Last December, I wrote about the very old-fashioned revivalist architectural pleasures of the beautiful 1929 vintage courthouse in Santa Barbara, California. Most later court buildings tend to be architecturally unappealing in the extreme, especially the ghastly utilitarian hulks of the 50s and 60s. Los Angeles County, I regret to say, has more than its share of the latter.
Here, however, is a model of a courthouse not in California but with a southern California connection -- the design is by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thomas Mayne and his high-profile firm, morphosis, based in Santa Monica -- that is contemporary as can be:
This building now exists in the material world as the Wayne L. Morse Federal Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon. As of this past week it became the new home to the Eugene Division of the United States District Court for the District of Oregon. [That link takes you to the Court's extraordinarily drab, if functional, official website.]
Portland-based art writer Jeff Jahn has posted a lengthy and approving description, with numerous photos of the building's exterior and interior, at the regional art-oriented weblog PORT, to which I was pointed by Tyler Green's Modern Art Notes.
Jeff Jahn's post links to a report in The Oregonian, which in turn points to a 4-minute video tour narrated by Oregonian architecture critic Randy Gragg. The video includes concept sketches a number of upcoming federal buildings, mostly courthouses, from big-name architects. It is a mixed bag. The design for the new courthouse in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in particular, looks like it was meant for an episode of the original Star Trek:
The Los Angeles Times this week dispatched its own lead architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne for a look-see. Hawthorne's report -- which also features some attractive photos -- begins with a charming anecdote on the clash in styles of the oh-so-cutting-edge Mayne and the judge overseeing the project:
[Senior District Court Judge Michael R.] Hogan, who says he was 'horrified' when Mayne landed the courthouse job, had been dreaming of a new building along the lines of Cass Gilbert's handsome, colonnaded Supreme Court in Washington, from 1935, a design symbolic of stability and bedrock ideals. The main themes of Mayne's work, on the other hand, are the fragmentation and dissonance of contemporary life, which he represents with stark, slashing architectural forms. But over time the judge and the architect reached a productive detente: Mayne turned Hogan into a fan of contemporary architecture who now wears black turtlenecks and cool glasses, and Hogan coaxed Mayne toward a more orderly vision of civic design.
At least that's how the charmingly redemptive narrative was shaping up as the $72-million Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse was under construction. The courthouse itself, which opened Friday, tells a more complicated story.
It is indeed the most humane and accessible public building of Mayne's career. You can tell that even from the freeway overpass that wraps around two sides of the 270,000-square-foot, five-story courthouse. And with its fluid exterior, wrapped in a graceful series of horizontal metal panels, it marks the beginning of a new formal approach for Morphosis, one in which ribbons of space replace canted, folded planes.
Ultimately, those "humane and accessible" qualities cool Hawthorne's enthusiasm: the expected Maynes edginess has been calmed sufficiently that there is a "faint sense of lost opportunity" about the project. I am uncertain what Hawthorne was hoping for -- Oregonians have reason to be pleased that they were spared something like Maynes' authentically frightening Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, up with which we are obliged to put in downtown Los Angeles.
(By a handy coincidence, Maynes and the Caltrans building were the subject of Hawthorne's final piece at Slate before he left to join the LA Times. He referred to the building unflatteringly as "the Death Star," reporting accurately that "what it resembles from the street, more than anything, is the widest, most imposing wall you've ever seen". It is not likely ever to rise in local affections to the level of its neighbor up the street, Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall.)
Back in May, 2005, the pseudonymous and cultured Michael Blowhard -- who also authored the post that inspired my own on the Santa Barbara courthouse -- was decidedly skeptical over Maynes' design for Eugene:
What strikes me instantly about this building is how ill it suits Eugene, Oregon. Eugene is a low-lying, overcast, bricks-and-trees-and-porches- and-uneven-sidewalks, logging-and-academia kind of town, half hippie-backpacker and half working-class. But the GSA doesn't seem concerned with whether the building suits Eugene. What strikes the GSA is Mayne's conceptual genius. The citation the GSA awarded to Mayne for this building reads: 'This combination of order and artistry is an appropriate new symbol for the courts.'
Now that Mayne's design has been brought into the material world, Michael B's concerns seem less well-founded. As Hawthorne mentions above, the site is bordered on two sides by a highway overpass and the new courthouse "replaces a Chiquita cannery on the east end of downtown Eugene." That sounds like an overall improvement in the neighborhood to me.
I would certainly like to read first-hand reports from attorneys who actually make use of the new building. As for me, this aesthetically-inclined attorney is making a mental note to find some excuse to see the thing in person, next time I find myself in that part of the State of Oregon.