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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Courthouse architecture

The Wall Stree Journal reports here that "[t]he federal agency that builds courthouses, border stations and other federal buildings is set to name a new chief architect, a move that could usher in a return to a more traditional type of architecture in the government's $10 billion construction program."  The new chief architect is said to be Thomas Gordon Smith, a professor in Notre Dame's School of Architecture and a colleague of my friend, new urbanist Philip Bess

Here's a quote from the story:

Others are worried federal architecture will lose its cutting-edge focus. Henry Smith-Miller, of Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, a New York firm, which designed a border station under construction in Champlain, N.Y., said he finds Mr. Smith's appointment "deeply troubling." He called Mr. Smith's traditional views "anti-progressive." It "picks up the imperial nature of Roman architecture, which was in service to the empire rather than service to democracy," says Mr. Smith-Miller.

I guess I don't buy the claim that Modern, contemporary, or "progressive" architecture exudes an attitude of service to democracy.  In any event, here is a post from Concurring Opinions with lots of pictures of new courthouses.  And, here is another post from Concurring Opinions with lots of pictures of old courthouses.  I say, advantage:  Old.

Posted by Rick Garnett on September 6, 2006 at 11:25 AM in Culture | Permalink


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Wow, this thread continued after I forgot to keep reading. In case anyone is reading now, a couple responses:

1. md says: "Need one have spent one's entire career studying architectural theory in order to opine in an interesting way, in a medium of non-experts, about what a certain architectural aesthetic evokes? I think not. Professor Morrison thinks otherwise." No I don't. Of course we non-experts can express whatever views we want among ourselves. I can say I like this or that piece of architecture; md can say s/he likes another. Fine. But what I had read Rick to be doing was to be taking a position in a debate between experts. That's something different. If one wants to do that, it seems to me that one's intervention is useful only to the extent one knows the field well enough to understand how and why expert A is arguing for proposition X, and expert B for proposition Y.

To make the point more concrete, I think it's perfectly fine for someone to say "I understand that the merits of traditional v. modern architecture, and, indeed, what counts as traditional and modern in architecture, are matters of substantial disagreement among experts in the field. I don't pretend to know enough to evaluate the competing claims on their own terms. But when I look at a building as a layman, I tend to prefer this sort over that." One might also follow that up with, "And here's why . . . ."

When I objected in my earlier comment to non-experts "holding forth" on various subjects about which they are too poorly informed, I was thinking of people injecting themselves into debates among experts. Everyone has that right, of course. I just tend to wish they wouldn't exercise it so much. But if people want to just express their candidly inexpert views of things along the lines I've just described, that seems different to me. At least then the commenter is openly acknowledging the limitations of his/her views, without trying to privilege one side or the other of the experts' disagreement.

2. Kate thinks I'm referring to "some hypothetical experts" here. Not so. Rick's initial post referred to experts on either side of the traditional v. modern issue (Thomas Gordon Smith for the former; Henry Smith-Miller the latter). We don't have to guess as to what those experts are disagreeing about because the passage quoted by Rick identifies it, at least in part. So I'm not hypothesizing about anything. I'm taking Rick's post at face value insofar as it identifies a debate among experts over certain architectual styles (and their meanings), and I'm making a comment about the level of expertise needed to make a useful intervention in that debate.

Finally, I should add that Rick and I have actually clarified our positions in offline conversation, and I now don't think he was really meaning to take a substantive position in the disagreement among experts to which he referred. So my comments here are not really directed at him. They are responses to md and Kate, who I think have misunderstood my position. The misunderstanding might be my fault; maybe I could have been clearer before. In any event, I'm quite sure this horse has now been beaten to death.

Posted by: Trevor Morrison | Sep 11, 2006 10:10:02 AM

Trevor: Sometimes I get annoyed at people who post stunningly ignorant nonsense about a field that I happen to know. But I don’t understand why you would be annoyed at a person who posts (a) something completely plausible, (b) to which you don’t have any substantive objections, and (c) in the field you don’t actually know – simply because that person has no expertise in the field.

If you think there are glaring errors in what Rick said, point to them. Don’t just tell us that there is a nonzero chance that there are some hypothetical experts out there who might have found some errors in Rick’s post, but you aren’t sure who those experts are and what errors they might have found.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Sep 7, 2006 7:56:44 PM

Professor Morrison is certainly correct that "expertise matters." Perhaps he would argue, rightly, that it matters a great deal because "expertise" in any area makes one's thoughts about that area more interesting, subtle, illuminating, etc. than one's thoughts would otherwise be. But that's really beside the point. The question is what counts as "expertise" for the purpose of saying something interesting and thoughtful in a blog post. Need one have spent one's entire career studying architectural theory in order to opine in an interesting way, in a medium of non-experts, about what a certain architectural aesthetic evokes? I think not. Professor Morrison thinks otherwise. He says that he harbors the same views for most of the inexpert commentary that appears in this and other blogs (and surely, for that matter, that appears in countless articles in magazines, newspapers, and other media written by "inexpert" authors --e.g., in the New Yorker, the New Republic, the Times, etc.). In my view, that's an extraordinarily austere and parsimonious approach to the value of the exchange of ideas in the public square.

Posted by: md | Sep 7, 2006 6:55:13 PM

I'm afraid that would just lead me to think that too many people too frequently are too willing to hold forth on matters about which they are too poorly informed. In short: expertise matters. How can one be an expert (or poorly or well informed) on a purely subjective matter such as aesthetics? Even when a style of architecture becomes particularly associated with a certain era - the Seven Sisters in Moscow, for example - I'm not sure it can be said - by an expert or not - that the style of those buildings is totalitarian. It is merely that those buildings are associated with a totalitarian era.

When I look at the plans for the new tower someone is intending to erect in Chicago, the "Fordham Spire," it is hard to reach any conclusion but that someone is trying to compensate for something. I'm not sure if that is a subjective opinion, but it is certainly not an expert one, and I'm not sure how a degree in architecture would help me better understand why anyone would want to place a giant sex toy in the Chicago Loop.

Posted by: Simon | Sep 7, 2006 10:14:50 AM

No, md, my comments don't have anything to do with any disagreement on my part with the substance of Professor Garnett's views. I really don't know enough about architecture to know how properly to assess claims that this or that design reflects imperialist or democratic sensibilities. I have gut feelings about the aesthetics of things, sure, but I'm inclined to view those gut feelings as not very reliable, since I really don't know anything about this field. Other people spend their whole careers studying architecture. I'm comfortable saying that I don't know what they know, and that I'm not well situated to evaluate their claims about the relative merits of different designs.

Maybe my comments would rule out a bunch of other comments here and elsewhere in the blogosphere; maybe not. I don't know. But if they would, I'm afraid that would just lead me to think that too many people too frequently are too willing to hold forth on matters about which they are too poorly informed.

In short: expertise matters.

Posted by: Trevor Morrison | Sep 6, 2006 10:08:24 PM

Heaven forbid that anyone without expertise in architectural theory state a view about what does or doesn't reflect "imperialist" or "democratic" aesthetic sensibilities. With all due respect, Professor Morrison, your position seems to rule as out of order more than half the posts on this and many other blogs. Or are your observations limited to the field of architectural theory? Your comments wouldn't have anything to do with your disagreement with the substance of Professor Garnett's view, would they?

Posted by: md | Sep 6, 2006 8:40:02 PM

A modern building is a joy to behold - and will stand the test of time.The core of the United States Capitol is over two hundred years old, and barring terrorist incident, will probably still be sitting on what used to be called Jenkins' Heights in another two hundred years. I doubt that any of your modern palaces of "angles, arcs, glass, high-tech materials and computer-aided design" will still be standing in one quarter of that time, having long-since been demolished in favor of the latest fad or fashion in building design.

The peculiar thing about the flavor of the month is that it changes ever month. What is in today will be out tommorow. There is a reason why everything in fashion is "the new black": because classic never goes out of style. A century hence, nobody will know or care who Norman Foster was, but the buildings of Giles Gilbert Scott will continue to inspire respect and affection.

Public buildings should aspire to Jefferson's reported reaction to the plans for the Capitol: "simple, noble, beautiful, excellently distributed."

Posted by: Simon | Sep 6, 2006 5:38:42 PM

Eh Nonymous,
Well, that's your opinion, you're welcome to it, and good luck getting a new Chief Architect appointed who agrees with you. Personally, I think it's a grand choice.

Posted by: Simon | Sep 6, 2006 5:20:17 PM

Advantage: old? Are you nuckin' futz?

Advantage: old is most definitely advantage: boring.

I've been to only a few federal courthouses. 1 First Street. The one facing the St. Louis Arch where Dred Scott came to be rebuffed at trial (what a dump, by the way, inside). A few others.

By far the prettiest, the most lively, the brightest, the best to work in, the nicest to visit, and the best to practice in are NOT the ancient, the columniated, the boring, the ornately Imperial.

A faux-Parthenon is dull, dull, dull. Give me something that uses windows, angles, arcs, glass, high-tech materials and computer-aided design. "Grand"? Give me a break. Office blocks indeed - in D.C., a Roman temple by any other name IS an office block, where government peons toil in darkness. A modern building is a joy to behold - and will stand the test of time. Sticking with the anchor of the old produces train wrecks a-plenty. And, better to reach and fail, than to cleave to the past and achieve nothing whatsoever.

On the other hand, if this retrogressive fellow has learned anything from modern architecture, maybe he'd have some ideas about how to build a *comfortable,* *useful* building. I have my fears though.

Posted by: Eh Nonymous | Sep 6, 2006 5:12:38 PM

Most definitely advantage old. Not because it is old, but because it displays an understanding of what a public building should be. And, to be brutally honest, because most modern architecture strikes me as being a train wreck in general. looking at the pictures linked of "new" style courthouses, Vegas, Fresno, Buffalo, Syracuse and Seattle are office blocks by any other name, a complete failure to understand the conception of a public building. Lexington is inoffensive but suffers from the same essential defect in kind: it looks like it might house the head office of a bank or a brokerage, or a consultancy firm. It is not a public building. It's not a total loss, though - Hall county and Albuquerque are nice, and I'm undecided on Minneapolis.

Frankly, the whole idea that a building can communicate a meaning such as "imperial" or "republican" to anyone who has not been trained to believe they can impute such qualities into a building they are designing seems a little peculiar. It seems like the conceit of an architect who believes his building carries a message - one thinks obviously of someone like Daniel Libeskind - a message which none-the-less escapes 99% of all the people who will ever use or see the building.

I therefore greet the news of the appointment of someone who looks back to an altogether grander approach to public building - and one who does not believe that every building must be identikit steel-and-glass facade - with some enthusiasm.

Posted by: Simon | Sep 6, 2006 4:43:45 PM

Well, I appreciated this post, because I didn't know about the new border station in Champlain NY, near my hometown. Any new building there is pretty exciting stuff. But I can't tell from the only graphic I can find what's different about it, unfortunately.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Sep 6, 2006 2:59:15 PM

None of this will matter a lick because the judiciary's budget constraints prevent it from completing even planned courthouse construction. The judiciary is forced to pay rent to GSA and cannot negotiate its rates. (The judiciary is GSA's largest tenant--the other big federal agencies--DOD, VA, State, e.g.--were smart enough to avoid falling into GSA's rent-trap).

Posted by: miser | Sep 6, 2006 2:15:39 PM

Trevor, I'm not sure I'd translate my previous comment that way. Again, I'm definitely no expert, but I am, I think, interested in and "familiar" with the relevant information. And, although I do, I think, "understand" Smith-Miller's claim, I was suggesting -- recognizing, as you are right to remind me I should, that there's a whole lot I don't know -- my doubts (grounded, again, in a layperson's informed interest, and not in expertise) about the thesis that an "anti-progressive" architectural view or vision should be troubling because it serves "imperial," rather than democratic, values.

As for the "point" of the post, I guess it was an excuse to post all those pictures of courthouses from Concurring Opinions, and to pass on the news -- which, I thought, might be of interest to Prawfs types -- about the possibility of a new direction in courthouse architecture. Best, R

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 6, 2006 2:03:10 PM

Thanks Rick. I don't mean to be a stick in the mud here, but now I just can't figure out the point of the post. Your revised statement basically says, "I'm not familiar with the body of knowledge that would provide answers here, and so I don't understand the claims of one group of experts on that body of knowledge." How could it be otherwise?

Posted by: Trevor Morrison | Sep 6, 2006 1:47:08 PM

Trevor, you are right. I was too flip in my post. I should have said (something like) "I am only an interested layperson when it comes to architectural theory and history, but -- that said -- it is not clear to me why Professor Smith's traditional vision and views should be troubling to those of us who think that the architecture of American public buildings should reflect and serve democratic -- or, civic republican -- values." Thanks.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 6, 2006 12:26:07 PM

Rick, you say you "guess [you] don't buy the claim that Modern, contemporary, or 'progressive' architecture exudes an attitude of service to democracy." Is your view based on knowledge of architectual theory? I certainly have no such knowledge, and so my response to claims about architecture exuding "imperialist" or "democratic" values is that I simply don't know enough to pass judgment. You evidently don't take that position. Instead you reject the views of one apparent expert in the field (Smith-Miller) and implicitly embrace the views of another (Smith). Can you say why?

Posted by: Trevor Morrison | Sep 6, 2006 12:04:42 PM

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