Yesterday’s post about the new federal courthouse got me thinking about courthouses and government buildings, and as it happens, another court building–this one for the Mississippi State Supreme Court–is also almost complete after a number of years of construction and provides an interesting counterpoint to the federal courthouse.
Standing just across High Street in downtown Jackson, facing the New Capitol from the north, is the new Carroll Gartin Justice Building. Actually, it should be called Gartin Jr. because it replaces the first Gartin Building, which had stood on this location since its completion in 1973. I’m not here to argue that the original should have been preserved. I didn’t hate the building, but I can see how its New Formalist style might have been more abstractly classical than people then or now wanted to see. Besides that, anecdotal evidence indicates it was leaky and moldy and cramped. It was definitely in need of better maintenance, as most state-owned buildings are. Even so, I thought it was a handsome structure and well-proportioned.
Anyway, Sr. was torn down around 2009, after the large back section of Jr. had already been built and occupied in 2008. The new building sits much farther back off the street than the old one did, so once all the users moved out of Sr. into the back part of Jr., the primary construction left to be done was to renovate the two floors under the plaza, and add the entrance area and the portico.
As you can see, the new Supreme Court building is much more traditionally classical than the old one. It looks like a Greek temple, and from the depths of our history, our forefathers have built government buildings that showed the relationship between our system of democracy and law and the civilizations of Greece and Rome. This was by design, as noted by Chief Justice Smith in a Mississippi Lawyer article (March-April 2008–you can also see some good interior pictures in this issue, along with a view from the rear, which is quite impressive):
But what we wanted was a courthouse design of understated elegance built to better serve the public and withstand the rav- ages of time. We wanted a design that was dignified but not extravagant. We wanted traditional design that complements the architecture of the Capitol inside and out. Anyone familiar with the old Supreme Court chambers at the Capitol will recog- nize the repeating design element the moment they walk into our new En Banc courtroom.
So, unlike the new federal courthouse, symbolism and tradition were a part of this design from the beginning, and it shows.
Proportion is an especially important aspect of classical architecture, and I think the new building also has excellent proportions in every respect except one. Unfortunately it’s kind of an important one since it’s right on the front. Usually my complaints about strange proportions in new classical architecture have to do with Americans’ belief in “bigger is better.” That is, whenever proportion is off, it’s usually because some piece of the puzzle is too big, and it throws everything off. In Gartin Jr. though, I believe the portico that they’ve attached to the otherwise nicely proportioned building is too small.
To the right is how you normally see a portico attached to a temple-fronted building. See how the portico is almost as tall as the building behind it? See how the frontispiece (that cast-concrete horizontal line) of the main building continues around the bottom of the portico to pull everything together, kind of like a tie with a nice suit? Now compare that with the Gartin building’s portico above (or click here to pull up the picture in a new window): the portico comes only to the bottom of the pedimented gable behind it, and if you look closely (sorry about that winter sun glare), you can see that there’s a strange rectangular piece that rises between the portico and the building behind it to somewhat finish the front off. This piece is fairly awkward, and it’s actually what first got me thinking about the portico–it wouldn’t be necessary if the portico had been properly proportioned. Notice also that while the cornice of the main building carries through the portico, there is no heavier frontispiece to carry through and give a nice line for your eye to follow all the way around the building. This isn’t a deal breaker kind of thing, but it’s the difference between high- and moderate-quality classical design.
Here’s another thing that’s a little more problematic in my mind, since it distorts the view of the building to almost every passerby: the way the staircase leading up to the plaza was handled.
Oh whoops! What happened to the bottom of the building? Well, it got swallowed up in a staircase that rises too steeply from the street to a very deep plaza in front of the building. This is odd, because as you can see in the photo of Gartin Sr. above, the older building was much closer to the street, and yet the base on which it sat was handled in such a way that the building was still fully visible from the street. If the stairs had been lengthened, whether with a series of terraces as at the New Capitol, or even better, using the steps and intervening terraces to create a grand parade up to the building, like at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington DC, the building’s presence would have been heightened and its imposing facade would have been fully visible. I assume that the presence of the underground space must have limited flexibility on the stairs, but all I know for sure is the final result, and that is that the building looks strangely truncated from the street.
Of the two buildings, Carroll Gartin and the new federal courthouse, my vote is definitely with the Gartin Building. I just wish these details had been dealt with more elegantly in the design so that the building could really shine.
Ok, that’s it for my foray into architectural criticism. Let the brickbats begin to fly!