Building History

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

This level of detailing is what raises architecture to poetic heights. But it is hard to find to the same degree in the rest of the building.

Budget is part of the reason. At the $170-a-square-foot building cost, it's difficult to sustain the fine-grain beauty of the special courtroom.

But some of the building's thinness also reflects Meier's weaknesses as an architect.

The concrete plaza at the east entrance of the courthouse will likely be a griddle come summer.
Paolo Vescia
The concrete plaza at the east entrance of the courthouse will likely be a griddle come summer.
Architects and judges are counting on these high-pressure nozzles to cool the atrium air with mist.
Paolo Vescia
Architects and judges are counting on these high-pressure nozzles to cool the atrium air with mist.

Everyone involved in this project, including Meier, coos about the building's sensitivity to its surroundings. But Meier has never been a particularly adept contextualist. His buildings have always looked better set down on a grassy knoll, like jewels of pure structure. It's apparent that in the tussle between Meier's sense of the city and sense of the building he wanted to make, the city lost.

Like too many other downtown projects, the courthouse's superblock footprint erased a downtown street that the city will wish it had back in the future. This isn't entirely Meier's fault. The city donated the two blocks to the project without giving much thought to its impact on sidewalk flow.

You're likely to feel that the most on the south side, where the building's span of gridded glass on white steel casts an architectural blank stare, a clue that the front -- and possibly shade -- are around the other side. But to get there in the summer, you'll have to cross an open griddle of concrete at the eastern entrance.

Meier blames the minimal landscaping on the eastern plaza on budgetary constraints. But the landscape architect and others involved in the project say it reflects Meier's own pared-down aesthetic.

Meier's office originally wanted to plant something along the lines of an Arizona sycamore in the plaza, says Robert Thompson, landscape architect whose company, e group, planned the landscaping. "But there was way too much reflected sun and heat off all that all-white building. The heat just would have killed the trees."

Thompson eventually found a flowering orchid tree that could thrive in a bosk at the east end of the concourse. But the rest is brute cement.

"He basically wanted trees that wouldn't significantly affect close views of the building," says Thompson.

When Meier talks to people about the cooling system in the courthouse, he always says, "I hope it works."

In another climate, he adds, the atrium would have been designed as a fully outdoor plaza. But the summer heat here made that impractical and the use of air conditioning in the enormous room impossible.

The solution, devised by the New York engineering firm Ove Arup, was to turn the big room into what project insiders are calling "the world's largest swamp cooler."

"The biggest hurdle in my mind," says Mahadev Raman, the cooling system's chief engineer, "was to get people to accept that the conditions of the space would not be equivalent to a fully air-conditioned space."

The O'Connor building will be at the mercy of the weather.

On the driest summer days, temperatures at the floor of the vast greenhouse are expected to be in the mid-70s. Raman says the goal is to cool the plaza areas of the atrium to about 76 degrees.

But when monsoons hit, the higher humidity will cut the cooling system's effectiveness. The summer's muggiest days will probably drive indoor temperatures up into the 80- to 90-degree range.

These conditions shouldn't affect people waiting on the balconies outside the courtrooms or in the jury waiting areas, which have their own air-conditioning systems.

"I have no illusions that when you go into the building in July and August it's going to feel comfortable," says Broomfield. He says it will be like any other swamp-cooled house. "After an hour, it's pretty sticky."

Broomfield thinks the atrium will be more of a pass-through area in the summer, with few public gatherings.

Raman says the cooling system wouldn't have been practical if the atrium were meant to be more than just a transition zone.

The cooler's engine is the roof itself. The six peaked glass and steel sections, rising like eyebrows along the roofline, heat the air just below the roof. That causes the air to move, so "if you open a window, the space naturally drafts," explains Phifer.

Originally, Raman's plan called for two windows, near the building's floor and eaves. "My intuition about this was that the draft would pull air in at low level, where you could mist it and cool it," he says.

But when his team ran the idea through a sophisticated computer program, they found that their theory didn't work. Under certain circumstances, the misting system could undo that flow.

"If a cloud crossed the sun," Raman says, "everything would suddenly reverse and you'd be misting the city of Phoenix rather than the courthouse."

Now the atrium has three openings, two at the top, one near the bottom. Misting nozzles cool the air at the top, plunging it down through the atrium.

The one known problem with the system, says Burckhardt Bein, who worked with Raman on the project at Ove Arup, is that the openings are simply grillwork. There's nothing to prevent dust storms from blowing through the vast hall.

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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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