From the Government Studio, General

Salt Lake City: Assimilated by the Borg

SLC Federal Courthouse

Learn more about the Thomas Phifer & Partners designed courthouse here: [Photo: Scott Frances]

By Jim Nielson, FAIA, Senior Principal of CRSA’s Government Studio

A few years ago I worked with subcontractors, friends, and family members to build a home I had designed for my parents. Today my younger brother, who purchased the home after my mother passed away, reports that while people under the age of 20 fall in love with the home almost universally, the reaction of older visitors is mixed. They either love it or hate it.

Today it seems that the distance between architects’ tastes and public preferences has never been greater. In England, Prince Charles, spurred on by many of his subjects, encouraged reconstructing settings from the past. These historic re-creations refer back to patterns of building to which we are naturally and readily drawn. Buildings and neighborhoods of this sort embody time-honored ways of interacting with our built environment. Though they may be contrived, these reincarnated stage sets have the familiarity of a classic film. Like the carefully constructed backdrops they are, the traditional settings encouraged by Britain’s crown prince surround a stage for human endeavors that resonates in the hearts of participants and onlookers alike.

But while Prince Charles was pursuing his quest for traditional place-making, many of his countrymen and their EU co-conspirators (Richard Rodgers, Norman Foster, and Renzo Piano come to mind), were at the same time giving rise to three-dimensional abstractions that sometimes ended up with less-than-flattering monikers—names like the Gherkin (cucumber), the Dome, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie Talkie, and the Shard—to list just a few examples from London’s recent past.

Continuing in this tradition, an American architect recently favored Salt Lake City with an edifice that has earned a dubious nickname of its own. Our new United States Courthouse, on the corner of 400 South and West Temple, is known as the Borg.

In conversations and social media discussions about this distinctive new building, I’ve found that while architects tend to like it, people outside the profession don’t. Many seem to hate it! In fact, I’ve encountered just one person outside the profession willing to admit that he liked it.

Why the dichotomy of opinion? Perhaps it has to do with the way architects are educated (or, as some might suggest, programmed). From our nation’s beginnings and continuing all the way through the early 20th Century, architectural preparation in the United States was heavily influenced by the neo-classical approach of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The focus of the Beaux Arts method was a relentless study of historically significant classical precedents. The goal was to become conversant with the formal language of past masterpieces and to apply those formal principles with fidelity in crafting neoclassical, contemporary look-alikes.

Today, the approach of most architects is decidedly different. In a way, many of us have turned our backs on the past. We’re still interested in precedent, but by that we now typically mean buildings from the last six years—or maybe just six months. We look for the best ways to build today, using today’s materials, technologies, and construction conventions—in forms most suited to those means and methods.

We seek new design ideas in much the same way the citizens of Athens did, which Paul of the New Testament described as a people that “spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.”(Acts 17:21) That’s right. We are forever looking for the next new material or design concept that augurs a future trend. We offer our highest accolades for true architectural innovation. (But of course most of us still run with the herd, so we tend to pay homage to true innovation in the least innovative way—by imitating it!)

In architecture school today, besides lionizing the star architects of our day, we usually spend a great deal of time studying and discussing architectural theory. We aspire to be more artist than builder. Whether the image of the building takes one’s breath away matters more to most of us than whether the roof leaks.

And out of training and habit—outgrowths of the influences I have been describing—our visual cues don’t come from previous generations, because our design culture today insists that the past is passé. If we translate that overused foreign word, the end of that last sentence is redundant. It means (literally) that the past is past. Good point. Ideas from the past are indeed yesterday’s news. Hence the modern colloquialism: “That is so last week.”

A question architects may consider meaningful today is why we would ever think to create the structures of a bygone era with the materials and methods of the present? It is an almost universally acknowledged truth that today’s community of facility users, designers, builders, and managers deserves a setting that is both of our time and positioned for tomorrow’s generation.

But let us build well, we may contend. Let us not ignore the patterns of the past that have generated a built environment that helps humans not just interact, but thrive. At the same time, though, let us reinterpret those patterns and scale-giving elements so they make sense for our modern tools and materials and so that they are oriented toward the future. Please, let’s not simply photocopy the work of decades and centuries gone by.

In this context, the central question to pose with respect to our new courthouse is whether it looks to the past or whether it is our best effort today to look to the future. Admittedly, turning a building’s figurative eyes to the future means leading out in a new direction. Doing so, though often salutary, is inevitably challenging. It is easy to argue that the new building differs too much from surrounding structures—that it ignores its context. But as we try to imagine Salt Lake City fifty or one hundred years from now, we might wonder whether the new facility will not fit into the fabric of our city in that day more seamlessly than most of the building stock we so admire today.

And in the mean time, as an architect, I ask this of our new courthouse and of any new work of architecture: Does the building invite us to think, to imagine, to discover, and to reconsider? Does it suggest a shadowy nickname? Do we have to reach a bit to discuss what it is we like about it (or yes, dislike)?

And while considering such questions, if the building does engage us and give us pause, is that a good thing?

In the case of Salt Lake City’s new U.S. Courthouse, I am convinced that it is.

CRSA was the LEED Consultant for the new Courthouse (LEED Gold)