Building History

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

Feiner says it's difficult to produce traditional-looking structures with current budgets.

In the early 1990s, after Congress hammered the GSA for excessive spending, the agency imposed strict cost controls on court construction. (The lid in Phoenix is about $170 a square foot.) Those controls have limited the amount of old-fashioned grandeur architects can design into the buildings.

Federal district Judge Douglas Woodlock in Boston says debates over the value of maintaining the traditional or classical face of court architecture come up often. But, he adds, the history of a place may be something that people don't really want to preserve.

Planners hope the vast atrium (viewed from above) will be used for public events.
Paolo Vescia
Planners hope the vast atrium (viewed from above) will be used for public events.
Architect Thomas Phifer, formerly an associate at Richard Meier's firm, led the design of the courthouse.
Vivian Spiegelman
Architect Thomas Phifer, formerly an associate at Richard Meier's firm, led the design of the courthouse.

He points out that the Chowan County Courthouse, in Edenton, North Carolina, and the old St. Louis courthouse -- both from the 1700s and 1800s -- might give some people "warm fuzzy feelings" about architecture.

But their histories aren't so well-received.

Slave owners killed slaves on the steps of the Edenton courthouse after Nat Turner's slave revolt of 1831. The St. Louis courthouse -- listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- was where the escaped slave Dred Scott was tried.

Woodlock sees the GSA program encouraging architecture that breaks these emotional binds.

"I've always been of the view that architecture at its very best is a marriage of memory and invention," he says.

In that sense, the process of making new buildings parallels the evolution of law.

"That's what we're supposed to be doing as judges, really, taking precedent from the past and applying it to a set of new challenges and new disputes, and continually attempting to modify," Woodlock says.

Without that dynamic quality, he adds, the process "would be stultifying."

"I like what I do as a judge," says Broomfield. "But if I had a life to do over again, I'd like to work with my hands and my mind."

He says he's considered two things: a surgeon and an architect.

"Being an architect, I suspect, would be a little more fun."

Broomfield's interest in architecture and the downtown area started well before Richard Meier arrived on the scene. He has served on committees that have tried to stir some healthy life back into the run-down Capitol Mall area, the region's de facto service center for homeless people, which stretches west from the new courthouse to the state Capitol.

He sees the Meier building as contributing to that reinvestment in Phoenix's core. And he envisions the courthouse operating as a downtown community center, hosting a range of after-hours gatherings, from school graduations to civic and professional meetings.

"I think my wife is a little surprised about my passion for this," he says.

Broomfield initially resisted the idea of Meier designing the courthouse.

"I knew he's an unabashed modernist. In some ways I respected him more for that. He believes in it and doesn't want to retreat from it. I felt he would be honest to his design and wouldn't compromise. I just wasn't sure he could design the kind of building we wanted."

Broomfield preferred Henry Cobb, the architect of the Boston federal courthouse, begun in 1991 and completed in 1998.

John Meunier recalls that during the selection process in 1994, Broomfield spoke passionately about wanting "to do for Phoenix what Woodlock and Cobb had done for Boston. He thought the Boston building was such a tremendous advance beyond any court building that had been done in 50 years."

Broomfield's involvement with federal court design began in the late 1980s, when he was appointed to a United States Judicial Conference committee on courthouse planning and construction. The conference, which governs the federal judiciary, was then wrestling with a long-range plan to accommodate dramatically increasing caseloads. Broomfield eventually headed the committee, which recommended the construction of the many courthouses now being built.

At judicial meetings in the early 1990s, he heard Cobb speak persuasively about the history of judicial architecture and the role of courthouses in their communities. Cobb's ideas resonated with Broomfield.

Broomfield carried those ideas with him as a juror on the seven-member GSA selection panel. The panel shortlisted five architectural firms for the job, including Cobb's, before finally settling on Meier, whose ability to sculpt forms around light, they believed, would be an asset in the desert.

But Broomfield wasn't convinced. He called a special meeting at which he made one last plea for Cobb.

Says Meunier, "He really got quite emotional about the fact that this was an opportunity he'd spent a great deal of his life trying to create, and he feared we would miss it."

Broomfield wasn't sure that Meier's modernist language could successfully merge the historic dignity with contemporary conflict between security and openness.

Courthouses of the 18th and 19th centuries had the advantage of intimacy. There was little confusion about the processional into the building. The route was simply up the stairs, across the small rotunda and into the building's one or two main courtrooms.

However, the multiple courtrooms of modern court buildings -- basically a judicial cineplex -- complicate the traditional pathway and the staging of the courtrooms.

"One of the things you've got to be concerned with is how do you present those separate spaces without debasing the currency of the courtrooms themselves," says Woodlock. "What matters is that everybody feels that the space they're in is of extraordinary ceremonial importance."

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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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