Feds Gone Mad

I don’t consider myself an architectural critic since I’m a historian, not an architect. I tend to look at buildings from a historical perspective and examine what they tell me about the people who built them rather than judging them purely on architectural merit, but since my criticism of the new federal in downtown Jackson is based on that historical perspective rather than a purely architectural viewpoint, I think it’s worth posting.

Although people are inclined to admit it only when it suits them, architecture is symbolic. Both consciously and sub-consciously, people throughout history have told us much about themselves through individual buildings and indeed whole cities of buildings. A building’s materials, style, siting, and decorative elements (among many other things) tell us what a society thought was important, unimportant, expedient, and whether they considered tradition or symbolism to be of significance.

It is the job of an architect to combine both the conscious and the subconscious into a coherent whole and make it sing. Using proportion, light, a sense of space, craftsmanship, quality materials, and often imaginative decoration, the best buildings do this, from the uber-classical New Capitol, to the Gothic Revival St. Andrews, to the Art Moderne Greyhound Bus Station, and full-circle to the Stripped Classic Eastland Federal Courthouse. These buildings manage to be solid and self-confident, but also serene and calming, never off-putting or arrogant. They tell us at a glance what their purpose is, what traditions they are based on (or not), and they guide their users sub-conciously to consider those things important in their daily routines. (“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” as Winston Churchill famously put it.)

Medgar Evers Post Office, front facade that previously terminated Congress Street

Unfortunately, the new Jackson Federal Courthouse, designed by New York firm H³ Hardy has none of these qualities of solidity, serenity, or self-confidence. Instead, it is a bombastic but very taupe mass, not ugly really, but not specifically governmental either. It could be a large commercial office building just as well as a federal courthouse. More egregiously to me than its style or lack thereof, however, its position in front of the Medgar Evers Post Office, turning a mostly blank and taller wall to it, seems deaf to basic urban planning principles at best, and arrogantly ignorant of Jackson’s civil rights past at worst.

The Evers P.O. on the right.facing the rear of the federal courthouse on the left.

The back wall of the new federal courthouse, as seen from the front of the post office

While the style of the Evers Post Office has never been my favorite, you could at least see the intent behind it–built to terminate Congress Street, its Post-Modern portico faced off with the classical portico of the New Capitol at the north end of the street. Like a big bully though, the new federal courthouse now inserts itself into the scene, not even having the courtesy to address the Post Office with a second entrance as seen on numerous courthouse squares (or on the New Capitol itself), but instead willfully ignoring it. The symbolism of a federal courthouse so arrogantly dismissing a post office named for Mississippi’s most revered civil rights leader and martyr is more than a little disturbing.

The open-arms entrance in the context of a federal courthouse seems more like a choke hold.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure what the federal building is saying stylistically. I suppose the entrance is meant to be a modern variant on the “open arms staircases” so beloved by Southerners, but is a courthouse really a building you would want to be enfolded by? Federal buildings in general in the last century have done better than most in making a statement about government and law and justice. The Eastland courthouse on Capitol Street currently being vacated took the Greek and Roman classical traditions of symmetry, proportion, and ornament and added a modern twist to bring it unequivocally into the middle of the 20th century.

Eastland Federal Courthouse (1933, Hull & Malvaney, archts.)

How does this new building do any of that? What does it say anything about justice or the long and proud tradition of Western legal philosophy? How does it make us feel about the bedrock on which American legal institutions are founded? “Oh we’re past all those columns and such, we’re more Modern,” I’m sure many might say, but look at the Eastland courthouse and tell me that’s not a modern building, not an American building, tell me it is stuck in the past. No, it takes the past as its grounding, its core, but adds so much to it that it becomes a part of our culture and the modern world.

I understand new security requirements (although I think they will bring about the decline of the very institutions they are meant to protect), I understand the need for more space for courtrooms in our litigious society, and I understand new ways of thinking about style and architecture. But I don’t understand the new federal building. What does it say about our society and the place of justice, law and government in it? To me, all it says is, “We’re bigger than you are, so we can do what we want.”



Categories: Courthouses, Jackson

17 replies

  1. “we’re bigger than you are, so we can do what we want”

    Ouch! As a normally well-intentioned federal employee, how can I defend the federal government from such accusations (since I see no ground on which to defend them on behalf of this design)? Where was the civic engagement during the design process? Public scoping meetings? Section 106 compliance?

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    • I honestly don’t recall what public input there was–if anything it must have been a number of years ago, since as you know federal construction projects seem to take decades rather than years or months.

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  2. I love you including some criticism in this blog…. there is a void in this state of thoughtful and public critique of our buildings,… so I say keep it up.

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  3. you rhetorically ask: “What does it say about our society and the place of justice, law and government in it? To me, all it says is, ‘we’re bigger than you are, so we can do what we want.’”

    you are quite right. the implications point to a society which has become so concerned with technical knowledge and the power that it wields that we have forgotten the need to understand first principles, the foundations of wisdom. understanding them means reflection that diverts one from the pursuit of money and power so is finally deemed irrelevant.

    understanding first principles involves understanding where we have come from–not merely physically where we come from but the origins of our values and ideas and ideals (recall my essay on the first principles of preservation posted on this forum some months ago). however, our educational institutions are devoted to the production of endless technical and specialized knowledge while doing little for educating the public on those principles which have consequently slipped into the oblivion of cultural amnesia. one would think that institutions concerned with the humanities and history and heritage would find their recovery to be a key part of their mandate. however they seem more concerned with promoting the past as simply an interesting novelty, something to be “celebrated” to attract tourists and the dollars they bring. a leading indicator of the perversity of the situation is to have prominent preservationists state that preservation is not concerned with encouraging thought and for no one to even think that is even strange.

    given this intellectual environment it hardly seems strange that the architecture of a judical building feels no need to echo the undergirding ideals of the judiciary, serving instead to embody the hubris and narcissism of the architect and the society.

    jack

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    • I agree, I just wish it weren’t the New Way. And I think that the fact that a federal courthouse has lost all meaning shows how lost the first principles are, since of all the branches of government, you (or at least I) would expect the federal judiciary to be the most concerned about those principles.

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  4. Unfortunately, the new courthouse could easily pass for a corporate campus in just about any city from Boston to Bangalore. The small windows remind me of a prison. I have nothing agains modernism or even post-modernism (if carefully considered), but this building is so incredibly bland that I’m surprised it sailed through the vetting process without more of an outcry.

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    • But then there are the large banks of windows which look like solar panels. The whole thing reminds me of circuit boards in electronics (so it should maybe be an electronics factory?) I only hope it was cheap with its precast concrete panels, though I doubt it was.

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  5. There is nothing redeeming about the new Jackson Federal Courthouse, like contemporary architecture today. Modernism, Postmodernism, Deconstructivism – symbols of the degredation of a profession that now has very few redeeming qualities, which is expressed in their architecture.

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  6. Yikes! is what I said when I saw this (nearing completion) last year. I thought it must be a new in-town correctional facility. And I guess it is in some way. Don’t think you can really credit this building with possessing any kind of “style.” And it’s not a good neighbor.

    I find it interesting that this building is considered one of the GSA’s Design Excellence program projects.

    What I find really revealing is how the photography on the H3 website somehow makes this building look much more interesting than it really is – largely by taking elements of the building out of context (be sure to read the firm’s description of the building on their site). Hugh Hardy’s firm has been responsible for many interesting and groundbreaking projects over the years (Modern, POMO, and otherwise) – but I’m not so sure about this one…

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    • Yes, for one thing, they appear to have taken their photos on the one day of the year when the sun shines nicely on the front face, which is to the north. But as for the description on their site, is this the inspirational nugget to which you refer? “Unlike most courthouse plans, our design stacks courtrooms by type in two 6-story towers.” Yes, wow, that’s the way to appeal to the citizenry! Not into the weeds at all!

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      • Yep, that is a good nugget. Maybe I would feel better about the cheap-looking precast concrete, small windows, and lack of any street presence, if they discussed the blast resistance requirements they very likely dealt with…

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  7. I think I would want to spend some time inside the building before judging it solely by its cover, as it were. The Romans worried far more about the inside than the outside of buildings, for example (at least in most cases).

    Modern design (IMO) at its best is driven by what’s needed inside, functionally speaking. The form of the building then reflects that, for better or for worse. But that’s a really hard way to design. It takes lots of time and hard thought and wadding up the paper and starting over. Since “time is money,” that don’t happen often enough any more.

    This building appears to self-consciously reflect the sort of functionalism I mentioned, but to a facile degree; it ain’t thought through enough, it seems. It looks like a big ol’ mess. But maybe it would make at least a bit more sense after getting familiar with it from the inside. It looks like there could be some impressive spaces inside, with good natural light.

    Still, the headache-inducing challenge is to balance usefulness of interior function and attractiveness with some music and decorum on the outside. I think it would have to knock my socks off inside to compensate for the overly busy, “ehh” outside.

    As to the comment that this reflects the bankruptcy of the profession, I think it’s probably more accurate to say that architecture here merely reflects what permeates society at large today. In that regard it provides (and will provide) a telling reflection on the values that informed its construction. Good, thoughtful design has just become too damn expensive.

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  8. I agree there are some great modern interiors inside some not-so-inspiring exteriors, but in this case, this is a federal courthouse. It should look like a place of justice, not commerce or paper-pushing. Furthermore, because of new security requirements, the vast majority of us will never get to see inside, barring some criminal activity on our part. Meanwhile, it is a massive force in the city’s street grid, and must be encountered regularly by anyone who spends much time in downtown Jackson. So I think in this case, judging it by its exterior is the way most of us will be judging it.

    I agree entirely with your last paragraph–this isn’t a blast solely at architects, it’s a lament for what our civilization has lost, or more to the point, simply decided wasn’t worth it anymore.

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Trackbacks

  1. Meanwhile, at another court building up the street a ways . . . | Preservation in Mississippi
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