Earlier this week I sat in on a class at Yale Law School called "Representing Justice" that examines how justice and the law are manifest in the arts and architecture. Of particular interest in this class is the ongoing, multi-billion dollar Federal Courts construction program where the government is building or renovating courthouses for the judiciary across the nation. The program has been a major focus for GSA's Design Excellence initiative designed to inspire the Government to build better architecture. A major objective of the Design Excellence initiative is to hire "top-quality" designers and artists that can best express the values and significance of our Federal institutions. Having been the project manager while working for Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects for a DE courthouse project in Brooklyn, New York, and knowing that much innovative BIM work had been attempted in courthouse design I thought this session would be provocative.
I wasn't dissappointed. The seminar was visited by Bob Peck, leader of GSA's Public Building Service that runs the DE program for the courthouse construction enterprise, and two Federal district judges closely involved in new courthouse projects in Boston and Springfield, MA. As all these folks were Yale grads the atmosphere was convivial, despite the publication of a recent book by the sponsoring professor, Judith Resnick, that openly speculates on the necessity of this major construction program in a time when actual court proceedings (particularly trials) are diminishing with plea bargains and alternative dispute resolution--not to mention limited resources. Peck made an impassioned and convincing argument that the Federal government had a obligation to build with appropriate seriousness of purpose, permanance and dignity that the Republic deserves, and that these new courthouses were both facilities for the serious business of justice and important spaces for the public. Both judges suggested that the justice system is the purest form of democracy (where the laws are applied to all in the transparent public realm) and its activities should be conducted in appropriately dignified settings. As we were in a room filled with lawyers and lawyers-in-training, the arguments were delivered with clarity and conviction.
While there were several architects in the room, we watched the lawyers and students argue these issues. Having actually worked on one of these jobs, I was acutely aware of the time, expense and emotional energy (not to mention tax dollars) necessary to bring them to fruition--my project begun in 1993 took over a decade and cost almost $200 million--but never during the process of designing and building our courthouse project did we ever question the basic premise that the proper setting for the administration of justice was good architecture, and we were doing our best to deliver it. (Decide for yourself here. This courthouse--is it opulent?--is a working class operation, with a lot of mafia and drug trials.)
What was interesting, however, was to listen to the law students probing Peck and the judges about the need for what they seemed to imply was "opulence" in these courthouse projects, conflating the ideas of good design with the overwrought use of materials and excessively grand space--and, by implication, wasted tax dollars. One things seemed to imply the other. There were numerous, nostaglic references to days gone by of neo-classical courts anchoring the downtowns of towns big and small, but somehow buildings designed by current architects were considered overdone, rather than simply dignified or appropriate. Somehow "architecture" and "overdone" seemed equivalent. Peck told a story about his time as a law student working on behalf of an indigent client at card table in a tattered, dingy government office where clearly no money had been spent on "opulence" and somehow, at least to a few students, that was just fine. One brief digression about the apparent lack of appreciation for the importance of the setting by the public (who chew gum in the courtroom and appear in all means of inappropriate dress) suggested that perhaps the architecture was "lost" on the general public who use, and pay for, these projects and whose lives are often dramatically altered by the proceedings held there.
So if this group of well-educated, articulate lawyers-to-be was unable to distinguish between the ideas of "opulence" and "good design" what does this foretell about the future of building? These folks are the future clients of architecture of the public realm. As we sat in the neo-gothic spendor of their Yale classroom, I asked myself: where did we lose them?
In the days when Peck and his judicial colleagues were students at Yale Law School, the architectural historian Vincent Scully taught a famous class on modern architecture to hundreds of rapt undergraduates in the Law School Auditorium, the largest classroom on campus. It was a hugely popular course. All three of them stumbled upon Professor Scully's class and enrolled, and thus were exposed to the importance of architecture. I don't think it's a coincidence that, years later, each became an important player in making good design available to create the public realm. That's real "design excellence."