A draft White House executive order revising national guidelines for federal architecture cites the US courthouse facility in downtown Austin as an example of a government building with “low aesthetic appeal.” Good heavens!
The draft order with the title “Make federal buildings beautiful again” would shape the design of future federal structures enormously by requiring adherence to a “classic architectural style” versus more modern designs – and Austin’s courthouse, along with the San Francisco Federal Building and Miami’s own federal court, is one of the three specific examples the Order cites as a failure To give “a visual testimony to the dignity, entrepreneurship, strength and stability of the American government”.
The design criticizes the quality of the architecture as part of the General Service Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence program because it has not succeeded in reintegrating “our national values in federal buildings” that have too often been “influenced by brutalism and deconstructivism” .
– Architectural Record, February 4, 2020
The courthouse opened on the former site of the infamous Intel Shell in downtown 501 West Fifth Street 2012 with design by architects from Atlanta Mack Scogin Merrill Elam and local company Page. It’s right next to historic Republic Square Park.
In 2016, the facility received an award from the Justice Facilities Review American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the jury had many superlatives at hand:
The jury found this project to be a finely crafted instrument that is not excusingly modern and that appropriately conveys the dignity of the institution. The connection to the heavily used public space is so important, and the building entrance and lobby are very effective as an extension and extension of the public space. This reinterpretation of justice is clearly a mature expression and manifests itself as well-founded in its place, at the same time lavish yet modest, even reserved, spatially and functionally complex, subtle and graceful in its details, thorough and consistently attentive.
The well-proportioned, asymmetrical courtrooms appear to have a good balance between formality and wit. Much of the wealth seems to be directly communicated through the well-choreographed palette of materials, expressing appropriateness and longevity through good workmanship – an exemplary project in every way.
– Review of AIA judicial institutions in 2016
It’s hard to tell an architect that you don’t like his building more concisely than arguing that its existence sets a precedent for federally prohibiting future designs of its kind, but we don’t really believe the Austin Courthouse will deserves a lot of hatred. The only complaints we’ve heard about its design are about the safety requirements of a federal building, which is hindering its pedestrian accessibility, and you can blame Timothy McVeigh for this, not the postmodern architecture.
In response to reports on the draft, the AIA tweeted this statement:
The AIA emphatically rejects uniform style mandates for federal architecture. Architecture should be designed for the specific communities it serves and should reflect the diverse places, thoughts, cultures and climates of our wealthy nation. Architects are committed to honoring our past, reflecting on our future progress, and protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.
Eric Rauser, The Austin 2020 AIA Chapter President also made a statement:
Advocating for or against a certain architectural style undermines and demonstrates a lack of understanding of architectural design. Buildings must be designed to match the natural and cultural context in which they are located. The US Courthouse in Austin embodies the values of the current guiding principles of federal architecture and reflects the values of our city in many ways, including respect for public space and regional materials. AIA Austin appreciates the virtues this building embodies and the work of all of our members.