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Eugene Weekly : 09.23.04

The Judge & the Architect

Hogan and Mayne go head-to-head on the design for the new federal building.

BY SYLVIE PEDERSON

For U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, who studied law in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Supreme Court building long represented the archetype of a courthouse. Yet the new federal courthouse under construction at 8th and Mill in Eugene, a project in which the judge has been passionately involved, is thoroughly contemporary in design. In the words of The New York Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, the Wayne Lyman Morse U.S. Courthouse ranks "among the great examples of American civic architecture — as important, in our day, as the neo-Classical monuments of a century ago."

In 1987 judges started taking a more active role in the design of courthouses. Not every judge avails himself or herself of this opportunity, but Hogan has done so energetically since the first official application for a new courthouse some 14 years ago.

 

CHOOSING AN ARCHITECT

As federal property, the courthouse falls under the jurisdiction of GSA (General Services Administration), which oversees government building projects and serves as landlord for federal buildings.

To foster higher quality of design in public buildings, GSA Chief Architect Ed Feiner created in 1993 the Design Excellence Program, which he still heads. The program's goal is to recruit the most talented architects and engineers. To that effect, a panel evaluates submissions from architectural firms, creates a short list, interviews the finalists, ranks them and prepares a written recommendation. For the Eugene courthouse, five firms made the short list, and Hogan was one of the five panelists.

A three-member jury of independent peer-reviewers, chaired by UO architecture professor Michael Fifield, was then given the task to review the anonymous short-listed designs and to make its own recommendation based on criteria provided by GSA. They were to choose not only best design but also the firm that demonstrated its members could deal with both contextual issues such as site as well as issues related to the workings of a courthouse, such as the complex pattern of internal circulation. Three separate circulation zones are required: 1) public circulation; 2) restricted circulation limited to court personnel and official visitors; 3) secure circulation for prisoners.

Another criterion was accessibility, both physical and symbolic. "The courthouse was to be seen not as an authoritative institution but as a welcoming building," Fifield explained. "It was to be part of the fabric of the community it was going to serve."

On the basis of these criteria, the jury unanimously recommended the design by Morphosis, Thom Mayne's internationally renowned Santa Monica-based firm. "We also thought it would be a signature building that would put Eugene on the map," Fifield said. "But ours was just a recommendation. When GSA added up the points from our phase and the previous GSA evaluation, Morphosis came out on top." As a result, GSA officially hired Morphosis in March 2001.

But not without Hogan's opposition.

When Fifield was asked to give a 15-minute presentation to the GSA evaluation panel about his jury's recommendation, he was, in both his and Hogan's words, "cross-examined for four and a half hours" by Hogan. "Judge Hogan was very, very much against that particular submittal," Fifield said. "He didn't think the design was appropriate for Eugene, nor did it match his concept of a courthouse."

"When I'd looked up Morphosis' work, I'd seen little that looked like a courthouse," Hogan said. "I wanted more traditional folks." It is not uncommon for a judge's architectural preferences to be more conservative than those of the cutting-edge architects the GSA's Design Excellence Program is determined to attract. "The whole judiciary is based on precedent, and in buildings, precedent has been Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian," GSA chief architect Feiner once quipped.

But during the lunch break that followed his "cross-examination," Hogan resolved to make the best of what he could not change. "As of now," he remembered saying, "although he doesn't know it yet, Thom Mayne has a new best friend."

 

A FRIENDSHIP AND A PASSION

Very pleased with the choice of architect, Feiner advised Hogan to focus on ideas important to the courthouse when talking with Mayne, rather than to try and explain what the building should look like.

Hogan's open-minded willingness to understand Mayne's views is admirable. "I had to give up the very solid preconceptions I had," he said. "I had to ask myself what ideas could be expressed that would be unique to that building."

Talking about his initial interaction with clients in a 2003 interview for Metropolis, Mayne noted: "At the beginning of your work, you're defining who you are artistically. It's intensely confrontational and radical."

Hogan found this to be true. "The first time we met, Thom attacked me about everything from my faith to my views on politics. He'd done some research on me, and he was very aggressive. I started to laugh. I said to him, 'We're stuck together. Teach me what is architecture as you understand it.'"

During a weekend at Sunriver, they drank red wine and looked at 1,500 slides of architecture. "I knew I had a lot to learn," Hogan said. "But Thom had to listen to me, too. We needed to build something that local people could respect and feel at home in."

Later, Hogan and Mayne met in France to view examples of significant modern architecture, from Le Corbusier's Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp to courthouses by prominent architects such as Britain's Richard Rogers (Tribunal de Grande Instance in Bordeaux) and France's Jean Nouvel (Palais de Justice in Nantes).

The Palais de Justice spurred the judge's reflection on the power of architecture and how it needs to be modulated. Jean Nouvel wrote that "justice should express its power," and his design reflects this. For Hogan, "Doing Nouvel was not an option, because everyone has to feel that they're protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution is what we need to ground ourselves in." Hogan provided Mayne with a copy of the Constitution, and for a time, they both entertained the idea of having its seven articles written on the seven exterior planes that make up the courthouse, but this proved too costly.

The more the judge immersed himself in the study of architecture — viewing, reading, discussing and thinking about it — the more his interest deepened for the field at large. "Now I'm drawn to buildings and see things I never saw before. The process of learning about architecture has added richness to my life and an appreciation for how architecture shapes our lives."

 

THE JUDGE AND THE ARCHITECT

In terms of political and religious views, Hogan and Mayne are, by their own accounts, worlds apart. But Mayne finds his relationship with Hogan enjoyable because they can be brutally honest with one another.

"It's a very personal, very intimate relationship because we're allowed to say what we think," Mayne said. "He's a lovely human being. He has a great sense of humor, and we can pummel each other. This relationship can keep evolving. It's not so fixed as my other relationships, because our grounding is so different that it's like coming from two different countries. With the other people I know, who share the same grounding, we can only argue about minor things."

With respect to the courthouse, Hogan and Mayne have worked well together.

Mayne, who purposefully did not name his firm after himself, is always careful to point out that architecture is a collaborative endeavor and buildings the result of teamwork.

"A piece of work is a gestalt," Mayne said about the design process, "a synthesis of knowledge at a particular time. It represents everything you're able to incorporate during that time — and in architecture that time is pretty slow. In this case it takes place over five years."

For his part, Hogan provided information about the workings of a courthouse and voiced ideas and concerns. "Given his character," Mayne said, "he can't be on the sideline. He's a major participant. It's a collective project between him and me, and others too, but he's the most important. His input is going to permeate the whole work. We're conserving the influence of history, we agreed on that. At the same time, this is a creative piece, and as you can see from the current GSA exhibit in Manhattan, it wasn't possible to be that creative with other clients." (The exhibit "Civic Spirit: Changing the Course of Federal Design" showcases projects undertaken under the Design Excellence Program, including the Eugene courthouse.)

 

SYMBOLS

"For judges, a courthouse means columns," Hogan said. "I knew that I wouldn't get columns, but I was hoping for some cues that could be recognized from the outside, indicating that this is a courthouse, with no sign necessary." The judge wanted a building that made a statement, was clearly recognizable as a civic building and represented the fabric of our culture in some ways.

These were challenging demands. During the 20th century no style developed that the public recognized as symbolic of a courthouse. Throughout history the evolving form of the courthouse indicated the building's function, while also representing in various manners the cultural beliefs of the time and place. The temple model dominated 17th century courthouse architecture. In the late 18th century, the style across the U.S. was Neo-Classical, followed in the 1820s by the Greek Revival mode, which became the national style in courthouse design.

The emergence of the International Style around the 1920s brought about a decline in symbolic representation in architecture, though its impact was not felt in courthouse architecture before the mid-20th century. Today, the public is still familiar with the formal and stylistic characteristics of earlier courthouses, with their monumental entrances and use of columns and pediments to embellish façades.

However, from buildings that arose through the 1960s-1980s, it is impossible to tell a courthouse from a bank. Public buildings became as generic as their private counterparts.

Coming up with an uncompromisingly contemporary architectural vocabulary capable of conveying clear and specific symbolic significance to a large audience is not easy where no universal common language is established. In contemporary architecture symbols tend to be either private or intelligible to a minority only and therefore ill-suited to public works. But it is impossible for any building to not indicate something about the culture that designs it. Late 20th-century courthouses, undistinguishable from business headquarters, communicated some unmistakable facts about our society. Now many people, including Hogan, feel the need for public buildings to once more embody or express the social and cultural values traditionally associated with their functions.

CONSTRUCTION IS UNDERWAY AT THE FEDERAL COURTHOUSE SITE.

"I thought we could meet the traditional needs of a courthouse and still do it within the context of modern architecture," Hogan said. "So we asked ourselves: What can we incorporate from old courthouses and still have a modern building?" Just as a judge must interpret the law, Mayne saw his work in part as a reinterpretation of classical and traditional elements.

While working with Mayne, Hogan was also confronted with a way of approaching problems quite different from the one he was used to. "I would emotionally invest in a solution," Hogan said, "and two weeks later it would be absolutely changed. As judges, we research, analyze and then come up with an answer, whereas architects are dealing with a constant stream of ideas."

 

SECURE BUT OPEN AND ACCESSIBLE?

Security has become an uppermost issue in public architecture, a trend further reinforced by 9/11. Architects' designs must conform to ever-stricter codes. The challenge is that "we're trying to provide security without seeming to do so," Hogan explained. "We want to offer protection, but we don't want to be a fortress. We want to create a sense of openness and transparence."

Architects such as Mayne respond to the need to balance enhanced security requirements with public access by incorporating so-called transparent security measures that minimize obvious barriers in the very structure of their designs — in this case, for instance, setbacks and a single main entrance on the second floor.

Hogan was concerned that employees "feel happy in the building and feel that they're doing something important." It is not unusual for externally attractive buildings to feel uncomfortable for the occupants.

Given the general public consensus that wheelchair ramps provide full and equal access to public buildings — for people who use wheelchairs and walkers, for parents with strollers — such ramps should be added to the list of necessities which architects must include, along with HVAC, security features and door openings.

 

THE WAYNE LYMAN MORSE UNITED STATES COURTHOUSE

Architecture magazine awarded the 270,000-square-foot Wayne Lyman Morse U.S. Courthouse a 2004 Progressive Architecture design award.

Rising above a two-story glass-enclosed plinth that houses administrative offices and support spaces, three curving zinc-clad pavilions will each enclose a pair of courtrooms and judges' chambers. The ceremonial functions of the court will thus be separated from day-to-day operations and elevated. This symbolic feature will be further reinforced when trees and shrubbery screen the plinth below, allowing the pavilions to emerge from the greenery. Noted landscape architect Richard Haag of Seattle is in charge.

The huge steps leading to the second-floor entrance come "directly from the supreme court," Mayne said. "Very conventional." UO professor Fifield noted that the final design includes some rectilinear wing-like walls for structural support that evoke columns.

Hogan particularly cared about the design of the courtroom. "We took what may be the first deep long look at courtroom design in a long time," he said.

Mayne and Hogan's approach was to spell out the ideas that should ultimately dictate the shape of the courtroom. They wanted the sense of seriousness of the court's purpose to increase as one progresses toward the courtroom, which ought to be seamlessly accessible to everyone. The physical character of the courtroom should convey a sense of decorum and order, as well as indicate the formality of the process. The setting should remind the jurors of their responsibility and encourage attention. There should be enough sight-lines for the lawyers, jurors and court reporters, and the room must have excellent acoustics.

Hogan also wanted to expand the space between the witness stand and the jury, while reducing the unused space on the other side of the judge's bench. His goal was to provide the jurors with more protection while directing their focus. "In Thom's initial courtroom design, I saw something new. He'd set the jury back a bit and had solved the problem of giving a sense of order without making it a box," Hogan said.

Hogan described the courtroom in its final design as somewhat pear-shaped. High-contoured ceilings and two side-aisles rather than the usual central one evoke the interior of Roman basilicas. Painting the sheet-rock walls a dark color to make them appear to recede eliminates the need for wood paneling.

Different types of proceedings call for different approaches and the courtroom will be adaptable to such changes in procedure. "We could achieve all this," Hogan emphasized, "because we were driven by ideas, not by the shape of the courtroom."

There will be a separate exit for the jury from the courtroom, though not from the courthouse. The Jury Assembly Room will be located on the first floor and will be available for art exhibits and community meetings. "Someone dismissed it as Hogan's multi-purpose room," the judge said. "It was meant disparagingly, but I take it as a compliment."

The courthouse is already getting compliments, and the judge's enthusiasm is shared by others who took part in the project as well as by critics and award-granting juries. "It's setting a new benchmark for the quality of public buildings in Eugene," GSA's Feiner said. "It will be a destination building, architects from all over will travel to see it, and Eugene will enjoy a national reputation for design," he predicted.

As with other projects from the Design Excellence Program, this landmark building is intended to last more than 100 years.

 

THE COURTHOUSE DISTRICT

"If I'd had my way, I'd have put the courthouse in the middle of town, of course," Mayne said. If the courthouse didn't go downtown, could downtown stretch to the courthouse?

Eugene City Planning and Development's 2002 Courthouse District Concept Plan envisions 8th Avenue as a civic street lined with public buildings "leading from the heart of downtown to the river." The courthouse district refers to the area surrounding the new federal courthouse, which might one day become part of a greater downtown. One

particularly attractive option to develop the courthouse district includes reopening the historic Millrace and having it cascade back into the Willamette in a riverfront park.

At issue is the fact that perception of and interaction with the new courthouse will be heavily influenced by the building's surroundings. The architectural symbolism of the courthouse extends to the surrounding grounds. Traditionally, courthouses have provided adjacent public gathering spaces, which means ready, pedestrian-friendly access. Heavily traveled roads would impose a separation between courthouse and community.

Judge Hogan

Hogan recognizes that the "biggest civic problem is to provide good public access to the courthouse. Some re-routing will have to be done. We want it to be accessible for pedestrians. That means we must spread traffic out. Putting some of it along the railroad track makes sense. That would take off some pressure from Franklin Boulevard."

Hogan's solution is preferred by the 2002 concept plan approved by the City Council, which it calls the "6th Avenue realignment" option. This would extend 6th Avenue along the railroad tracks north and east of the courthouse, and connect it to Hilyard to the south.

In contrast, the plans associated with the possible relocation of the Triad hospital to the EWEB waterfront site call for a major new road along the riverfront, through the UO's controversial Riverfront Research Park. The result would be poor pedestrian access to the riverfront, in

contrast to the city's goal of revitalizing the riverfront and connecting it to downtown.

Many Eugeneans agree that the issue is crucial, and everyone seems to share a vision of an extended downtown linked through pedestrian walkways to a park-like riverfront, with landscaping providing ample greenery. "My hope," Hogan said, "is that we remember that the river is a part of what we're about. I'd like to see its prominence celebrated rather than hidden."

Collaboration between the various parties involved is possible. Mayne would like to do some urban design — if asked by the city. Feiner hopes that eventually GSA and Morphosis will have an advisory role concerning the area surrounding the courthouse.

The courthouse design is "forward-looking yet acknowledges the meaning of the past and the tradition that allows our system to work," Hogan has written.


Sylvie Pederson of Eugene is a free-lance visual arts writer for EW.

 

 

Millrace Anyone?

Riverfront plans conflict with urban waterway vision.


BY JERRY DIETHELM

"The mills of justice grind slowly," they say, "but exceedingly fine." Wouldn't it be grand if those judicious millers in their new signature courthouse had a real water source again to turn those metaphoric wheels?

SAN ANTONIO'S RIVERWALK

And wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to follow a resurfaced Millrace once again through the federal courthouse neighborhood and down and through a splendid new gateway underpass to the Willamette riverfront — our public downtown riverfront? I'm talking about the area between the EWEB headquarters building and the old Art Deco steam being brought to urban life by a substantial public passage and a Millrace running through it to the river.

Remember, it's not EWEB's waterfront and it's not Triad's. It's our public downtown riverfront. Connecting downtown, 8th Avenue, the courthouse district and the riverfront has been central to our downtown vision for the past 10 years. And it's a cold heart that hasn't felt former Mayor Ruth Bascom's call to "return to the river."

It's a year now since the Planning Commission (October 2003) and City council (November 2003) both voted unanimously to support a full restoration effort, raising all our hopes, and Congressman Peter De Fazio included $20 million for the Millrace in a water resources bill, HR 2557.

So what's happened and how far along is our City Development Department in carrying out the council's directive to try to realize Eugene Parks planner Robin Hostick's Millrace restoration plan? Unfortunately, the possibility of a resurfaced Millrace project seems to have gotten silently buried again under the effort to realize a hospital on the EWEB site. And HR 2557, which did pass out of the House, is still awaiting conference committee resolution in a stormy political season.

The $25 million system of riverfront roads that Triad needs (and the council too quickly approved) to make its hospital accessible has seriously compromised the Millrace restoration task, putting too many new barriers in its path. It is hard enough to get under the existing 60 feet of railroad right-of-way. Last year's council decision to reroute 6th Avenue along the south side of the tracks had already made the necessary underpass that much longer. Adding the new hospital access road parallel to the railroad on its north side puts us back to where we were when the city was proposing to run both 6th and 7th avenues along the railroad. All these barriers add up to too much width and become too many hurdles — even for Track Town U.S.A.

The problem is one-track thinking and a not very consistent or resolute commitment to a public return to the river. Each new proposal for the courthouse and riverfront area, whether for roads or a hospital, a Millrace or any other use, needs to be evaluated for its potential to help further our main goal of connecting the courthouse area to the Willamette riverfront. This is a complex site that requires a more complex plan if we are going to complete our downtown to the river vision. There is more than one way to site a hospital here, if that's what it's going to be, and the desirable way is one that also helps us achieve our other civic goals.

Note to the Tourism Task Force: People would actually be drawn here to see and experience our downtown to riverfront connection, and an investment in this kind of urban history and amenity would be developer candy for would-be courthouse district partners. People familiar with the economics of the Paseo del Rio in San Antonio will tell you that their "River Walk" adds billions of dollars every year to the San Antonio economy. Tourists supposedly spend an hour at the Alamo and the rest of their time and money along the beautiful waterway.

And wouldn't it be timely in Eugene to have a project that unites the city rather than divides it? Rebuilding the Millrace isn't a liberal or conservative project. It's a Eugene project, one of town pride, character and a unifying vision, a vision of connecting the university, the downtown, the new courthouse district and the Willamette together with an historic, deep and running thread that ties and binds. The Millrace is a project for all Eugene.


Jerry Diethelm is a member, along with Charles O. Porter and Jerry Rust, of the executive board of the Emerald Waterways Citizens Committee, Inc. He is also a professor of landscape architecture at the UO.