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A mixed verdict on Mayne courthouse

An Oregon building hints at the difficulty of finding architectural middle ground.

December 05, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

EUGENE, ORE. — There haven't been many arranged marriages in architectural history more intriguing than the one set up seven years ago between Thom Mayne, who runs the Santa Monica firm Morphosis, and Michael Hogan, who has been a federal judge in this college town since the 1970s.

Though similarly headstrong, the two men are polar opposites philosophically. Mayne is an unapologetic leftist, Hogan a religious and political conservative. They began sparring soon after Mayne was picked in 1999 to design a new federal courthouse for which Hogan, then senior district court judge for the region, served as de facto client.

Hogan, who says he was "horrified" when Mayne landed the courthouse job, had been dreaming of a new building along the lines of Cass Gilbert's handsome, colonnaded Supreme Court in Washington, from 1935, a design symbolic of stability and bedrock ideals. The main themes of Mayne's work, on the other hand, are the fragmentation and dissonance of contemporary life, which he represents with stark, slashing architectural forms. But over time the judge and the architect reached a productive detente: Mayne turned Hogan into a fan of contemporary architecture who now wears black turtlenecks and cool glasses, and Hogan coaxed Mayne toward a more orderly vision of civic design.

At least that's how the charmingly redemptive narrative was shaping up as the $72-million Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse was under construction. The courthouse itself, which opened Friday, tells a more complicated story.

It is indeed the most humane and accessible public building of Mayne's career. You can tell that even from the freeway overpass that wraps around two sides of the 270,000-square-foot, five-story courthouse. And with its fluid exterior, wrapped in a graceful series of horizontal metal panels, it marks the beginning of a new formal approach for Morphosis, one in which ribbons of space replace canted, folded planes.

But the design lacks the mesmerizing force and sharp sense of conviction that have made so much of the firm's work, for all its sullenness, impossible to ignore or forget. Rather than lead Mayne into fresh, inventive territory, as unusual pairings between architect and client can do, his much-touted meeting of the minds with Hogan produced a building more genial than thought provoking. The result suggests that cultivating architectural middle ground can be a good deal tougher than merely staking it out.

The building, which replaces a Chiquita cannery on the east end of downtown Eugene, near the Willamette River, does make clear the extent to which Mayne and Kim Groves, his chief partner at Morphosis on the project, embraced a genuine collaboration with Hogan. Its entrance is raised on a classical plinth. But the plinth is faced mostly in glass, a contemporary gesture that suggests not only openness but fragility.

Similarly, the entry hall, perched atop a broad concrete staircase, combines a reference to the piano nobile -- the elevated public room common in Renaissance buildings -- with the vertiginous, carved spaces that have become a trademark of Morphosis' recent work.

Surprisingly for a Mayne design, the courthouse radiates a warmth and charm from its core, particularly in its half-dozen courtrooms, which are lined in cherry and walnut, filled with natural light and reflect countless hours of give-and-take between the judge and his architect.

But other elements of the design are so obvious as to be saccharine, such as the copy of the Constitution, in Jeffersonian script, blown up to huge scale and stretched across the walls near the metal detector.

The faint sense of lost opportunity that suffuses the building has implications that go beyond Eugene and Mayne's resume. It opens at a moment when the General Services Administration, the agency that brought Mayne and Hogan together and that oversees most federal building projects, has been mired in a period of deep indecision about its future.

It was the GSA's longtime chief architect, Ed Feiner, who started a campaign to give federal commissions to high-design firms, an effort that ultimately helped Morphosis land a federal office building in San Francisco and a project for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Maryland, along with the Oregon courthouse,

After Feiner left the GSA early last year, the agency signaled it was headed in a more traditionalist direction. It removed a Chicago architect, Carol Ross Barney, from a courthouse commission in Alabama after complaints that her design was too radical. And for the last few weeks the agency had been close to naming Thomas Gordon Smith, former chairman of the architecture school at Notre Dame, to replace Feiner.

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