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Federal Disaster

The new federal courthouse design recalls an Embassy Suites hotel with a futurama atrium


When the federal General Services Administration (GSA) selected Michael Graves (paired with the Brentwood firm of Thomas Miller & Partners) as the lead designer for Nashville’s new federal courthouse in 2002, local design mavens anticipated a building that would add star power to the city’s architectural profile. The architect, who’s based in Princeton, N.J., has been nationally famous since the 1980s, when his Portland Building in Oregon and the Humana Center in Louisville established his reputation as a pioneer of postmodernism. Since then, his practice has combined institutional and corporate architecture—including major Disney commissions—with the design of interior furnishings and accessories. He’s to Target what Martha Stewart is to K-Mart. With prestigious national awards under his belt, Graves is one of those designers any city with a reputation for architecture of distinction wants to add to its civic portfolio. Unfortunately, the vaguely classical design for the courthouse unveiled last week doesn’t exactly shine in the firmament. The 347,000-square-foot building is composed of almost symmetrical masonry wings—the footprint of the wing flanking Church Street is slightly smaller—whose square towers embrace a glass rotunda. The orientation is toward the corner of Seventh Avenue and Church Street. Each wing contains two stacks of courtrooms for district and magistrate judges. The pattern of masonry embracing glass is repeated to the rear, where a cylindrical tower devoted to jury suites stands within the L formed by the wings. Patrick Burke, the principal in charge for the Graves firm, says the cladding will be primarily pre-cast concrete tinted a warm cream, but he hopes to be able to squeeze the $106.3 million budget to get some stone at the base. Several devices are used to break up the building’s mass. The first three stories of the wings’ facades are articulated by columned projections that, according to Burke, “give seven stories a pedestrian scale.” Fenestration patterns are varied among groupings of round-headed arches, squares, rectangles and recessed windows. And twin pediments top the facades addressing Eighth Avenue and Commerce Street. This is a favorite Graves strategy and creates the impression of a collection of related buildings rather than a single structure. The problem with all this is that the design fails to cohere—there’s too much variation and too little theme. Burke points out the “disparate scale” of buildings in the immediate environs of the proposed courthouse. The design all too literally reflects this. The architect also says that a key to the composition is the “conservative culture of the court” it will serve. “They were looking for a traditional building. We had to negotiate between the court and GSA, which was pushing for something more modern, contemporary.” Senior Judge Robert Echols, who represented the court in the selection of Graves and subsequent design review, says that he “tried to insist that the courthouse be designed to reflect some of Nashville’s architectural roots. We have a history of the neoclassical style, and so many people love buildings like the State Capitol, the Parthenon and Belle Meade mansion. So this architect, who’s known for modernist urbanist design, made some compromises.” Another decisive factor behind the composition was the site itself, coupled with post-Oklahoma City and 9/11 security concerns that mandate a minimum 50-foot setback from the street or adjacent buildings. The design team originally explored the possibility of what Burke calls “four-in-a-row stacks of courtrooms” along Church Street. “But we realized the site was too narrow, that we’d have to spend major dollars hardening the ends of the structure” to make them blast proof. So the building was divided into two wings and oriented to the corner with an “L” footprint. “We thought it was better to spend the money on something like the glass rotunda.” The architect says the transparency of the rotunda, along with that of the curving wall of glass arches that forms its backdrop, are intended to symbolize the transparency of the justice system to the citizens. A large plaza on Church Street, complete with planters to deter bomb-laden vehicles, is another public-friendly gesture. But lest we get too friendly, there’s a one-story “screening” vestibule tacked onto the rotunda’s front that had to be designed as “disposable”; that is, it can blow up without damage to the rest of the structure. One thing probably worth blowing up is the 1926 Berger building, which lies within the courthouse block on Eighth Avenue North. OK, I recognize that it’s downtown’s last remaining intact, small-scale commercial structure from the 1920s, placed on the National Register in 1984. I understand that the rules for federal projects require the GSA to evaluate and hopefully avoid adverse impacts on National Register structures by new construction—although demolition is not completely prohibited. I like the current occupant, the Toy Museum, although I hear it’s infrequently open. And I’m almost always on the side of preservation and the underdog. But not this time. The Berger building was designed to share walls with others of its ilk, to form a continuous frieze along a block. As a stand-alone, it looks decidedly forlorn, as if it’s lost its purpose in life. With a new courthouse towering nearby—but not too nearby; remember the 50-foot setback—it will look silly. The GSA’s decision not to pursue some agreement with Tennessee’s preservation office that would have delivered a clean site, to allow the Berger building to contort the form of a courthouse that should be a new icon for Nashville, seems misguided at best. Judge Echols says that while he likes the site—“all the lawyers say they’re excited that they’ll be able to walk to the courthouse”—he’d “like it a lot better if the entire site was clear. The design was really driven by the Toy Museum, which sticks its elbow into the whole block.” But the Berger building can’t be made the scapegoat for a design that recalls an Embassy Suites hotel with a futurama atrium. The Graves courthouse is a product of the GSA’s Design Excellence program, which is intended to produce “significant commissions that add contemporary form and meaning to America’s rich legacy of public architecture and art,” according to GSA’s website. The program was developed in response to criticism that the feds were cluttering cityscapes across the nation with bland behemoths that turned a cold eye to the urban street. The Graves design for Nashville, unfortunately, contributes nothing to America’s—or Nashville’s—legacy but mediocrity. Congress has funded the courthouse through the completion of detailed design documents. But there is as yet no money for construction. We can only hope. 

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