Across California many county seats are marked by historic courthouses, graced with stately domes, columns, and other references to ancient times. But a wave of new construction is bringing new courthouses of some contemporary distinction to more than half of the counties in California, from one-courtroom buildings high in the Sierras to a 71-courtroom facility in San Diego. The selection of architects is equally wide-ranging, with 36 firms ranging from established names like HOK, Richard Meier + Partners, and SOM, to small but well-regarded offices like San Francisco’s Mark Cavagnero Associates and San Diego’s Safdie Rabines Architects. In February the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), which is running the $6.7 billion modernization program, announced the commission of the last 13 projects for a total of 59.
“We’re not trying to make palaces, but we have an unparalleled opportunity to make a significant addition to 50 civic centers and downtowns,” said Clifford Ham, principal architect for the state’s Office of Court Construction and Management. “We’re going to be changing the context of a lot of communities.”
The wave of court building was prompted by legislation in 2002, which transferred responsibility for court facilities from the counties to the state, an arrangement that about half the states in the U.S. have arrived at. The funding comes from a bond measure passed in 2008 (Senate Bill 1407). To date, seven courthouses have been completed, with the remainder anticipated by 2016.
Judging by the designs revealed so far, there will be great variation in what the courthouse of the 21st century looks like: it could be a modern office tower or an updated lodge. Breaking ground this spring, AECOM’s Long Beach courthouse is a five-story glass-and-steel building with a large courtyard and naturally-lit courtrooms. Contra Costa County’s courthouse, designed by HOK, has a handsome limestone facade and a green roof. The more modest one-story, single-courtroom Plumas-Sierra courthouse by Nacht & Lewis has a pitched roof and wood-beamed ceiling. “We made a conscious effort to employ architects that may not have done court buildings before, instead of just the six or eight usual suspects,” said Ham.
New design guidelines emphasize functionality, durability, and ease of maintenance, as well as sustainability and energy efficiency (LEED Silver is currently prescribed). Each wave of projects has also brought the architects together for a design excellence forum. “You can sense the holistic attention they’re giving to the program, which is quite different from the usual project-by-project focus,” said Mallory Cusenbery of the Sonoma firm RossDrulisCusenbery, which is working on courthouses in Plumas and Sutter Counties. “I think it will help create a consistently high level of performance where the quality of all the projects are raised by the quality of the others.”