Way back in 1978 or thereabouts Springfield representative Ed Boland, yes, he of the Boland Amendment, got money for building a new federal courthouse in Springfield. As a broad redevelopment of the downtown was very much underway it was decided to place the new courthouse right on Main Street and to use the attached parking facility to wedge in a new home for a local professional theater group.
The federal building was gray, drab, and lifeless. Its plaza was unwelcoming and cold. Post Office Alley, which cuts between the two structures and was intended to be a continuation of an attractive alleyway on Fort Street, was the most urbanistically successful portion of the design, but the failure of downtown retail to rebound from what was hoped to be only a temporary lull never allowed the space to reach its full potential.
Within 15 years of its opening the federal building was viewed as having inadequate facilities within the building in terms of keeping jurors, judges, and defendants appropriately separated; it also failed from a post Oklahoma City security standpoint, and it was too small to provide adequate space for the agencies it was intended to house. Add to that the fact that nobody liked it, especially the staff of the local congressman, and a push began to build yet another courthouse and federal building, and the old building was handed over to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As a footnote, the state has turned the building into a gem and the plaza into a real winner.
I was very involved in the process of bringing the new courthouse to Springfield. I not only lived right across the street from where it was to be located on State Street, but I was also working as the community liaison for the Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association which was the neighborhood group which worked with the GSA to ensure that all of the guidelines for community input were followed. In the early 1990’s there was a recognition that a lot of federal money had been spent to design and build structures which hadn’t done cities any favors in terms of beauty, livability, and economic development and so a Design Excellence Program was created in hopes of ensuring better outcomes.
At the first few meeting with the GSA representative we were given photographs of some courthouses which had been built under this new program. Some were really beautiful. One or two were hideous. The location where the courthouse was to be built sits on a corridor with multiple impressive historic buildings:
There was a fear that the new courthouse would either be a bland sort of black hole in that trajectory, or worse, that it would be a modernist piece-of-shit middle finger to everything around it. Everyone at the neighborhood level was ready for a pitched battle. In the middle of all this the city forester determined that there were two inviolate trees on the selected property, one of which was possibly over 500 years old, and the design of the new structures needed to preserve them.
Springfield is pretty small potatoes as federal buildings go so getting a design which did the job of being a courthouse and federal building, preserved the stately elegance of the corridor, and preserved the two historic trees seemed like a big ask of the architects who might be expected to bid on such a financially modest project. Springfield got lucky in that one of today’s most celebrated architects had a collaborator who was not only from the city, but had gotten wind of the development and urged Moshe Safde to create a design for the project.
If memory serves there were three design finalists. Despite its thoroughly contemporary style the Moshe Safde design was far and away the most popular among the members of the community. I can’t recall the style of the other designs, I believe they were all more or less “non-traditional”, but I’m not sure of that. I am certain that the overall concern about the impact of the building on the streetscape disappeared.
This essay is not a random historical sketch about courthouses in the city of Springfield. The debate regarding federal buildings and design styles has erupted over the last few weeks and it was what prompted me to excavate these events from my memory. Arguing about taste and preferences is about as close to a useless endeavor as I can think of. I happened to visit my old high school last weekend for an open house, it’s now a condominium where I actually lived for 12 years. I took these pictures of the central library:
And the Moshe Safde courthouse:
I can’t imagine not being more inspired by the library.
But I also can’t imagine liking fish; that doesn’t mean that I think that other people are lying when they say they do like fish, but it also doesn’t make fish taste any less nasty and disgusting to me. That said, some contemporary architecture, like the new courthouse or the Basketball Hall of Fame, are like swordfish, they’re not too fishy, which is to say they are not too “whatever it is I hate about some modern buildings”.
But this needs to be deconstructed a little bit. They are less offensive for somewhat different reasons. The courthouse does a good job of maintaining the warm feel of the elegant boulevard on which it sits both for the pedestrian and the motorist: a pretty amazing achievement. Day and night it really enhances its surroundings.
The Hall of Fame has no streetscape. The roadway it sits on is essentially a service road and an access corridor to an interstate. That this agglomeration of roadways severs the city from the waterfront is not the fault of the architects of this one structure, that decision was made decades ago. The hoophall is intended to be both an iconic structure creating an impression for people zooming by at 65 mph, and a modern sculpture representing both the sphere of the actual ball and the arc on which it travels. (And it’s a strip mall!)
There’s a difference between urbanism and architecture. I snapped this picture in Westfield a few weeks ago, long before I had even thought of writing this post, because it so well illustrates that significant point:
One of the four buildings is a fine example of prewar architecture. Of the other three the one with the closest thing to what one might call “design” is as vacant as the most beautifully designed building; it’s the two total pieces of crap, architecturally, which actually have tenants! As we walked along that side of the road, before we crossed and I took the picture, I hadn’t even noticed the disparity. Within a core neighborhood urbanism trumps architecture: Does it frame the street? Is it permeable? Does it perpetuate whatever syntaxes and grammars surround it?
I’m on the local historical commission, I live in an 1870 French Second Empire townhouse, I prefer traditional architecture, overall, to the International style, Deconstructivism, and Brutalism, but I do enjoy, from a distance and as sculpture, for example, the works of Santiago Calatrava, but I think they’d be a disaster on most downtown streets and in almost any walkable place.
To me, my most under-appreciated essay was the piece I wrote comparing Chuck Marohn and Michael Pollan. In essence they arrive at the same conclusions for the same reasons about two contemporary disasters in our society despite the fact that there might appear to be no connection between them. While the most entertaining critique of modern architecture I’ve seen, from Leon Krier, takes a very different extremely polemical tack; a less impassioned, alternative critique, also ends up aligning with the Marohn-Pollan assessment of development/food: In breaking down and atomizing what we did and could understand of the elements of building buildings we then used our fossil fuel engorged modern capacities to produce a completely new formulation which failed to integrate the more numinous, and ephemeral qualities which our limited knowledge overlooked.
We didn’t know what we didn’t know and so, much like industrial food pleases but doesn’t nourish, and sprawl facilitates but doesn’t fulfill, modern architecture stimulates, but it often alienates; individuals from the environment and itself from its surroundings. Like fast food and big box power centers we can survive a little bit here and there, any more than that is mortally dangerous.