Architecture & Design

The Extraordinary and the Ordinary: The Courthouse Cube

In the late 1960s Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke collaborated on a film and a novel, both titled 2001: A Space Odyssey. In each, monoliths inexplicably appear and trigger epic changes, but the monoliths differ between the two media: in Kubrick’s movie, the monoliths are large, black, and shaped like huge iPhones; in Clarke’s book they are crystalline glass.

The movie, thin on dialogue but thick with images and compelling music, includes sections — used without permission — of Gyorgy Ligeti’s experimental electronic music. The Kyrie section of his “Requiem” is the theme music for the appearance of the monoliths, which are teaching tools designed and fabricated by advanced extra-terrestrial beings, and sent to locations throughout the universe where conditions support the development of other advanced civilizations.

Earth qualifies, and the first intervention of the extraordinary into the ordinary triggers “the Dawn of Man,” transforming early humanoids from peaceful plant-eaters to tool-toting weapon-makers. They use their new technology to build better shelters, defend themselves, and whack the crap out of each other.

After this first intervention and via a dramatic match cut, Kubrick suggests the intervention of this first monolith is effective, and the leader of the newly enlightened humanoids signals the paradigm-shift is complete, tossing his bone-weapon-tool into the sky: triumphantly, silently, twisting. The other half of the match cut transitions millions of years to a future epoch, whose sign-symbols are the thick blackness of deep space and a satellite in silent orbit. And so it goes: inexorably onward, upward, ever forward toward the triadic acme of civilization’s achievements: War, Wendy’s, and Walmart.

New Monoliths: One Micro, One Macro
This spring, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, most of the continental United States, and half of Europe, two teaching-tool monoliths were unveiled: one micro, one macro.

The Micro: Designed by Architekturstudio Bulant&Wailzer and with a volume slightly less than 1 cubic foot, a small, glass, cuboid gravemarker was placed atop Gyorgy Ligeti’s tomb in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery), one of the world’s largest necropolises, where it is said: “Great composers go to decompose.”

The Macro: Concomitant with the Ligeti cuboid, a giant, steel and glass cube appeared on the west side of the 300-400 South West Temple block of Salt Lake City, Utah. The New Federal Courthouse is a luminescent metal monolith (volume a little less than 6 million cubic feet) designed by Thomas Phifer of New York City, with local firm Naylor Wentworth & Lund, Salt Lake City, as Architects of Record.

The new courthouse seemingly signaled a “call-to-gather” for glossator-trolls (the latter-day descendants of the early hominoids), as articles about the building initiated their migration back to the waterhole, where they are jumping up and down, grunting and shrieking about the money wasted on this “Borg Cube.”

The Process: Profound Ideas and Powerful Personalities
The new courthouse was over fourteen years in the making. In 1997 the General Services Administration (GSA) solicited Statements of Qualifications from architects interested in designing a new courthouse in Salt Lake City, as the old building was not well-situated to mitigate against Oklahoma City-like bombings; nor did the old courthouse meet new requirements for keeping prisoners separate from judges.

Choosing a Lead Design Architect and an Architect of Record was governed by two important things: a document, and a process, each the “brain(+persistence)child” of unique individuals: Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ed Feifer. Indeed, these two may be second only to the architects in responsibility for the building ensconced in concrete and steel on the downtown Salt Lake City sites of the old Port of Call and Odd Fellows buildings.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s life history (1927-2003) follows an Horatio Alger-like trajectory: born in poverty, he shined shoes and hawked papers in New York City, became a longshoreman, served in the U.S. Navy, advised several presidents, and was a U.S. Senator (New York). A polymath, he wrote 18 books, prompting friend and Washington Post columnist George F. Will to remark that he had written more books than most senators have read.

In 1962, while serving on the staff of the Secretary of Labor, young Mr. Moynihan was assigned to write the report of an Ad Hoc Committee commissioned to collect data on office-space usage by federal agencies. With much moxie, and a dash of chutzpah, Moynihan not only recorded the committee’s mundane results regarding total square footage requirements of the federal government, he liberally expanded the scope of his report, and suggested guiding principles for federal architecture, which came to the attention of President John F. Kennedy who made them “official.” As enumerated on the United States General Services Administration (GSA) website, they include these important value statements:

  1. The design of Federal office buildings…must meet a two-fold requirement. First, it must provide efficient and economical facilities for the use of Government agencies. Second,it must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government.
  2. It should be our object to meet the test of Pericles’ evocation to the Athenians: ‘We do not imitate-for we are a model to others.’
  3. Major emphasis should be placed on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.  Specific attention should be paid to the possibilities of incorporating into such designs qualities which reflect the regional architectural traditions of that part of the Nation in which buildings are located.
  4. The development of an official style must be avoided. The Government should be willing to pay some additional cost to avoid excessive uniformity in design of Federal buildings.

These guiding values have continued to resonate half a century later, underpinning a variety of factors that influence the construction of new federal buildings, including the Design Excellence process implemented by Ed Feiner. From 1996-2005, Feiner was the Chief Architect of the United States (his title as head of GSA). Known for his engaging personality, crewcut, and cowboy boots, he is credited with “revolutionizing” the GSA through the development of a process that inspired implementation of Moynihan’s Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.

According to the GSA, his Design Excellence processelevated the profile of design in public buildings and led to “the selection of many of the country’s most talented architects, engineers and artists for federal building construction and renovation projects over the past decade.” These projects, the GSA’s mission states, create environmentally responsible and superior workplaces for civilian federal employees; and give contemporary form and meaning to our democratic values.”

Architects short-listed for consideration by a panel of experts compete for the commission through a “Design Concept (or Vision) Competition” wherein the applicants prepare presentations of their ideas, concepts, and “vision” of the shape, form, and materials of the new building. Further, the process requires at least 35 percent of the design effort be done within the state where the new building is located.

The Architects: Thomas Phifer & Partners
In 1997, a joint venture between Thomas Phifer & Partners (TP&P), of New York City, and Salt Lake’s Naylor Wentworth & Lund (NW&L) won the design competition for Utah’s new courthouse. NW&L provided the local licensure, familiarity with local codes and ordinances, and a sense of the lay of the local landscape. TP&P provided the internationally-recognized reputation as a top design talent.

Tom Phifer (born 1953, South Carolina) meets Moynihan’s standard for choosing designers who embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought. He is perhaps best known for the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, the Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University in Houston, and the design for the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland. He has received the prestigious Rome Prize in Architecture from the American Academy in Rome, the Medal of Honor from the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Architecture Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His buildings have won seven AIA National Honor Awards and fourteen AIA New York Honor Awards, and his Salt Point House won an American Architecture Award from the Chicago Atheneum in 2008.

And, important for our story, from the perspective of one who may be the #1 Talent Scout in the architectural profession, Feiner told us that Phifer “ one of architecture’s leading lights with the capability and capacity to win its top awards.”

Phifer says the old Federal Courthouse at 351 S. Main Street inspired him with its simple clean details, and its feeling of federal dignity, and he wanted the new federal building to inspire similar sentiments. He says he experienced the emotions he sought for the new courthouse as he attended an event featuring the works of the iconoclastic sculptor Donald Judd: perfectly proportioned, luminescent aluminum cubes.

Hence, the new building is a simple form, a nearly perfect cube: with a base 180 feet x 180 feet, and a height of 200 feet, it just misses the perfect proportions of the Platonic Ideal (1:1:1), but the extra height helps achieve other design intentions.

Indeed, there is much going on with this building, and we may need a new vocabulary and words not normally used to describe buildings to fully appreciate it. Additionally, unique perspectival frameworks, and phrases that integrate paradoxes will be necessary for these conversations to be productive. Gyorgy Ligeti may be key.

Approaching the Courthouse via Ligeti
Ligeti (1923 – 2006), whose music Kubrick linked with his paradigm-changing monoliths, escaped Hungary in 1956, two months after Soviet tanks violently rolled into Budapest silencing the revolution. In Austria, he fell in with avant-garde musicians experimenting with electronic music to test their theories stretching the spacetime fabric of sound.

Humble and humorous, intelligent and innovative, Ligeti was a polymathic genius with “…far-reaching interest in different types of music from Renaissance to African.” He also read and thought deeply about “…literature, painting, architecture, science, and mathematics, especially the fractal geometry of Benoît Mandelbrot and the writings of Douglas Hofstadter” (Steinitz).

It is not a stretch to call Ligeti brilliant, as according to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Ligeti’s language and writings about his music suggest he was quite a bit above average at holding two opposing ideas in his mind at the same time. His words and phrases about music (a hearing-centric temporal art) are often spatial, architectural, and sight-centric. EXAMPLES: Texture, color, soundmass, density, chord clusters and tone clusters.

One of Ligeti’s disruptive innovations, and a favorite word, is micropolyphony, which he described as: “…a dense canonic structure. But you cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon. You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb…”(Bernard). A student of Ligeti said his micropolyphony is characterized by “dialectical reversals” to which micropolyphony gives rise, as it moves back and forth between a number of binary oppositions without ever coming to settle on one term or another. Simplicity/complexity, individual/mass, audibility/inaudibility, stasis/dynamism—” (Drott).

Polyphony that you cannot hear. Binary Oppositions. Simultaneous holding of opposing ideas in the mind. Juxtaposing antipodal words, and integrating paradoxes.  What a mind!!

Ligeti-like Paradoxes in the New Courthouse
In a dialogue regarding this new courthouse, an articulate local attorney commented insightfully about courthouses in general when he wrote me:

… they are for the overwhelming majority of those civilians who find themselves inside; the location of the near ultimate failure of human interaction. It is the refuge of last resort — trial for a crime, a lawsuit between neighbors, former partners and family, the end of marriages, begging to stop government overreach or neglect. Were it not for adoptions, there would be little true joy in these buildings. And even adoption takes place there because only the court can terminate the rights of birth parents.

A courthouse embodies such conflict, sadness and desperation, and should be beautiful in a complicated way.  To design otherwise may be unjust.
Phifer’s building is both beautiful and complicated, and full of the paradoxes that energize Ligeti’s music.

The paradoxes are felt in the different emotions evoked by the building’s interplay with light. The light inside the building is felt. Outside, it is observed.

Inside, white oak walls and cherry-wood floors form a seamless pedestal for the ceiling-to-floor windows: a grid of 380 suspended light pillars, a three-story circular glass staircase that floats on rods suspended from the fourth floor, and a ten-story atrium make the inside feel calm and nurturing.

But it is the exterior that has attracted much attention, and it is here we find some of the more compelling paradoxes of this building.

The metal exterior of the new courthouse gives claim to a density that is an appropriate sign-symbol of the “gravitas,” dignity and majesty of the federal government. But the gravitas is reconciled with its opposite — an uplifting motion and emotion and a soothing lightness through the selection of the luminescence of the metal and its vertical louvers which open and close, and suggest more than metal, while allowing maximum use of natural light and solar energy.

Architekturstudio Bulant&Wailzer’s description of their glass gravestone memorial to Ligeti could also describe the new courthouse:

[For] Ligeti glass is [Here we would say: “..for the new courthouse the metal exterior is…”] a living material which lives by the light, constantly changes its colour and transparency and is able to form layers, overlays, repetitions, to shift the images and to create simultaneous illusions for existence and non-existence… to be alive and to develop complexity and self-dynamic, to produce images and illusions…through the constantly occurring changes in lighting conditions and angles of view so that it is always perceived differently… where you can hear [“see”???] clearly how multiple processes run at the same time, all the layers of history are in motion and constant change…minimalist phase shifts, overlays and repetitive figures which accumulate constantly changing sound clouds.

Metal performing like glass and water: A pretty profound paradox, no?

The moving louvers have different dimensions depending on the face or side of the building on which they are installed, and they open and close in relation to the sun’s position, resonating at many levels, including veiling– then, unveiling– the inside of the building: while Lady Justice may be blindfolded, a new ethos expects some “transparency” on the workings of government.

The moving louvers, reflecting sky and light, allow changes in the building’s projections and reflections, minute by minute. An hour shimmers to the next. One day dances toward another, and the stream of each new spacetime moment, different from the last…Flows. New. Near. Musical. Magical. Distant.

Phifer suggested one metaphor for the building: “A beautiful luminous platonic cube placed in a garden-like setting.”

We add: “A monolithic teaching venue.” As The Courthouse “…embodies the conflict, sadness and desperation of broken relationships,” this iconic structure newly appearing in the Salt Lake Valley — and using the paradox-integrating language of Ligeti — helps us understand that you can start from simple premises then develop complex interactions that result in simple clean symmetrical beauty; that complexity and simplicity are necessary dualities; opaqueness yields clarity; failure contains the seeds of future triumph; that the security needs of a federal courthouse do not preclude a gossamer elegance; that on the other side of exclusivity and loneliness are inclusivity and nurturing.

Wilford Woodruff records that when Brigham Young first saw the Salt Lake Valley he said: “It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.”

Now, 165 years later, the Salt Lake Valley may be the right place and the Design Excellence process may be the right heuristic for producing an iconic building designed by an architectural rockstar. It remains to be seen what we will learn from this introduction of the extraordinary into the ordinary.

Bernard, Jonathan W. (1994). “Voice Leading as a Spatial Function in the Music of Ligeti”. Music Analysis 13, nos. 2/3 (July–October): 227–53.

Drott, Eric. 2011. “Lines, Masses, Micropolyphony: Ligeti’s Kyrie and the ‘Crisis of the Figure’”. Perspectives of New Music 49, no. 1 (Winter):4–46.

Steinitz, Richard. 2003. György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination. London: Faber and Faber.

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