Day Court

Terra cotta panels clad the building’s west side.
Tim Griffith

As America expanded westward, courthouses were the building blocks that gave new settlements a sense of legality and permanence. For a time they were the principle focus of civic identity, before being swallowed up in a tide of commercial highrises. The new San Diego Federal Courthouse strives, in its siting and elegant design, to enrich both downtown and the experience of its users. A slender 16-story tower rises from a park, and its lobby reaches out to neighboring federal buildings to create a civic hub. All the interiors, including the courtrooms, are naturally lit, and many are naturally ventilated.

This is the third federal courthouse that Richard Meier & Partners has designed, and West Coast principal Michael Palladino was determined to make it site-specific and take full advantage of the benign climate.

Overhangs and scrims provide shade (left). Natural light pours into the building’s lobby, a rarity for court architecture (right).
Tim Griffith

“The GSA has a 2,450-page manual that you have to follow to get your plan approved, but we challenged some of its rules,” he said. “If we had created a block with up to eight courtrooms on each floor, as they recommended, we would have occupied the entire site.”

Over several meetings he convinced his clients that it would be less expensive and more efficient to stack pairs of courtrooms above the public spaces, with court offices at the north and south ends. That would eliminate corridors and allow a single bank of dedicated elevators to serve judges, the accused, and other users. Public spaces on the east side would be fully glazed, the west side would be screened with terracotta panels, and courtrooms would be lit from clerestories to the front and rear.

Tim Griffith

Palladino also persuaded judges to allow courtrooms, which they regard as their privileged domain, to be reconfigured. He reduced the height of the bench to make it less overwhelming, and designed divisions and furnishings of blond wood. Engineering firm Arup ran lab tests on models to ensure good natural acoustics, and several judges have already praised the courtrooms for improving attitude and behavior.

Site plan (left). Elevation (center). Section (Right). Typical floor plan (below).
Courtesy Richard Meier & Partners

The public is equally well served. The narrow footprint is sandwiched between the traffic artery of Broadway and E Street, which has been pedestrianized. That footpath wraps around an oval-shaped entry rotunda, and leads into a landscaped plaza. To accommodate the mandatory 50-foot setback while preserving the building line on E Street, the first two floors are recessed and the upper stories cantilever out. The entry hovers half a level above the ground plane and is accessed by a broad ramp from Broadway and two narrow switchback ramps from the plaza. These double as a security barrier and Robert Irwin (who lives in San Diego) turned them into a green artwork, with Corten steel plates enclosing plantings. A second Irwin artwork—a prismatic acrylic obelisk created for a Northridge mall and kept in storage since the 1994 earthquake—reflects and refracts light within the lobby. The basket-like screen that encloses this lofty space was inspired by the wood-lathe roof vault of the botanical garden in San Diego’s Balboa Park. The jury assembly room opens onto a terrace and can be used for public events after hours. Translucent windows allow natural light into the marshals’ spaces below grade and judges have their own terrace near the top of the tower.

A Gold LEED rating is one measure of the Courthouse’s efficiency, but it triumphs in many other ways: as a graceful departure from the lumpish mediocrity of its neighbors, as a guardian of green space at the heart of the city, and by transforming public perceptions of the law in action. At a time when many have lost confidence in government, it’s salutary to be reminded that one branch can still serve the common good.

Related Stories