The `Taj Mahal' of Jefferson County

In Colorado, a grand government building draws strength from nearby mountains

WHEN the new Jefferson County Government Center just outside of Golden, Colo. was dubbed the ``Taj Mahal'' by local politicians, the title was meant as a slam - identifying the $60-million building with its domed atrium and butterfly shape as extravagant and grandiose for a county like Jefferson. Its chief architect, C.W. Fentress of C. W. Fentress, J.H. Bradburn and Associates, jokes that, while the comparison is flattering, it is exaggerated.

It is also silly. The 530,000-square-foot building is large, with plenty of open office space and room to grow built into the plans, but it bears none of the earmarks of extravagance. The exterior is constructed of architectural precast (2-foot, 4-inch square bricks made of crushed rock from the site mixed up like cake batter and poured into molds), while the interior includes warm natural cherry wood, terrazzo floors, and brass accents. Still, the county offices might have been constructed as a huge rectangle in a sea of asphalt parking lots. It didn't cost more to make it beautiful: In fact, at $118 a square foot, it was a bargain, its architects say.

But the ``Taj'' looks like no other government building in the state. It's the imaginative use of comparatively inexpensive materials that has produced its surprising elegance. Perched near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in a 180-acre government complex called ``the campus,'' it overlooks the county jail, the human-services facility, and other minor buildings. A 6-story circular glass atrium links the twin sides of the building - the government administration and the courts - which fall away from the atrium in back-to-back half circles. The atrium itself is a lantern of light by night and a significant landmark by day.

The Jefferson County Government Center gives new meaning to the expression ``form follows function.'' It was built to serve the fastest-growing county in the state - one that may soon surpass Denver County in population. Jefferson, running just west and south of Denver, includes a large expanse of rural and mountain landscape as well as several small cities. It has a reputation for good schools and politically active citizens.

THE ``Taj'' was built to accommodate Jefferson's rapid expansion. But it was also intended to embody the ideals of democracy: Fair, open, and accessible government; equality under the law; the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven; and majority rule have been translated symbolically and practically in the design.

Inspiration for the building came from the father of American democracy himself, Thomas Jefferson, for whom the county is named. The atrium dome recalls ancient Greek architectural ideals in its interpretation of Jefferson's Rotunda on the University of Virginia campus.

``The basic form of the building, the butterfly shape, and the way it is organized, comes from an underlying theme of open and accessible government,'' Mr. Fentress says. ``The idea ... sounds like a simple statement, but how you carry that out in bricks and mortar can be very complex.''

``We designed that building so that when you walk in, you are greeted by a person - not just signs,'' Fentress says. ``A lot of people can't read. There are multiple languages spoken out here. There are the handicapped and the elderly.''

The theme of ``open and accessible government'' has been carried to every floor. Most buildings have corridors buried in the center of the building. But here, all public corridors are located on the curve of the building (on the atrium side) so that the visitor is always looking outdoors as he finds his way to the appropriate office or courtroom.

The visitor is oriented further by the atrium, since each floor's public corridor is open to it. Signs on each floor are hung on handsome posts, directing traffic with the efficiency of street signs. Sunlight from the windows helps create a comfortable and soothing atmosphere.

``We wanted a building friendly and receptive to the average citizen in every way. A building of this size can be intimidating to people - they don't know where to go, they feel dwarfed, they may get lost in the maze of corridors,'' says site architect Jim Hartman. He points out that those offices which get the most public traffic are located on the first two floors of the building, minimizing stairway and elevator use - again emphasizing the accessibility.

On the court side, walls curve around the entrances to each courtroom, providing nooks with benches for those who wait. Each courtroom is furnished with sound equipment for the hearing-impaired. A private witness room provides a peaceful atmosphere. Each courtroom has a row of small windows near the top of the wall, bringing in daylight from the corridor so that the room is never unlit.

The security system is rigid - a single check point with metal detectors, as well as a series of tunnels and secure elevators provide for the safe transport of prisoners from the county lockup to the courtroom.

On the exterior of the building, the atrium dome joins the wings of the building in square columns finished on top by large brass-colored spheres - a very old architectural device for making the transition from a square base to a round dome, Mr. Hartman points out. The bright spheres resolve the forms at the same time providing the motif for architectural detail throughout the building - the symbol of universality. Lighting fixtures, built-in desks, and various decorations repeat the global motif.

As the visitor approaches the Government Center on a long drive that mirrors the public highway on one side of the park, the view from the entrance shows the west side of the building. It is set in rolling hills and a series of carefully sculpted, rounded terraces repeat the circular motif. Courtyards sit on each side of the building. Every one of the four sides of the building creates a completely different feeling - a series of intimate spaces - though each is in harmony with the others.

As the visitor rounds the curving drive to enter the tree-lined boulevard leading to the foyer, the drive becomes more formal and elegant. An obelisk monument marks the entrance drive where formal symmetry takes over.

COLOR is vital to the architects' overall scheme. The exterior walls have been tinted in two shades - wheat color (taken from the rock and buffalo grass indigenous to the area) covers the public sides of the building, and a pale adobe color (closer to the iron-rich red earth of the region) adorns the administrative sides. Inside, moss-green carpeting on the administration side and pale rust on the court side recall the colors of the mountains outside the windows.

In all the public spaces, visitors are invited to look outward at the mountains on the west, and toward the city on the east.

The Government Center is surrounded by 1,400 parking spaces, but most of them are concealed either underground or by artful landscaping. Hundreds of yards of trails offer recreation. Benches are hidden away along the trails for rest or a quiet place to lunch. A cafeteria area offers workers a real change from the office environment. Locker rooms provide showers for employees.

``We've tried to humanize the building in every way possible,'' Fentress says. ``It is a huge building, but part of the humanization is the way we've incorporated the outdoors inside. We've created different kinds of outdoor spaces. By curving the building, the building is always falling away from you wherever you stand to look at it. When you are close to it, you don't feel the mass of it as much as you would if it had been rectangled. The curve softens the building, disguising the mass. It's hard to describe and harder to photograph. But it always looks smaller than it really is.''

Fentress points out that before the Government Center was erected, county services were scattered over several cities. It was difficult for citizens even to know where to go.

``This building reestablishes the presence and importance of the county seat - as it was in the past,'' he says. ``The government building is once again an important building - and everyone knows where it is.''

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