Building History

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

For years, the government's cumbersome processes and ignoble reputation as a Medici of Mediocrity kept talents like Meier away. In fact, Meier says that before the Design Excellence Program arrived, he felt government work didn't lead to anything of quality.

Few people would argue against that.

The pervasive view both inside and outside government, says Feiner, was that "if something was well-designed, truly a legacy-type building, then the government was wasting money."

Federal district Judge Robert Broomfield is an ardent advocate of architect Richard Meier's design of the new Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse.
Vivian Spiegelman
Federal district Judge Robert Broomfield is an ardent advocate of architect Richard Meier's design of the new Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse.
Architect Richard Meier drew some inspiration for his courthouse design from the grid of Phoenix's streets.
Vivian Spiegelman
Architect Richard Meier drew some inspiration for his courthouse design from the grid of Phoenix's streets.

In 1962, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant to the Secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration, and now the retiring United States Senator from New York, called for a renaissance in federal architecture in "The Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture." His brief manifesto urged the creation of buildings that would "reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability" of the American system.

But under the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the GSA continued putting up architecture that Feiner likes to call "aesthetically challenged."

A decadelong building spree produced about 70 buildings. Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe were about the only brand-name architects involved.

Roger Schluntz, dean of the University of New Mexico's School of Architecture and Planning, who serves as an adviser to the GSA, says "most government office buildings were simply seen as containers."

So the federal landscape sprouted an array of big, dreary boxes.

Schluntz says the sole architectural ambition of these projects was to provide the most floor space for the least cost. And even when costs were high, the buildings had to look cheap, a puzzling lapse given the relative prosperity of the era.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was far kinder to federal architecture than the "Great Society" of the 1960s. New buildings meant new hope, new spirits for a country facing tough times. And architecture's power to enrich the common soul was apparent to artists, architects and some federal officials. The proof is in regional gems like the old downtown post office on First Avenue, the deco-fluted Moeur Building on the ASU campus, and many others, all built in the '30s.

In the early 1990s, Feiner says, the GSA had little choice but to return to the business of building good architecture. In the late 1980s, booming judicial caseloads and expanding judgeships made new courthouses a necessity. Old ones were outdated, unsafe and ill-suited for the electronic age.

In 1990, to elevate the focus on design, the GSA revived a design awards program it had halted more than a decade earlier. The idea was to honor exemplary works.

"We had lots of awards for historic preservation," says Feiner, "but only one, I think, for new buildings."

To find out why so few new buildings were receiving recognition, the GSA convened the awards panelists -- a who's who of contemporary architecture -- and asked them how the agency could attract a broader segment of American talent.

"Basically, they told us we were doing everything backwards," he says.

To attract the likes of Meier and numerous smaller firms, they recommended, among other things, that the GSA make design talent a priority, streamline the paperwork and include outsiders on the selection panels.

The profile of architects applying for government work changed almost overnight.

"Before we did this," says Feiner, "we got only the largest firms that could afford the $20,000 to $30,000 it cost to do the paperwork. Suddenly we were getting five-person firms. We were getting 15-person firms. And we were still getting the 2,000-person firms."

Among the talented new mix were Meier, Henry Cobb, William Pedersen, Mehrdad Yazdani and Carol Ross Barney.

Feiner says the theme that has emerged from new courthouses in cities as widespread as Minneapolis, Boston, Tucson, Las Vegas, Omaha, Scranton and Tallahassee "is the openness, accessibility and the relationship between the people and their government.

"It may seem corny. But if we can, in our buildings, bridge that gap and bring the people to feel it's their government, it's worth it."

Yet the toughest crowd hasn't necessarily been the public. Some judges have resisted the GSA's efforts to update the judiciary's architectural identity.

A proposed design for a new courthouse in Orlando, Florida, by Boston architect Andrea Leers, has sparked a fight between judges and the GSA.

"We asked for a traditional-looking building because we believe that most sets up the dignity of the courts," says Orlando federal district judge Anne Conway, who has been lobbying against the Leers design.

What the GSA gave them instead, she says, is "an ultra-modern building with glass."

She and some of her colleagues contend that the building's expanses of glass alongside a nearby interstate highway make it an easy target.

"One judge still has a bullet hole in his old window from a drive-by," says Conway.

But her larger complaint is about architectural style.

Conway grumbles that the GSA, too concerned with winning awards, is pushing its own brand of modernism and ignoring the wishes of judges.

"We think a courthouse should look like a courthouse," says Conway. "Our chief probation officer says it a lot more eloquently than I can. She brings in probationers not because they really need to come in or she can't talk to them on the telephone. But she wants them to feel the awe and understand this is not a bank. This is not a performing arts center. Something serious is happening here."

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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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