Building halls of justice

The largest courthouse construction project since the New Deal is taking shape

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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.

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.

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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."

Architectural critics praised Meier's design following the building's debut last fall. The New Yorker's Paul Goldberger called Meier's creation "at once modern and ennobling." Architecture magazine labeled it a "sculptural tour de force."

But in the courthouse's first-floor cafeteria last month, most diners offered less favorable reviews. "It's very, very cold," said Chris Giammarinaro, during a break from a trial. "There's nothing comforting about the building."

Long Island resident George Hoffman says its "imposing, impersonal" design doesn't fit in its suburban surroundings that include a red brick county courthouse, minor league baseball field, and an adjacent highway.

"It looms like a large industrial component which has been discarded alongside the highway," Mr. Hoffman said in a cable-television editorial.

Judge's input helped project's success

Federal district court judge Leonard Wexler says he didn't think much of the design either when he started overseeing the new courthouse's construction, but changed his mind as the building went up.

"It's wild, it's exciting," says the judge. "But visitors know this is an important building. We do important things."

Meier said Judge Wexler's involvement - including daily visits to the construction site - was critical to the project's success. Not every interaction between judges and architects has gone as smoothly. Judges throughout the country demanded greater input in the selection of architects and their designs.

The Tampa courthouse's price tag jumped by $1 million when judges requested their benches be raised six inches at a cost of $57,000 per courtroom. In Orlando, architect Andrea Leers encountered resistance from federal judges, who pushed for a grand-jury investigation of the selection process but found no wrongdoing.

"Most federal judges are tremendously good clients," Ms. Leers says. "Most understand the difference between their expertise and design expertise. Some have preconceptions that are hard to work with."

Judge Douglas Woodlock, who oversaw the construction of the new federal courthouse in Boston, says he wanted the building to convey the individual quality of justice and draw in the public.

"The building itself tells a good deal about the character of justice within it," says Judge Woodlock. Standing in his Boston courtroom, Woodlock pointed to four equally-sized brick arches, under which the judge, witnesses, jury, and public sit. Witness stands are directly across from the juror box to ensure that jurors have the best view.

Boaters on Boston Harbor can peer into the courthouse through a 45,000-square foot curved-glass wall. During the summer, a McDonald's restaurant in the courthouse opens to serve tourists visiting the adjacent waterfront park, or waiting to board tall ships and commuter ferries docked nearby.

For his second federal courthouse in Phoenix, Meier designed a glass atrium, protected against the desert sun by a fog cooling system.

The atrium of the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse will host everything from elementary school graduations to Mexican fiestas, says Judge Robert Broomfield.

"It's open, it's accessible," says Judge Broomfield. "That is something people ought to be able to see about their system of justice. It shouldn't be a feared place to go."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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