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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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."

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."

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."

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ove Arup had recommended putting automated dampers on the openings. But Meier's team nixed the dampers -- which cost between $120,000 and $200,000 -- for aesthetic reasons, says Bein.

GSA officials say they'll have to retrofit the openings with operable panels. Keith Lew of the agency doesn't know whether the panels will be added before the next summer dust storm arrives.

Tests of the cooling system on 90- and 100-degree days in September and October proved that it worked, and worked well.

"But I know there's going to be that one day," Raman muses, "when some piece of grit goes past the filter and gets stuck in a nozzle, and a glob of water flies down and lands on a judge's head.

"It's bound to happen. And when it does, I suspect, all hell will break loose."

See more pictures of the courthouse soon

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