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November|December 2005
Behind the Hedge By David Skeel
The Enemy Among Us By Geoffrey Gagnon
A Blueprint for the Future By Daniel Brook
Viagra Natural By Brendan I. Koerner
Artfully Made-up By Erika Kawalek

A Blueprint for the Future

The federal government has embarked on the biggest courthouse building spree in history, hired the nation's finest architects to do the designing, and touched off a rancorous debate over what the courthouses of tomorrow should look like.

By Daniel Brook

IN 1962, THEN-ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF LABOR Daniel Patrick Moynihan was given the task of writing a memo on the topic of federal office space. Moynihan's boss, Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg, was concerned that despite the continuing growth of the federal government, no major public building projects had been undertaken in Washington, D.C., since the 1930s. Not satisfied with the confines of the assignment, the ambitious young staffer appended to his memo a manifesto he called "Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture."

For the first half of the 20th century, the federal government had insisted on an official style, one that would clearly announce the "federal presence" wherever the government decided to erect a building. The federal courthouses built at this time were solemn, neo-Classical style structures that looked like, well, courthouses. By the Kennedy era, however, the federal style had been abandoned; when Moynihan sat down to write his memo, there weren't really any guiding principles of federal architecture. The richly detailed courthouses of the pre-World War II era were being replaced with federal buildings that looked like federal buildings: heavy, anonymous boxes containing all the federal branches—post office on the first floor, ATF and FBI branches upstairs, and a few courtrooms scattered throughout.

At the time, the General Services Administration, which handles the federal government's real estate and development needs, relied on bureaucrats to select architects rather than using juried competitions, the standard for major commissions in the private sector. Moynihan suggested that the government add rigor to the architect selection process to lure the best architects into taking federal commissions. (Though Mies van der Rohe designed Chicago's federal courthouse, which opened in 1964, most of the buildings from the post-World War II era were built by architects like Alfred Easton Poor and Sammy Van Allan—neither destined for the architecture Hall of Fame.) Not wanting to hamstring the architects he hoped to attract, Moynihan eschewed a return to an official style. "It should be our object," he wrote, "to meet the test of Pericles' evocation to the Athenians. . .: 'We do not imitate—for we are a model to others.' " Federal architecture, Moynihan wrote, should "embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought."

No one listened. As Moynihan moved up the ranks and came to be regarded as a leading public intellectual, his report gained a certain notoriety—once you become a major figure, you no longer have minor writings—but still nothing came of it. A decade and a half later, when Moynihan had been elected senator from New York, he introduced a bill to require juried design competitions for federal projects. It never got out of committee.

Then in 1991, Stephen Breyer, at the time chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, put himself on the architect selection committee for a new federal courthouse in Boston. Breyer and U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock, also on the committee, were passionate about architecture—"I can go on for three hours on this subject if you get me started," Breyer told me during a recent interview—and the pair took their responsibility seriously. Having clerked for Arthur Goldberg, who had moved from the Labor Department to the Supreme Court, Breyer was familiar with the Moynihan memo. The memo became, in Woodlock's words, "the basic text" for what he and Breyer set out to accomplish.

For their selection panel, the judges enlisted Ed Feiner, a deputy director at GSA who had a reputation for being one of the few GSA bureaucrats concerned with aesthetics as well as square footage. They also enlisted a leading architectural consultant, Bill Lacy, then in charge of awarding the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious award in the field of architecture. The project successfully solicited proposals from numerous internationally known designers, so-called "starchitects" like Robert Venturi, Moshe Safdie, Cesar Pelli, and Henry Cobb.

Impressed with the applicants but unsure whom to pick, Breyer and Woodlock made a road trip. The pair flew to New York City to take in Pelli's World Financial Center in lower Manhattan, then drove a rental car to Cobb's Commerce Square office buildings in Philadelphia, with a stop midway down the New Jersey Turnpike at Robert Venturi's Wu Hall on the Princeton University campus. From Philadelphia, the judges flew to Ottawa to tour Safdie's National Gallery of Canada before returning to Boston. "We wanted to kick the tires," Woodlock said. "When the ribbons had been clipped and the party was over, how did the people who actually lived in it feel about living in it?"

Having narrowed the field to seven finalists, the Boston judges asked each to present a half-day seminar on courthouse architecture. Cobb's presentation focused on the Hanover County Courthouse, (see here) a one-room colonial courthouse in Virginia. Distinguished by its series of redbrick arches, the modest building manages to declare itself an important public building without using imperious architectural forms like a Pantheon-sized atrium or a Versailles-scale iron gate. Cobb won the commission and became a hands-on leader. "During the construction he was out there laying bricks, practically," Breyer said.

Having seen that top-notch architects could be wooed to apply for federal commissions, the GSA's Feiner went about ensuring that this type of selection process would be used nationwide. To justify a change of policy within the GSA, he seized on the Moynihan memo. By the early 1990s when Feiner was trying to push his changes through, Moynihan was an elder statesman and as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he was responsible for legislative oversight of the GSA. "If you had to find a patron saint," Feiner said, "he was a good one."

In 1994, thanks to Feiner's efforts, the GSA's Design Excellence Program was launched. The program formalized many of the procedures conceived by Moynihan and implemented in Boston. Juried competitions and peer review would be used to choose architects for federal projects and one private-sector design professional would be required to serve on the five-member selection panel. A generation after it was written, Moynihan's memo had become policy. And just in time.

THE NEW ARCHITECT SELECTION STANDARDS coincide with the largest federal courthouse building initiative in the nation's history, a program necessitated by the rise in the number of federal cases—up some 20 percent in the last decade—and a shift in caseloads from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. As droves of people continue to move from Buffalo to Houston or from St. Louis to Phoenix, caseloads are moving with them. In all, nearly 200 courthouses will be built or renovated over the next 25 years, at a cost in the tens of billions of dollars

How exactly that money will be spent, however, is being vigorously debated. To attract architecture's best and brightest is one thing; to get the architects, GSA officials, and judges to agree on a blueprint is quite another. Architects like Cobb, Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, and Andrea Leers, who teaches at Harvard, all embody Moynihan's ideal of the "finest contemporary American architectural thought." But they each have different thoughts about what a contemporary courthouse should look like and why.

Visiting Henry Cobb's Boston courthouse (see here), even on a miserable, rain-soaked New England day, I could understand why Breyer and Woodlock had favored his design. The courthouse turns a sturdy, traditional brick-and-granite face to the converted Industrial Revolution-era warehouses on one side and a stunning curved glass window-wall to Boston Harbor on the other. Through the glass, which is illuminated from within at night, the arched entrances to the building's courtrooms, based on the Hanover courthouse's arches, can be seen.

Cobb's courthouse pushes the architectural envelope with its eight-story glass wall—an engineering feat in itself—but it also embraces the idea that courthouse architecture, like law, is based on precedent. "It looks forward and it looks backward," Cobb said, speaking from behind a pair of round-framed glasses at the New York headquarters of his firm, Pei Cobb Freed. "It has to do with the idea that precedent is very important and at the same time, the courts need to be constantly responding to new problems."

As the federal government moves forward with its ambitious building plan and embraces the work of today's leading architects, Cobb's design represents something of a middle road. Other architects who have won early Design Excellence commissions feel that a courthouse must rely more heavily on traditional forms and materials, and see Cobb's design as too avant-garde; still others want to separate the courthouse from its architectural heritage completely and see Cobb's work as too tradition-bound.

Contrast Cobb's design, for example, with the work of Robert A. M. Stern, who has embraced New Deal-era notions of the "federal presence." His recent courthouse in Beckley, W.Va., (see here) includes simple stone columns that hearken back to the neo-Classical style federal buildings of pre-World War II Washington, D.C. Andrea Leers, on the other hand, brashly diverged from the past in her plan for the new Orlando, Fla., federal courthouse, currently under construction. Leers told me that she sees her work as an opportunity to develop a new aesthetic for public buildings.

In Orlando, a pair of federal judges on the architect selection committee tried to oust Andrea Leers from the project because they thought her ideas too radical. The judges preferred the runner-up—Henry Cobb—and took the matter, fittingly, to federal court, where they argued that the selection jury had been rigged.

Were this a debate about aesthetics only, it's unlikely the judges would have objected so strenuously. But courthouses aren't just places where justice happens; they are buildings that themselves play a role in the American system of justice. In courthouse design, form doesn't complement function—it is function. We rely on a courthouse to inspire in those who enter a feeling that they are in a place where truth must be told and a higher power respected. It must also be a place where the innocent and the guilty can commingle, without harm to either. At a time when respect for the judiciary is low—witness the recent sniping at judges by Congress and shootings of them by defendants—the question of how to build a courthouse isn't academic. The vitality of the justice system and the lives of judges are both at stake.

AS HENRY COBB DEMONSTRATED TO THE BOSTON JUDGES, America's rich tradition of courthouse architecture stretches back to colonial times. In the early period, that of Cobb's beloved 1735 Hanover County Courthouse, cupolas, pediments, and arcades were used to distinguish the typical one-courtroom courthouse from other buildings. "The big mansions were much bigger than the courthouse," Cobb said, "and yet this courthouse managed to declare itself as a public building through the very simple architectural devices that it uses."

A more ornate style of courthouse developed as the nation grew in size and wealth. The archetype for the late 19th century was Henry Hobson Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Pa., (see here) a grandiose affair entered through a Romanesque archway of rough-hewn stone. The courthouses built then were "robust, big, asymmetrical compositions," said Leers, who teaches a course on the history of courthouse architecture at Harvard. "Towers over here, big arches over there." The pride of Gilded Age Pittsburgh, the Richardson courthouse contains an original plaque boasting that it cost $2,341,456.06 to build. The courthouse in Orlando, built four years later, cost $57,000.

In the early 20th century, the growing federal government adopted what came to be known as the federal style, bringing out into the nation at large the neo-Classical style forms that had dominated official Washington, D.C., for a century. "There was actually a policy to develop a federal style so that you could recognize the presence of the federal government," Leers said. "It was important at that time because it was the first presence of the federal government in many localities. There was a supervising architect, James Knox Taylor, who stamped everything."

Taylor didn't so much invent a style as codify the use of classical forms already common to federal architecture. "The experience of centuries has demonstrated that no form of architecture is so pleasing to the great mass of mankind as the classic," he wrote in 1901. "It is hoped that the present policy may be followed in the future, in order that the public buildings of the United States may become distinctive in their character." New York's original federal courthouse was built in Taylor's era of prescribed neo-Classicism. Designed by Cass Gilbert and now named for the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, the courthouse stands on Foley Square, announcing the federal presence with its Greek temple base and pyramid-topped tower.

Taylor's ideas survived his retirement in 1912 and remained in force during the federal building boom of the New Deal, when the Works Progress Administration built 125,000 public buildings. This was the era when the Supreme Court finally got its own building, also by Gilbert; the court had previously met in a small room buried in the basement of the U.S. Capitol.

Following World War II, however, the official federal style was abandoned. With the rise of modernism, the neo-Classical style federal buildings began to seem passé, or worse, reactionary. After the war, their stern, stone bald eagles and strictly ordered columns seemed to some to be reminiscent of fascist architecture. (Nazi Germany, for its part, had deemed the work of modernist architects "degenerate," closing their schools and practices and sending many modernists fleeing to the U.S.) No heir to Taylor emerged to maintain the government's aesthetic principles or to create new ones, so as the modernist movement swept America, it did so without much supervision. "What was done during the Great Society wasn't, well, great architecture," said Ed Feiner. "There's a Mies, there's a Gropius, there's a Marcel Breuer; there are some that are good. But you can count them on one hand with a couple of amputations."

One of the tenets of modernist thought held that anything can be done in a box, and the modernists chosen to design courthouses took this to heart. Some boxes were better than others. With its sleek black simplicity and stunning use of glass, Mies van der Rohe's Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago (see here) is still much loved today (GSA is currently restoring it). But while the postwar period produced a few fine buildings, many more fell short, like the Javits federal building in lower Manhattan. "It has different colors of curtain wall," Feiner gasped, referring to the building's mismatched facade. It was around the time that the federal government was committing such architectural faux pas that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was inspired to write his manifesto.

JUDGE PATRICIA FAWCETT'S CHAMBERS in the old federal courthouse for the Middle District of Florida overlook the construction site where Orlando's federal courthouse is finally rising. Despite the efforts of Fawcett and fellow judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, a grand jury eventually found no evidence of impropriety in the selection of Andrea Leers as architect, and the project began to move forward, albeit slowly. The Orlando judges and the GSA agreed on a redesign by Leers in August 2001, but it wasn't until April 2004, after Congress allocated nearly $90 million for the project, that construction began.

Outside Fawcett's window on a recent afternoon, workers were adding a layer of poured concrete to the new courthouse, which had grown to a height of six stories, eye-level with the judge's chambers. Watching the construction outside her window, Fawcett did her best to seem enthusiastic about the design she had tried to scuttle. In the wake of the grand jury investigation, all the involved parties signed nondisclosure agreements and seem to have a tacit agreement to be civil. "It has a repose to it and a gracefulness," she now says of Leers's design.

Yet even after the dispute was officially resolved, the judges and the architect continued to have differences of opinion about the courthouse. Leers's original plans called for a long, sleek concrete-and-glass courthouse stretching the length of the site, with a large, multistory window facing Route I-4, the city's main expressway. Leers insisted the glass was "built like Fort Knox," but the judges weren't satisfied. "They were just terrified of being next to the highway," Leers told me in her Boston office, a few blocks from Henry Cobb's courthouse. The old and new Orlando courthouses are both located on the same super-block abutting the highway. The existing federal courthouse and the Municipal Justice Building, one block south and also along the interstate, have both been shot at from Route I-4. "I feel they were fears more than they were realities," Leers said, though she acknowledged that one of the judges had shown her a bullet hole in her window.

Leers eventually agreed to pull the building back from the expressway and to turn a solid wall to the road. The result is a courthouse that's a tougher target for judge hunters, but also a less elegant one. Leers's initial plan had called for the main entrance to be sheltered by an overhang extending out from the top of the building, a modern take on the classic Florida front porch. But as the building got stockier after the move back from Route I-4, Leers removed the porch and added a tower over the main entrance. "It's a reinterpreted version of the old courthouse, which is one of my favorite buildings in town," Leers said, also trying to sound upbeat. The old courthouse, a three-story building with a modest tower, opened in 1941. Done in a Spanish Colonial style with stucco and a red-tile roof, it has touches of Classicism—like the columns around the main entryway—that give it the stamp of a New Deal-era federal building.

Leers insists that the nod to the earlier courthouse was a concession to the judges' security concerns, not stylistic ones. Yet the concessions to security resulted in a design that makes the courthouse look a bit more like what the judges wanted from the beginning: a traditional courthouse. In 2000, the GSA received an unsigned fax from the Middle District Courthouse in Orlando, showing the front view of Leers's design but with Corinthian columns and a pediment rather than a glass curtain wall—a veritable Fort Knox Taylor. That's not what the judges will get in the end, but Leers didn't get what she wanted either. The model of the original courthouse is displayed prominently in the foyer of Leers's practice in Boston. The model of the redesign sits in a back room.

THE DISPUTE BETWEEN JUDGE AND ARCHITECT IN ORLANDO typifies the debate over what direction courthouse architecture should take. The architects who have competed for these commissions seem to agree that a courthouse has to serve the administration of justice. But how? Judges Fawcett and Kovachevich believe that it's the traditional style that inspires the feeling of awe that defendants and lawyers and judges are supposed to experience in a courthouse. "When people walk in they must have a feeling of reverence and a feeling of power," Kovachevich told me. "They must feel like they're in a situation where things are different." Though she admits that the New Deal-era federal buildings she admires "were pretty much cookie-cutter," she maintains that "they had a particular type of majesty to them."

The Orlando judges may seem reactionary, but they're hardly alone. The GSA's Design Excellence Program has already produced a number of traditional-looking buildings. Though Cobb's Boston courthouse has many contemporary features, the influence of the single-courtroom colonial courthouse is strong. According to judges Breyer and Woodlock, Cobb taped a photograph of the Virginia courthouse to his bathroom mirror to inspire him as he drafted their new courthouse. "That's what Steve Breyer says. It's not really true, but it's a nice story," Cobb told me. "He actually said it at his Senate confirmation hearings," he added with a chuckle. "So I guess that now it has to be the truth."

Cobb hearkened back to a traditional courtroom not just for tradition's sake. "The courts are committed to giving each individual equal justice under the law," he told me, "therefore dignifying the individual and dignifying the participants is a very important part of the system of justice." The intimacy of the single-room courthouse was something he hoped to preserve in Boston, even while he was creating a large building for a growing judiciary.

The federal courthouse in Beckley, W.Va., named, like just about everything else in the state, for Senator Robert Byrd, is even more traditional than Cobb's, an evocation of the old federal style. The courthouse, designed by Robert A. M. Stern, includes a simplified version of the traditional stone colonnade and fits neatly into a classic, though now struggling, American Main Street. Its style could be called "New Deal Revival."

Stern, who has received four Design Excellence Program courthouse commissions, bristles at the suggestion that there is something backward about his work. He used traditional forms to be a good neighbor with the surrounding buildings in Beckley and to preserve a sense of the federal presence. "The dignity of the public realm should not be something that is created to fit the stylistic mood of the moment," he told me. "I think many of the more recent courthouses are so different, one from the other, that the federal presence, as it used to be called, is compromised." Like Cobb, Stern sees a parallel between the importance of precedent in law and in courthouse architecture. "The law of the land is based on precedent. The courthouses that redound to people are ones that connect back to our earlier republican architecture," he said.

Andrea Leers agrees that courthouses have to set themselves apart, but for her, preserving the dignity of courthouse architecture does not necessarily entail preserving traditional forms. "The defendant has to know he or she is in a serious place, a place where there are consequences and accountability. And so the space has to have a certain seriousness, a certain clarity, and a certain sense of importance," she said. "But I don't think that has to be a column." Leers said she focuses on the meanings behind the architectural forms—dignity, seriousness, publicness—rather than the forms themselves. Why, she asks, should a Greek temple facade signify a courthouse? The ancient Greeks held their trials outdoors.

To Leers, the goal of a public building is to create "a sense of larger-than-private gathering." For the Orlando courthouse, she sought out "elements which gather the public in," like the porch of her original design—a traditional place of gathering in the architecture of the American South.

Leers takes her lead from modernists like Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, with whom she studied at the University of Pennsylvania. In commissions for the newly liberated nations of South Asia, both men created government buildings that looked unlike anything that had been built in the West—Le Corbusier in his High Court in Chandigarh, India, and Kahn in the Bangladeshi parliament buildings in Dhaka. In these buildings, Leers believes, these influential architects began a "reinvestigation of how we make civic buildings in modern language." In the Bangladeshi parliament buildings, constructed from huge slabs of poured concrete, Kahn used an assortment of simple, massive, geometric shapes. His building couldn't look less like Monticello, but as Bangladeshi architect Shamsul Wares put it in the recent film My Architect, the building "gave us democracy."

WHEN SHE ARRIVES AT THE OLD FEDERAL COURTHOUSE in Orlando each day, Judge Fawcett parks in the judges' enclosed parking lot. To get to the basement elevator bank of the courthouse from there, she must cross the Marshals Service's parking area, where shackled defendants are loaded and unloaded. When she's ready, she checks to make sure the red ceiling-mounted emergency light isn't flashing. If the light is off, she keys in a code to unlock a reinforced metal door and opens it, peering around the door to double-check that the coast is clear, and scurries across the driveway and into the courthouse elevator bank that goes to her chambers. Tall and vigorous, Fawcett nevertheless looks out of place dashing about in her white suit and heels. While the security system usually works, the judge recalls leaving work one day and coming face to face with a defendant whom she had been peering down at from the bench minutes earlier. "Not good," she said.

Orlando's current courthouse was built in 1976, "a kinder, gentler time," as the judge explained once we had made it to her chambers. When it was built, Fawcett said, federal defendants were more often peaceniks or small-time thieves than dangerous criminals like Brian Nichols, who overpowered a sheriff's deputy and shot the judge presiding over his case in Atlanta in March. In courthouses being built today, the Marshals Service's in-house architects design areas for securing and moving defendants. These plans are integrated into the plans of the architects working on each overall project. But Fawcett's daily routine demonstrates a key point: Courthouse architecture doesn't just need to work in the theoretical sense of inspiring reverence in its visitors. Courthouses also have to provide a space where judges, lawyers, law enforcement officers, jurors, witnesses, plaintiffs, and defendants can safely carry out their roles in the justice system.

Threats to safety come in different forms, and the elements can be as disruptive to the judicial process as any criminal element. Probably the most notorious example of form not facilitating function in contemporary courthouse design is the glass atrium of the Sandra Day O'Connor Courthouse in Phoenix, designed by the Manhattan-based architect Richard Meier. Transparency has always been an ideal of American justice. In 1713, when a predecessor to Cobb's Boston courthouse was unveiled, Chief Justice Samuel Sewall complimented the windows of "large, transparent, costly Glass" and hoped they would "serve to oblige the Attornys always to set Things in a True Light." In Phoenix, Meier used modern materials and engineering to let in far more light than Sewall could have imagined. While justice may seem transparent in the grand glass atrium on a cloudless December day, however, justice feels downright stuffy in July, when the outside temperature reaches triple digits and the atrium heats up into the mid-80s.

Given this failure of the Phoenix courthouse—an elaborate, expensive, and not entirely functional cooling system eventually had to be installed— Meier, who declined an interview request, took care not to let symbolism trump practicality in his other courthouse commission. The Alfonse D'Amato courthouse in Islip, Long Island, also celebrates transparency, but it does so more sensibly, with a grand glassed-in atrium. Just off the Atlantic Ocean, triple-digit heat is almost unheard of in Islip.

At the courtroom level, Meier's Long Island design allows the judges to decide how best to administer justice through interior design. The witness box, for instance, uses a wireless microphone and can be wheeled throughout the room, as can the other important pieces of courtroom furniture. Federal district judge Leonard Wexler, who sits in Meier's courthouse (and sat on the architect selection committee that picked him), told me that he favors a cross-shaped courtroom setup, in which he faces the attorneys and the witnesses face the jury. It gives the judge maximum control over the courtroom, he said, and allows for more eye contact with the witness than in a traditional setup, where the witness sits at the judge's side.

Architecture critics have hailed Meier's work in Islip. Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker architecture critic and dean of the Parsons School of Design, has said that Meier's is the best federal courthouse since Mies van der Rohe's 41-year-old work in Chicago. Still, even Meier's renowned design has not managed to please everyone. Joseph DiSalvo, a young civil litigator who frequently argues cases in Islip, complained that the building looks as if it had been "designed as a museum and converted into a courthouse." (Meier, who designed the Getty Center in Los Angeles, is best known for his museum commissions.) DiSalvo dismissed new courthouses like Meier's as monuments to federal spending, not to equal justice under law. He told me that he favors courtrooms with an "old school feel," such as the traditional wood-paneled courtroom in the modern, high-rise federal courthouse in Manhattan where we spoke. Completed in 1994, before the Design Excellence Program was inaugurated, the Pearl Street courthouse was renamed in 2000 for Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It remains to be seen whether his architectural legacy will be the traditional courtrooms in the courthouse that bears his name or the "finest contemporary" ones called for in his manifesto.

Daniel Brook, a contributing editor to Legal Affairs, last wrote for the magazine about outsourcing legal services to India.

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