The Value of Architecture in Civic Greatness (part 1)

I have jury duty this week. Most people seem to live in mortal fear of being chosen for a jury, but I’m actually happy to exercise this civil right/responsibility.

Beyond the many legal surprises, what interests me is the architecture and design of the spaces I’ve seen. It’s clear that the Brooklyn supreme court was once a fine modernist embodiment of the principles of law, order, and justice, built solidly of marble, glass, steel, and wood as a symbol and manifestation of state power.

The traditional aesthetic of state power in the US is rooted in a bizarre sort of neo-classicism that was preferred by the founding fathers (I’m looking at you Jefferson!) and emulated through the next two centuries in state capitols, post offices, and public university buildings. This architectural vernacular is a manufactured symbol of the stability and longevity of a great nation, a not so subtle attempt to tie our history to those of much older and much admired societies. It utilizes the same semiotic mechanisms that most national chain stores use to signify authenticity. Applebee’s signifies the authenticity of time honored Americana and folk culture by putting a bunch of goofy crap up on the wall, the government signifies authentic authority by making believe that the United States was founded in some fantasy version of antiquity. In the context of Doric columns and Prussian eagles the imperious judge with his timeless robes seem natural. Despite the fact that judges robes, Doric columns, and Prussian eagles are actually completely anachronistic to one another.

The Brooklyn Supreme Court was designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon and completed in 1958. The architectural design is a well-considered adaptation of a mid-century American modernist style used to express the ideas of a strong juridical power, one based on centuries of tradition descendant from English sovereign rule. (There’s even an educational video shown to jurors to explain the origins of our legal system). It appropriates the language of post-war international corporations as a means of describing power. Since then a few elements have been added (escalators for instance) that update the aesthetic somewhat to a later International style.

The true success of this modernist expression of government power lies in how well the judge is able to convey the authority of the state, which in this case I can imagine was quite well when the building was originally erected in 1958. The large common areas are suitably over-sized to intimidate citizens. Important people sit up high and do their best to address the subjects of the law with respect and dignity. The judge wears a judge’s costume, the lawyers wear lawyer costumes (some better than others) and those things seem to fit their environments. My court room is a nearly perfect cube of paneled wood. The dramatic height of the ceilings accommodates an over-sized inscription that interestingly seems to have been chiseled out of the wood paneling in Futura, as if the wood were stone.

This last bit seems symbolically potent to me. The “chiseled” lettering is an oblique reference to the chiseled capitals traditionally found on the friezes of neo-classical buildings but the use of the ur modernist letterforms in a softer material is a sly wink. The effect is dramatically scaled and smartly contemporary to mid century American sensibilities. All in all, it’s easy to see why people approved of this building in 1958.

However, today there are some problems.

Since its construction there seem to have been quite a few additions, primarily to the diminshment of the experience of state power. As we jurors were moved from one holding area to the next in a series of warren like antechambers and waiting rooms I couldn’t help but notice that the once noble building has begun to show signs of wear. As needed, it has been repaired primarily with frugality and efficiency in mind. Where you would naturally expect an extension of the original materials you find that marble, terrazzo, wood, glass, and steel have been replaced by laminates, acoustic tile, cheap paint, and mundane office furniture designed for heavy use. The most jarring juxtaposition is the proliferated composite wood furniture found throughout the building. This includes the lectern from which the attorneys question their witnesses and the desks provided for court clerks and recorders. The counselor’s lectern is particularly vexing because the laminate clashes with the benches directly behind it.

Economically it makes a lot of sense to repair the building in this way. Undoubtedly taxpayers don’t want to imagine that millions of dollars are being sunk into these old buildings for no other demonstrable benefit than keeping them pretty. The cost of materials has outpaced inflation as has the cost of fine detail labor. The wear and tear on the building is substantial as thousands of people use it ever day. Its responsible to a frugal constituency that demands fiscal accountability for the use of its tax dollars.

I would argue that the loss of esteem and civic pride isn’t worth the savings. The paradox is that as the building begins to look shabbier citizens are bound to lose respect for the government and pride in their own civic participation. Once we’re disenfranchised we don’t feel the responsibility to support a fading institution and things get worse. The less we admire the court, the less we want to participate in the law. This attitude is clearly expressed by people’s aversion to jury duty and their unwillingness to dignify the proceedings with comportment and attire that they once demanded. It was sad to hear a court employee tell hundreds of jurors that food, beverages, and cell phones are not allowed in the court rooms. I can’t help but believe that in a different environment this would be self evident. I could be wrong, but I don’t imagine that at the beginning of mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral a priest comes over a loud speaker and tells people they need to smoke outside.

In capitalist enterprises this is implicitly understood. While fiscal responsibility to shareholders would naturally lead corporations to build modest offices, most do precisely the opposite: they build luxuriously appointed testaments to their power and wealth. They want to inspire confidence in their partners and intimidation in their competitors, not assurance of conservatively sound reason (one of the rare exceptions to this strategy is Wal Mart, who’s modest corporate offices have been well documented).

The case for this strategy being implemented in civic projects has been made in the restoration or Grand Central Terminal. Every day I travel through this secular cathedral I marvel at the power and beauty of my city. I feel pride and a connection to the greatness of New York. I feel similarly about the 42nd street library, Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn Bridge. These projects are just a few of a long history of civic projects intended to work practically as well as inspire and awe. From pyramids to aqueducts to places of worship, every great civilization has not coincidentally built for greatness. I hate to think that we have decided to leave construction of our legacy as a civilization to private industry because we are too practical to strive for greatness.