Jeffersonian-style courthouses, with massive columns and elevated porticoes, may be derived from the Greco-Roman culture that invented democracy, but they throw their architectural weight around like the authority figures they are. African-Americans in the South commonly regard their colonnaded façades not as protective, avuncular presences but as oppressive afterimages of the Big House. The very posture of these classicized buildings – heavy, internalized, closed – conveys commanding messages about social obedience.
Moored just north of the Southern State Parkway in Central Islip and rising high above the treetops, the titanic, blazingly white new U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building by Richard Meier is monumental. But its abstract language – a classic Modernist exercise in point, line, plane, and volume – radiates fresher, more egalitarian images relatively free of cultural baggage. A lookout by day and a lantern at night, the 600-foot-long, 235-foot-high glass façade, protected by a dynamically bowed and gridded sunscreen, allows views from all the public spaces inside to the sweeping plaza out front and the Atlantic in the distance. It is not a fortress but a building intended to portray an updated, twenty-first-century sense of justice characterized by openness, accessibility, and transparency.
The U.S. General Services Administration, working with Judge Leonard Wexler, wanted a building whose design would instill respect for the judicial system. Awe, however, is an infrequent by-product of Modernist architecture, which – with its easy-flowing floor plans and glass expanses – too often falls short in commissions charged with ceremonial and iconic roles. Hiring Meier involved risk: How would his cool, stark abstractions, appropriate perhaps for modern art museums, mesh with the needs of the courthouse for gravitas and dignity?
During the heyday of postmodernism, Meier’s New York phone went cold and his famously white structures were built far from the city, either in Europe or in California. The courthouse represents not only a welcome New York comeback for Meier but the return of a reconstructed Modernist. In his design, Meier grew beyond the episodic village he designed in the Los Angeles hills for the Getty Center, where he carried over familiar formal complexities and a collagist sensibility from previous projects.
Walk across the bleached concrete forecourt in Islip and you are entranced by a tilted, truncated cone that, like a totemic object, leads you on. Standing against the aluminum-paneled tapestry of Meier’s façade, and serving as its entry portal, the tower is punctuated top and bottom with talismanic geometric knots surrounding the balcony and entrance openings. Just past the glass canopy and beyond the threshold, the tower climaxes in a vertiginous space whose convergent lines zoom up to a skylight crossed with another geometric knot backlit by the sun and sky. The conical space simply amounts to the rotunda usually buried within a traditional courthouse, which Meier repositioned here in front of the main building in a syntactic shuffle. This breathtaking chimney of space inaugurates a Corbusian promenade architecturale leading to another very tall, if less inspired, cubic atrium, where elevators rise to long courtroom corridors offering an ocean panorama that is rarely glimpsed mid-island.
Meier talks of a new clarity in his work. Like a stake, the “rotunda” grounds the building in the site. The second atrium, which separates the criminal and bankruptcy courts, serves as the stage for a processional staircase leading up to the Special Proceedings courtroom, where new citizens are sworn in. Meier layers the building front to back, with a clear separation of circulation paths for visitors, prisoners, and judges.
That the building works like an efficient machine is not the reason it is masterly. With that cone, the architect has created a building that has the arcane mystery of an astronomical observatory. What differentiates Meier’s displaced rotunda from, say, I. M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre is that Meier breaks the symmetry of the Platonic form by leaning its vertical axis away from the action of entry, as though the cone were listing in sympathy with the vector of pedestrian movement. Meier has often skewed his plans off the right angle in his complex horizontal collages, but rarely has he tipped the vertical axis.
The tilt amounts to barely five degrees, but it subtly questions gravity’s equilibrium, while the knotted geometries take the eye into their inexplicable intricacies. The light entering through the oculus at the top floods the space with hypnotic patterns of light and shadow. The entry provokes awe in the way the prow of a boat or the chute of a dam captures a viewer who can’t quite wrap his mind around the soaring vision.
Working with former partner in charge of design Thomas Phifer and project architect Renny Logan, Meier massed the 23 courtrooms and public spaces into a hefty 718,000-square-foot building block, but the authority of the design comes more from inspiration than from the physical imposition of mass. We know from so many courtroom dramas that jurisprudence is neither linear nor absolute – that moments of inspiration and irrationality regularly and irregularly tangle the net of apparent reason. Meier’s design recognizes that paths to judgment are not necessarily straight. The architect suggests the imponderability of the legal process and, counterintuitively, makes the mystery heroic. The truth of law is no longer carved in stone and immovable Platonic geometries.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the cone – which is, after all, only a vestibule – is its escape from the “value engineers” who usually snip off anything not overtly functional. Given the second atrium, the cone is almost redundant, and yet it is the soul of the building. Meier argued that the rotunda was an integral part of the architectural promenade weaving through the building, and miraculously it survived. Materials that would have protected the courthouse in many places did not make the cut, and as a result, the building’s custodians are in for a lifetime of grooming acres of easily bruised Sheetrock.
Heading into the courthouse design, Meier faced the problem of many artists chosen for their signature style – how to keep it, yet change and grow? At Islip, he was at the top of his game. Remarkable for its spatial richness, its formal complexity, and the gyroscopic plays of light on luminous surfaces, the main structure is powerful and subtle. Based on the grid, and marching along with the rhythm of a band, it remains a characteristic example of Meier’s regularity and rationality. What is new and compelling is the monumental enigma that everyone must pass through. It makes you wonder.