believe that the building exudes artistic talent. I would love to see it in person.

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