Building halls of justice
The largest courthouse construction project since the New Deal is taking shape
CENTRAL ISLIP, NEW YORK
To find Long Island's new federal courthouse, don't go looking for the typical house of justice. There are no columns out front. No dome on top. No grand staircase or marble walls inside. Instead, architect Richard Meier's massive courthouse - visible to sailors miles out to sea - features an 11-story atrium that looks like a grain silo, and stark white walls bathed in natural light.Skip to next paragraph
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For the largest group of government office-construction projects since the New Deal, the federal officials have enlisted many of the nation's top designers. Architects participating in the $9 billion building boom say they're trying to make justice feel more accessible in courthouses that are grand yet welcoming. Their unconventional designs are earning kudos from architectural critics. But users and neighbors are sometimes puzzled by the results.
In all, 160 new and expanded courthouses will sprout up in the next decade to house the burgeoning number of federal judges. Already, new federal courthouses have transformed cityscapes from Hammond, Ind., to Las Vegas.
But perhaps no courthouse stands out more than Mr. Meier's addition to suburban Long Island, where the other notable architectural landmarks are a lighthouse and a 20-foot-tall wooden duck.
From the outset, Meier told the selection committee his design would look more like his other big, white creations - including the Getty Center art museum in Los Angeles - than like a traditional courthouse.
Never having built a courthouse before, Meier says giving form to modern justice presented new challenges.
To inspire and not alienate
"Creating a contemporary courthouse involves many contradictions," Meier says. "It must inspire but not alienate; it must be impressive but not intimidating; it must be accessible but also secure."
During the previous three decades, most courthouse designs didn't do much except bore onlookers. Little distinguished most new federal courthouses from generic office buildings as the government procured architects like spare parts, says Edward Feiner, chief architect of the US General Services Administration, the federal government's property developer.
Mr. Feiner helped launch a more designer-friendly selection process a decade ago. He says architects looking for distinctive new courthouse forms can't rely on classical Greek and Roman elements such as columns that would be dwarfed in a modern half-million-square-foot courthouse.
Further complicating courthouse design is the need for external protections against terrorism, and three separate traffic patterns inside for judges and jurors, shackled defendants, and the public.
"This is a challenge to us all," says architect Andrea Leers, who designed the Worcester, Mass., and Orlando, Fla., court-houses. "It's going to be a long while until our generation of architects working on civic buildings will find a successful way to express public buildings in a modern language."
Meier covered the exterior of his courthouse with white coated aluminum panels. Visitors enter through a white cylindrical rotunda before passing through a security checkpoint into an equally bright and open atrium. As they wait outside any of the 23 cherry wood-paneled courtrooms, panoramic windows offer views of the adjacent residential landscape and the shoreline three miles away.
"People are under stress, there's a lot of waiting around," Meier says. "So it seemed to me the spaces had to be uplifting, friendly, open spaces that people felt comfortable in."