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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.”