I’m no expert in architecture, but I’m interested in it. I’m especially interested in the planning aspect of it — fitting a building’s form and function into the surrounding community. I love wasting time looking at buildings on web sites like this one. And I’m a big fan of the National Building Museum. Courthouses are a great example of a type of building where a lot of competing considerations grapple during the design process. Naturally, I was quite pleased to see this “Legal Affairs” article about courthouse architecture.
There’s a lot of neat information in there about the history of federal courthouse architecture. Around the turn of the last century, there was a boom in courthouse construction, and several of those buildings were architectural marvels. The key figure in this building spree was chief federal architect James Knox Taylor. Perhaps the best example of his influence is the Italian Renaissance-style Ninth Circuit courthouse in San Francisco. During the Depression, a slew of new courthouses were built by the Works Progress Administration, and many of them were in a neo-classical style then quite prominent in Washington. (The Supreme Court building, completed in 1935, is a good example.) In the 1960s, the trend was for multi-purpose federal buildings, and fewer stand-alone, grand courthouses.
We’re now in a new boom cycle of federal courthouse construction, but one full of debates over what makes a good courthouse. The article discusses some of the various problems. We have to be concerned about security, but we also want courthouses to be open and accessible to the public — courthouses aren’t prisons, after all. Their design should inspire us to think about all our justice system stands for, but should also be appropriate within their surroundings. But, courthouses can’t just be showpieces; they have to be functional as well.
I posted here about the security issue specifically, but I also included a link to the General Services Administration’s design guide for federal courthouses. It’s telling that the document is about 400 pages long. Any time so much bureaucracy is involved, it’s hard to avoid some compromise of architectural vision. But it’s good to know that the GSA does care about asthetics, to the point of giving out design awards. (I think the award-winners are showcased at the Building Museum, another reason to make it worth a visit!) Okay, so some of the winners aren’t perfect. See page 6 of the document linked here for some pictures of the O’Connor Courthouse in Phoenix. All that glass in the desert heat has been somewhat uncomfortable for the building’s inhabitants, I gather — see question 18 here. So that’s an example of a lovely building that doesn’t fit well where it is. (Another award-winner is the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, which has a pretty neat design, and might be more suitable to the local weather.)
Anyway, the “Legal Affairs” article highlights some recent buildings and how their architects have dealt with these issues. Highly recommended for the courthouse buff!