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Courthouse Pushes the Boundaries of Tradition: Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse

A federal courthouse puts a modern spin on ancient ideas of judicial architecture.

May 01, 2008 |

When U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan first saw designs for the new federal courthouse in Eugene, Ore., he hated them. The fantastically modern building, with its undulating glass and stainless-steel façade, simply did not conform to his notion of what a courthouse should look like.

Hogan was involved in winnowing down the initial list of architect finalists, but the General Services Administration was ultimately responsible for selecting Thom Mayne, founder of Santa Monica, Calif.-based design firm Morphosis, based on qualifying points and recommendations from independent peer reviewers.

A disappointed Hogan immediately challenged the architect on numerous points. To his surprise, Mayne challenged him right back.

Hogan reported that Mayne questioned him on everything from faith to political views to his preconceived—and conservative—notions of how a courthouse should look. The hard-charging judge was disarmed and realized that while he knew a lot about the workings of a courthouse, he had a lot to learn about architecture. Mayne took Hogan to Europe to show how classical architecture could blend with the modern. Hogan took Mayne fishing to give him a feel for Oregon's natural beauty. The two became fast friends and worked closely to ensure the courthouse would be the right fit for this Pacific Northwest city and its 154,000 residents.

Looking at the $78.8 million facility, which is simultaneously curvy and blocky, it's hard to believe that the five-story facility has a traditional interior layout. That sensible, user-friendly arrangement is one of the points that originally sold the GSA on this design.

The 266,742-sf building's first two floors, located in a monolithic glass-clad structure with plenty of conventional right angles, house administrative offices used by the courts and their clerks, the U.S. attorney, probation and pretrial services, the U.S. Marshals Service, the GSA, two U.S. senators, and one member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

These lower floors serve as a plinth for the more distinctive architecture above. Clad in ribbons of steel, the upper floors consist of three curving pavilions, each housing a pair of courtrooms (two district courts, two magistrate courts, and two bankruptcy courts), as well as judges' chambers and a judicial library. This design separates the functions of the court from the building's day-to-day operations.

Courtroom design was of significant concern to Hogan, who worked closely with Mayne to rethink judicial spaces. Hogan wanted the courtrooms (which range from 1,800 sf to 3,000 sf) to imbue a sense of tradition, order, and formality, but Mayne's pear-shaped courtrooms are decidedly unconventional. Mayne said he was focused on ideas, not shapes, so he designed courtrooms that taper toward the front, opening sightlines while directing the focus to the judges' benches. He also enlarged the space between the witness stand and the jury and, by slightly recessing jury seating, eliminated the old-school jury box. Wasted space along outside walls was converted into aisles, with seating relocated to the center. Ribbons of wood paneling are both a nod to traditional paneled courtrooms and to the modern metal ribbons adorning the courthouse exterior.

The jury assembly room was relocated to the second floor and doubles as a multipurpose space for art exhibits and community meetings.

The courthouse's main entrance on the second floor leads into a grand atrium at the juncture where all three courtroom pavilions come together. Outside, a set of massive stairs—suggestive of the grand stairs leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court Building, Judge Hogan's “ideal” courthouse design—leads pedestrians up to the entrance; a series of support structures further evoke the High Court's columned portico.

Architectural allusions aside, the single entrance on the second floor is foremost a security factor, as are the locations of the courtroom pavilions, which are significantly set back from surrounding streets, and the secure underground parking garage for judges. Mayne's decision to break up the building's massing and introduce unconventional shapes and angles removes any stigma of the courthouse being a fortress, even though it's a Security Level IV facility, just one step below the Pentagon.

Sustainability factored heavily into the project, starting with site selection, and even that challenged Hogan's idea of conventional courthouse planning. Traditionally, courthouses and other civic buildings are located within the city center, but Hogan—and even Mayne (who said if he had his druthers he would have located the building in the middle of town)—had to make due with a five-acre brownfield site on the edge of town.

Downtown Eugene was cut off from the Willamette River, but city officials wanted to reestablish a city/river connection, so they offered the site of an abandoned cannery in a small waterfront warehouse district. The GSA was able to recycle 90% of materials when they dismantled the cannery, and the courthouse is now driving redevelopment, with numerous projects in the works to turn the district into a mixed-use neighborhood.

Other sustainable elements include landscaping with indigenous plants to reduce rainwater runoff by 30%; natural daylighting; an energy-efficient underfloor air distribution system; diversion of more than 90% of construction waste from landfills; use of locally sourced and recycled materials and low-VOC adhesives, paints, sealants, and carpets; and installing waterless urinals, ultra low-flow toilets, sinks, and showers, thus reducing potable water usage by 40%. The facility is accessible by public bus and rail service and there are bike racks for cyclists. The Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse is the first new GSA courthouse to earn LEED Gold certification.

Credit for keeping the complex project on track and on budget goes to the Portland office of general contractor JE Dunn Construction. The process wasn't easy: when JE Dunn was brought onboard, they discovered that the building was already running $8 million over budget, which brought work to a halt. The Building Team identified areas where value engineering wouldn't significantly alter the building's basic character.

One solution was to replace numerous custom materials, such as ceiling and floor tiles, with high-end but less expensive off-the-shelf products. JE Dunn switched from zinc cladding (44,000 sf, at $150/sf) to stainless steel, which saved $2.1 million. The GC also had to maintain a grueling 24-month schedule. What helped was the entire Building Team's use of BIM technology and the bundling of complicated systems into at-risk bid packages, which attracted only the most skilled subcontractors.

Judge Hogan may have hated architect Mayne's original vision, but he is on record saying he loves the final product. All it took was an unusual collaboration between a conservative end-user, a cutting-edge architect (who went on to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2005), and a skilled Building Team to give the city of Eugene the “traditional” justice center it needed.


Eugene, Ore.

Platinum Award

Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse

Building Team

Submitting firm: JE Dunn Construction (GC)

Owner/developer: General Services Administration

Architect: Morphosis

Architect of record: DLR Group

Structural engineer: KPFF Consulting Engineers

Electrical engineer: DLR Group

Mechanical and plumbing engineers: GLUMAC International

General Information

Project size: 266,742 gsf

Construction cost: $78.8 million

Construction time: July 2004 to August 2006

Delivery method: CMc at risk
Building Team Awards Judges

Carla da Costa

Senior Director

Tishman Speyer

New York

Philip Tobey, FAIA



Washington, D.C.

John Durbrow, AIA, ALA, LEED

Assistant Professor

Illinois Institute of Technology

College of Architecture


Paul Westlake, Jr., FAIA

Managing Principal

Westlake Reed Leskosky

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