U.S. Courthouse Building - Table of Contents
So far, so Good: the New Federal Courthouse
By Barry A. Muskat
Buffalo Spree, December 2009
Still under construction, the new federal courthouse is emerging in the form of an intriguing elliptical mass. Built on a site that occupies a full block of Delaware Avenue at Niagara Square, it’s neighbored by City Hall, the new Avant, and the McKinley Monument. It enjoys clear views of County Hall and almost every other city landmark. (The intimate proximity of the venerable Statler Building now makes that project’s forward movement even more crucial.)
The courthouse was a long time in coming. The process started fourteen years ago. When finally approved, it experienced substantial delay by the federal moratorium on courthouse construction, General Services Administration (GSA) funding cuts, and the competition from many other cities that also vied for new buildings. (There are currently approximately fifty cities with projects hoping to be approved.) It took vigorous advocacy by the WNY congressional delegation to finally get the project started.
Courthouse architect Bill Pederson (a founding partner and design partner of Kohn Pederson Fox) sees a strong correlation between the care invested in the way a courthouse is put together and the experience a person has when entering the judicial process; Pederson cites Judge Stephen Breyer’s careful oversight of Boston’s courthouse construction (before Breyer became a Supreme Court justice) as an important influence. The architect has designed three federal court buildings (Minneapolis, Portland, and now Buffalo) and has found the experiences to be “incredibly positive.” He observes, “The judges have unique personalities but with a commonality that shares a tremendous commitment to producing something first-rate.”
Pederson talks about the challenge of planning a building that would represent the highest level of construction while keeping within the very strict budget of the General Service Administration—its limitations have become increasingly demanding over the years. His firm initially presented three designs, challenged to meet that budget without compromising any aspect of the design. Noting that the most expensive ingredient of many building is the exterior wall, Pederson explains that the thought process that shaped the Buffalo courthouse structure benefits from the efficiencies of its basic geometries. A rectilinear building has ten percent more wall surface area than the cylindrical shape, so the inherent efficiencies of enclosing the conical design result in direct cost savings.
The design that emerged is essentially composed of three elements, with Pederson drawing an analogy to Santa Maria del Fiore, the great cathedral in Florence, Italy. That Renaissance icon includes the cathedral with Brunelleschi’s dome, the Baptistery, and Giotto’s bell tower. Those three components create an urban gathering place and represent a dialogue of community. That’s the goal Pederson’s design aims to achieve with its own tower, atrium, and courthouse buildings.
The courthouse would be analogous to the duomo. The elevator tower is like the campanile, but instead of a bell tower, the glass enclosure is topped by a glowing lantern. The atrium that faces Niagara Square becomes a gardenlike pavilion to welcome people into the main courthouse building.
In the ongoing controversy whether classical styles or Modernist designs are more appropriate for civic buildings, Pederson’s approach seems to respect and incorporate historic traditions while interpreting them in a contemporary vocabulary. The entrance pavilion will house a piece of art by Robert Mangold, the Buffalo-area-born, internationally known abstract painter. Pederson notes his work was selected because “It is very serene, almost Zen-like, in its quality. Artwork that would calm the spirit, rather than agitate, seemed an appropriate way to set the tone for people coming into the judicial process.” The commission coincided with Mangold’s series of column paintings, and the work is now being fabricated in Germany.
One of the biggest requirements of the building is to comply with very specific federal standards of resistance to potential explosives. If glass were used for the entire building shell, the cost of including this protection would demolish the budget. By using precast concrete panels, the blast requirements could be efficiently satisfied with a third of the cost. Glass leaves will be pinned to the concrete piers, leaving a one-foot separation between panels and building to allow them to be cleaned. (A mock-up showing the application is built at street level now.) These translucent glass panels will transform the visual characteristics of the ominous drum you see now, as well as functioning as a solar screen. As they pick up the afternoon sun, Pederson believes that they will reflect light, almost like the facets of a jewel.
The courthouse project is ten stories and 264,000 square feet. It will house the courts and judicial chambers that are currently in the Dillon Federal Courthouse on Court Street.
In addition to the building’s massive elliptical drum whose crown is dramatically slashed, there are several individual elements that look to me like they will be showstoppers. First is the sharp prow of the pavilion building formed by the meeting of two angled walls. Second is the strikingly tall elevator shaft that tapers with an interesting asymmetry to form a tower that will be capped by a lantern. Third is the taut glass triangle that forms a second prow looking north and south at the west end of each floor’s glass gallery.
The Federal Courthouse
The ten-story structure contains 264,000 square feet accommodating a hierarchy of courts, judicial chambers, and supporting spaces—jury deliberation rooms, circulation systems, laboratory, and myriad offices—all with state-of-the-art information and security technology. The precast concrete panels of the drum have been pinned with rectangular slabs of glass to give the skin a glass veil that also functions as a solar screen. The pavilion glass was still undergoing testing at the time of this writing but will be an interesting element, containing the entire U.S. Constitution etched on its surface. (It will actually read from the exterior and repeat a continuous pattern of the text.)
The stone veneer has been installed on the Delaware Street side of the building in large blocks of sandstone. This honed material (not highly polished) will repeat on the interior walls of the entry.
Courtrooms promise to be functional and handsome. The District Court judges’ court rooms on floors seven, eight, and nine are Vermont verde marble. The Magistrate judge’s courtrooms are wood. All interior finishes are progressing, with most of the ceilings and millwork finished.
Michael Roemer, clerk of the court, explains that the project is being finished “from the bottom up,” so that the lower floors are being completed first. The uppermost floors will be the last to be finished, but the entire building will be complete and operational when opened. He reports that the long-anticipated Robert Mangold glass commission—to be displayed in the entry pavilion—is ready for installation as soon as the building can accept it.
The glass curtain wall facing Niagara Square is spectacular and will prove to be a fantastic backdrop for the large plaza outside. Used for circulation or just as a break from court, it will be a prime space to relax and observe the urban scene. The prow of the pavilion building formed by the meeting of two angled walls will be a showstopper. The tall elevator shaft is already a highlight. Its lantern cap should be an instant icon when lit, a beacon for downtown’s future.
Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2016