For the people

Agencies are placing new emphasis on designing better, more aesthetically pleasing government buildings with the people they serve in mind
August 11, 2010

What images are evoked by the words "government building"? Some might think of grand, historic symbols such as the U.S. Capitol or the U.S. Supreme Court building. But the words may also bring to mind the large, stark, often unattractive structures designed and built to conduct the business of governing.

If a building breaks from this mold and is distinctive or more attractive than its peers, it may be seen as another example of frivolous pork-barrel spending of taxpayer money.

But this paradigm is changing as government agencies strive to achieve more than functionality for their investment. For a comparable cost, they are demanding and receiving serviceable yet aesthetically pleasing buildings that are a source of civic pride.

The new generation of buildings also is a means by which agencies can open themselves up to citizens and invite them to participate in government.

Three new buildings reflect these trends: Two are courthouses, a growing segment of government-sector construction. Completed in 1999, the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in Boston serves Suffolk County, Mass. The Sandra Day O'Connor United States Courthouse in Phoenix was dedicated in October. The third building, currently under design, is the San Diego headquarters for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

Design excellence

One of the strongest statements made with respect to government buildings is the federal government's renewed effort toward producing better, more architecturally viable facilities through the General Services Administration's (GSA) Design Excellence Program.

"The program has really changed the entire nature of government architecture," says James Sawyer, project architect on the O'Connor courthouse for Richard Meier Architects, New York City, the facility's design architect. The O'Connor courthouse was a part of the Design Excellence Program. "The real trend is that GSA is doing much better designs," says Sawyer.

"Clearly there is a much higher interest in the design of government buildings," says Bruce Wood, partner in the Boston-based design firm of Kallman McKinnell & Wood Architects, designer of the Brooke Courthouse. "The GSA really is on a crusade to produce better buildings for the same money."

According to Marilyn Farley, design programs manager in the GSA's Office of the Chief Architect, the program got its start in 1994. "We changed our process for selecting architects," says Farley, in an effort to change the course of public architecture in the federal government.

By streamlining the selection process and reducing the emphasis placed on having prior experience in the sector, the GSA has made it less time-consuming and costly and more attractive for smaller design firms to submit proposals.

"The GSA has gone on a campaign to break the stranglehold of firms that just produce 'government buildings,' and opened up possibilities through the program," says Wood. "I think a lot of firms historically just didn't bother to submit proposals because they knew they wouldn't get the job." Wood says that without the Design Excellence Program, it is unlikely that his firm would have been invited to submit for a new federal courthouse in Cleveland, which it recently was awarded, because of its lack of previous experience in the area.

Sawyer concurs, saying that Richard Meier Architects, which also designed the Islip, N.Y., federal courthouse that opened in October, "didn't do courthouses" before the program.

According to Wood, other smaller firms also are submitting proposals to GSA and forming joint ventures with larger, more established firms who still want the work and have production capability and technical expertise in the government area.

Wood credits Edward Feiner, the GSA's chief architect, for spearheading the program. "If you simplify Ed's point, he says that, 'for what we're spending we can get better buildings than what we are used to.'"

Wood hopes that smaller government agencies will emulate GSA's program. "There are a lot of smaller government agencies that could be inspired by it," he says. "The GSA program brings attention to how much money is spent by government agencies on construction."

Fitting in with the neighbors

Owners and designers are taking measures to ensure that government buildings become part of the fabric of the environment.

In Massachusetts, the state has taken over county courthouse projects as part of a statewide courthouse improvement program, according to Wood. "Many of them are in their original state and in need of repair," he says.

The new 425,000-sq.-ft., $81 million Brooke courthouse is the flagship of the program. Located on an irregularly shaped, sloping lot that is the last parcel to be developed in Boston's Government Center urban renewal plan of the 1960s, the project presented numerous challenges to its designer. "It's a tortured site," says Wood, who adds that one designer called it a "site from hell."

The surrounding brick façades contrast the concrete brutalism of the adjacent Paul Rudolph-designed State Services Building. The Brooke building's limestone exterior completes the block in a monochromatic color range while distinguishing it from the red brick of the neighborhood. During final design, Kallman McKinnell & Wood received a separate contract for the addition of an urban park between the courthouse and the Rudolph building. The park also serves as a transitional element that bridges the two buildings.

Context was crucial for Caltrans as well. The engineering facility is set in San Diego's historic Old Town Mexican community that is popular with tourists. "We are trying to be sensitive to the historic area from a scale and proportion perspective," says Michael Johnson, partner in the San Diego-based design firm of Carrier Johnson.

Still under design, the 301,000-sq.-ft. campus environment has three two- to five-story buildings connected by pedestrian bridges. Dimensional stone or stone tile is planned for the exterior along with wood accents to tone down an institutional look. Deep-set windows and trellis overhangs will provide shade and aesthetic relief.

Heavy emphasis has been placed on the establishment of a courtyard to promote the feel of a town square. "With the trend toward 'green' design, governments are starting to appreciate what landscaping can bring," says Johnson.

Green design also influenced the O'Connor courthouse design. Its innovative landscaping program received a GSA Environmental Award. To conserve water, native landscaping such as palo verde trees, shrubs and cacti were used instead of tropical palm trees and grass. The palo verde trees were recycled from a development site where they were slated for removal.

An open invitation

The courtyard of the Caltrans campus will not only immerse the facility in the neighborhood, but will serve as a transitional space between the street and the complex. The Brooke and O'Connor courthouses mirror this approach through the design of atriums that serve as their architectural centerpieces as well as transitional spaces for the public upon entering.

The simple yet elegant interior of the Brooke courthouse is organized around a four-story atrium. A triangular skylight, a reinterpretation of the triangular shape of the building and atrium, casts shadow patterns across the white walls and floor. All court functions are accessed via the central atrium. Court transaction areas are on the lower two levels; 18 courtrooms and judges chambers are on the upper two levels.

"We wanted to stay away from excess heaviness in the building," Wood says of the bare white walls and sharp angles of the atrium. "People find the skylight interesting."

At the O'Connor courthouse, a large glass-enclosed atrium acts as a transition space from an outdoor plaza. The 350-ft.-long by 150-ft.-wide space rises 120 feet and is capped by a steel truss-supported glass roof perched atop 12 steel columns that are 100 feet tall.

The courthouse's six floors open onto broad corridors overlooking the atrium. The special proceedings courtroom, one of 18 courtrooms in the building, is the centerpiece.

"The atrium is the purely unique feature of the courthouse," says Michael Schroeder, a partner in the Phoenix office of Langdon Wilson, the executive architect on the project. "This is the only courthouse I'm aware of that has been able to create such a large open public space. What Richard Meier accomplished through his design was to create incredible efficiency in court spaces and support spaces. Much of the building's general circulation space is combined into one large area."

Whether set in the arid environs of Phoenix, the urban landscape of Boston or a historic neighborhood in San Diego, government buildings are making positive contributions to the architectural fabric of their surroundings while serving the needs of the people.