Doing A Lot Of Justice: Thom Mayne's Wayne L. Morse Courthouse in Eugene
The new Wayne L. Morse Federal Courthouse, designed by Thom
, is without a doubt the hottest new building in Oregon and yes it's
in Eugene, not Portland (insert envy here). It opens to the public on December
Still, the mind swims with two curious incongruities:
1) Huh, a hot new courthouse
is that possible?
Prize winning bad boy architect Thom Mayne
Yes, Mayne is an architect of visual disruptions (love those) while retaining
functionality and this courthouse accomplishes that in spades. Still a federal
courthouse commission virtually guarantees that the end result would be a child
of negotiated compromises, so it's no wonder the building comes off as more
stately than Mayne's more rake-ishly angular projects like the Hypo
in Klagenfurt, Austria.
It takes a very good architect to create something fresh under such moderated
circumstances and visually the Wayne
courthouse works. On the exterior metal ribbons peel off the outside
like a sci-fi fruit being peeled. On the inside the soaring atrium space is both impressively
tall, yet cozy and reminds me of the hearth in Frank Lloyd Wright's wingspread
house. The exterior is curved and metal so some will think Frank Gehry, but Mayne's work here is less clustered, rythmic or fugal in its forms.
The exterior ribbon design implies flow, process and continuity without being
closed off. The disruptions come from peeling ribbons, as if the courthouse
isn't completely dressed yet. It's probably the funnest thing to happen to the
court system since we stopped putting our judges in wigs.
To carry the design through to the core the courtrooms unfold like ribbon s
of slatted wood, not unlike Alvar
Aalto's Wolfsburg altar
. Once again, persistence and process is emphasized
rather than eagles and columns which are more allegorical symbols than undulating
unbroken lines etc.
Still much of the interior is calm rather than disruptive and surprisingly
this is where the building sings. How's that?
through the improbably well
executed use of public art commissions. The four artists Matthew Ritchie, Kris
Timken, Cris Bruch and the nationally rising Portlander, Sean Healy. Somehow
the Fed's managed to collect and place art in the building in a way that preserves
the dignity of the space while livening it up. Once again this is a highly mediated
kind of commission so the fact that most of these artists succeed here is a
kind of miracle.
Matthew Ritchie's Stare Decisis
The lead artist Matthew
(an expat Brit) completed an undulating sculpture, Stare Decisis
(stand by that which is decided)... an abstracted version of the nearby
Willamette river system. Here the undulating ribbons of the building's exterior
hearken back the metaphorical landscape in the sculpture and vice versa. The
sculpture presents law as a river, not earth shattering conceptually but it
looks real good.
lenticular images shift as one walks by
overwhelms the senses with information
and this seems much more gentlemanly,
which isn't bad... it shows his supple aesthetic chops but the three massive lenticular
light boxes titled, Life, Liberty and Pursuit seem very toned down. Still they
reinforce the river as law theme and the subtle lenticular shifts make walking
through the building a calming experience. If this were anything but a courthouse
I'd say missed opportunity. In this case it's an exercise in self-restraint
that Ritchie pulls off.
Kris Timken's Witness
By contrast one time Portlander Kristin
work seemed to be completely at home in her ouvre. Her pinhole
photographs of flora and landscape illuminate and enliven what otherwise could
have been a dull cave space in the bowels of the building. Look, if there was
ever a place where "flower power" mattered it's Eugene Oregon. The
delicate subject matter does disrupt the more brutal mass and angles of the
architecture. This work was a big hit with the staff.
's work was still under wraps when I toured the facilities but frankly
it just looked like obligatory large metal sculpture in front of the building,
nice but unremarkable next to the weirdness of a courthouse that doesn't look
completely dressed. I'm a big fan of his tornado/kudu
that I've seen in Portland and Seattle though.
Sean Healy's Jury Pool
Lastly there is Portland's
who has a lot of big public projects as well as a museum show
in 2007 at the CAMH in Houston. Yes, Jury Pool is another highly mediated art
piece but it succeeds by polka dotting the massive glass doors that jurors assemble
To produce the doors Healy
interviewed 108 random individuals asking them their favorite color and favorite
place in Oregon. The resulting subjective decisions were translated into GPS
coordinates and comprise a kaleidoscope of colored discs with faces that link
to places throughout the state. Interesting how Healy chose to use subjectivity
to present a prism of the possible jury pool. It's simple and works on both
an abstract and personal level as each colored disk contains a face that seems
familiar yet filled with strangers.
As a measure of its success it seems to provoke the most questions. Some even
want the map of Oregon to spoon feed them more information about the people
pictured, instead it asks them to map the coordinates above each image to the
map. Ohhh how dare public art make the public work and think! Once again, this
is not conceptually earth shattering but it should hold up as long as people
like polka dots, human faces, favorite colors and places. It's the emergent
community gathered in the work (tied to the space of the courthouse) that hearkens
back to the jury selection process and it succeeds in doing so without being
too literal. If you just want to look at it as an abstraction of dots it works
that way too.
Overall the integration of the artwork into the building is highly successful,
even compared to Rem Koolhaas' recent Seattle Library. The work inhabits the
building, and the 76 million dollar budget in Thom Mayne's hands seems to do
everyone; the city, artists, casual viewers, judges and even the architect a
lot of justice.
Read more in The
How is it possible that Eugene gets such an amazingly modern building, but we can't even get a sleek Apple store on 23rd because it will disrupt the "historical" neighbrhood.
I think the new $150 million dollar Multnomah country courthouse project that looms in the future is a great opportunity for a design comission... and it should have an art exhibition space built into it like the Portland building has, only a bit larger and less marginalized design-wise.
The tram is our new thing and hopefully it sparks many more interesting designs in the city.