Building History

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

Broomfield gave Meier a similar talk.

"We told him, 'You're not designing a visitor's center,'" the judge recalls. "'You're not designing a museum. This is a courthouse.'"

Broomfield says the building's 12 immense columns are just one indication that Meier listened. The judge sees them as contemporary echoes of the neo-classical dignity found in the columns of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

The cylindrical special proceedings courtroom is a focal point of the atrium.
Paolo Vescia
The cylindrical special proceedings courtroom is a focal point of the atrium.
The lenslike ceiling of the special proceedings courtroom was designed by New York artist James Carpenter.
Paolo Vescia
The lenslike ceiling of the special proceedings courtroom was designed by New York artist James Carpenter.

They're reminders, says Broomfield, that "the judiciary should be the most stable of the three branches of government."

Meier says his visual ideas for the building began with the way Phoenix itself is laid out.

"It is a strong-gridded city," he says. "And thinking about an appropriate form led me to respect that. The buildings that don't respect the grid do an injustice to what's around them."

Thomas Phifer, who led the design at Meier's office and now heads his own firm in New York, says the idea for the building's structure emerged from numerous concepts.

The design team considered as many as 30 schemes. The real answer didn't come, he says, until they arrived in Phoenix in August of 1994.

"We took a look around and found that no one was occupying public space in Phoenix. No one was outdoors. No one was even under a tree. At that point, we were still studying ideas for buildings that looked in on themselves, as if they were hunkering down under the sun."

In that sense, they followed the lead of downtown's existing architecture, which tends to be introspective, relying on heavy masonry to shield the sun.

But hunkering down conflicted with the openness Broomfield envisioned for the building.

"We felt we needed to make an offering to the city in the way of a significant urban room," Phifer recalls, "a shaded space where people could come as a respite."

The O'Connor courthouse is a two-sided building with three distinct parts: the public atrium; a special proceedings courtroom inside the atrium; and a six-floor, L-shaped office building, housing 15 courtrooms, legal, marshal and court services. The office portion is basically an ant farm of hallways and holding areas that separate the flow of defendants, judges and jurors.

Much of the poetry of this building is inside. But it begins on the street, with the six 100-foot columns that hold up the north end of the glass roof.

"We pulled the columns out into the street," says Phifer, "because we wanted the building to tell its structural story before you walk in."

Their supporting partners, holding up the other ends of the roof trusses, are deep inside the building.

This indoor/outdoor theme resonates throughout. It's in the way the roof and walls open to the outdoors, bringing in plenty of light and letting the building inhale and exhale huge breaths of air. Walking around the atrium, you're constantly feeling these breezes.

Though the building plays up the inside/outside dichotomy, it's nonetheless an introspective space, concentrating most of its beauty in the glass atrium itself. More than 100 feet high and longer than a football field, its airplane-hangar scale is likely to make the average litigant feel puny before the law. But looking north, the building's zigzag of tie rods and roof trusses appear to frame and reframe the angles of nearby buildings and distant mountains, breaking the landscape into glimpse-size trapezoids.

These dynamic, asymmetrical patterns resonate throughout the building.

Like other modern architecture, the courthouse tarts up the appeal of industrial-looking fittings and supports. Yet the building's scale makes the gargantuan hardware appear deceptively delicate.

The atrium's curtain wall of glass, for example, looks to be holding itself up. But, in fact, it hangs from a series of angular steel roof trusses supported by the columns.

The most beautiful component of the atrium is the special proceedings courtroom, an immense cylindrical form whose metal superstructure has the look of a petroleum refinery tank. Meier's team easily could have led people on a direct route to this courtroom, where special hearings, trials and ceremonies will be held. But they've done the smart thing, offsetting the stairs toward the north wall, giving visitors a long view back across the interior.

The courtroom itself is remarkably serene, with a parabolic glass ceiling suspended like an almighty lens on a spider web of metal cables and connectors.

Meier and Phifer's original plan for the room called for no ceiling at all, says Keith Lew, the GSA architect who coordinated the building's development.

"They thought what a wonderful thing it would be to have this ceiling completely open, to take advantage of the climate," he says.

But GSA officials worried that would set the precedent of giving federal judges 120-foot ceilings -- the approximate distance to the roof skylight.

The existing ceiling was designed and fabricated, for about $1 million, by New York artist James Carpenter through the GSA's percent-for-art program. It's far and away the region's finest recent fusion of art and architecture. And it gives the space a moving clarity and poignance.

Its meticulous detailing and craftsmanship are more than merely points of style. They sing with the rest of the room that justice is an illuminating force -- one that brings in the world and focuses the mind with light, brightening even the smallest facts.

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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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