Monday, October 13, 2008

Some thoughts on the new NMCCA courtroom

Twenty-three miles north of where I sit are two sublime sports stadiums, each peculiarly well-suited to its function: Orioles Park and Camden Yards and whatever the Ravens' stadium is called this week. The older of the two, Orioles Park at Camden Yards, was built in 1992. If it didn't singlehandedly end the era of the duel-use sports stadium, it at least drove a stake through that blighted era's heart. If only it had also prevented the dual-use courtroom.

The disappointing new courtroom in the Washington Navy Yard is designed for use as both a trial-level and appellate courtroom. And it suffers due to its lack of a focused purpose. While I haven't seen an actual oral argument in the courtroom, if it is configured for appellate arguments as it was the day I saw it, then I think it will have the widest gap between the podium and the bench of any appellate courtroom I've ever seen. (See a picture of the courtroom on the second page of this link.) And that is a horrible blow to functionality. The ideal oral argument isn't an oration, but a conversation. The old tiny, intimate NMCCA courtroom on the first deck of the Washington Navy Yard's Forge Building was perfectly configured to promote conversation. But in the new courtroom, with its huge well, the advocate may feel the need to use a bullhorn to be heard at the bench. (Even the Building 200 courtroom used in the interim between Building 111 and Building 58 had a well-worn charm that is absent from its successor.)

Another blow to functionality concerns the building's exterior. Architecturally, the building is pleasantly plain. Its subtle architectural features -- including a small brick cornice and soldier course brick arches above the windows on the front elevation -- are even more understated because of the uniform white-wash exterior. And the traffic light sticking out from the building's east elevation is delightfully quirky in a naval space-saving kind of way. But it isn't at all apparent to me how a member of the public actually gets into the building. I had an appointment each of the two times I've been there, and I was barely able to get in. According to the JAGMAG article about the courtroom, "Facility requirements included both public and restricted entry." It seems to have failed to meet the former criterion.

Apart from these functionality problems, the courtroom is architecturally incoherent in the most literal sense of the word. At the University of Virginia there is a story -- probably apocryphal -- that attempts to explain why the University's chapel is a revival Gothic stone structure while all the buildings around it are neo-classical brick edifices. There was a mix-up in building materials intended for the UVA chapel, so the story goes, and Sage Chapel at Cornell University -- which is made of brick while all the buildings around it are stone structures. Well perhaps someone mixed up the plans for the NMCCA courtroom's ceiling with those intended for another courtroom and some jurisdiction has a brand-new modern industrial courtroom with a classical ceiling. Because the interplay between the new NMCCA's courtroom and its overhead is so discordant that the most charitable possible explanation is a mix-up in the building plans. You can see some of this effect in the picture available through the link above, though you've got to sit in the courtroom to appreciate the full effect. From the floor to about nine feet up the walls, the courtroom is traditional but boring. Unfortunately, nothing in the courtroom is evocative of a naval experience -- this could be a county courtroom in just about any state in the Union. What a missed opportunity. Worse still, the marble in the courtroom -- no doubt intended to give the room a classy feeling -- looks like something out of a mid-range tract McMansion. It suggests not class, but an attempt at classiness. But from nine feet or so up, the room is exposed industrial -- with ceiling supports and HVAC equipment visible from the traditional courtroom below.

I suspect that functionality concerns -- so overlooked in the building's exterior -- suddenly took over in the courtroom itself and explain the architect's bizarre choices. The traditional courtroom is good for acoustics while the exposed industrial look was probably designed to allow light into the room from the skylights in the ceiling above. But these were hardly the only available choices. The very pleasant and functional AFCCA courtroom has a stark white drop ceiling made of metal panels formed with faux plaster design elements. And even with the louvered window shades partially closed during oral arguments, the AFCCA courtroom is brighter than the NMCCA courtroom with its large skylights. So a traditional courtroom with a cost-effective traditional ceiling was an option. Alternatively, the ACCA courtroom has a modern feel, with its wood-and-glass bench. (See an artist's rendition here.) If a major goal of the new NMCCA courtroom's design was to bring in natural light from above, then a courtroom designed like ACCA's could have fit well with the exposed ceiling supports and HVAC ducts. But unfortunately, no concern for symmetry was displayed.

The failure of NMCCA's courtroom is even more disappointing in light of the stunning architectural successes sprinkled throughout the Washington Navy Yard -- the Navy's oldest base and former Naval Gun Factory that now provides office space for thousands of naval servicemembers and bureaucrats. Consider, for example, the Washington Navy Yard's "town center" in Building 21. The building was once used to make huge guns for Navy warships -- and an enormous hook on a track that once slid molten metal across the production floor now looms over the dining area, giving the whole place a dynamic feel. Maybe one of the problems with the Building 58 renovation is that the structure was originally a barracks, later a storehouse, and finally a museum before its conversion to the "Appellate Center of Excellence." (Unfortunately, no, I'm not making up that name -- and certainly no one will be tempted to call it an architectural center of excellence.) So perhaps a cause of the courtroom's -- and entire building's -- lack of drama is the lack of drama in the building's history. But more could have been done to give the courtroom a sense of purpose and place.

With the money spent, it's probably too late to attempt to harmonize the courtroom's discordant elements -- or even to reduce their clash. But some things can be done to improve functionality. Signs could be placed on the building's exteriors to give visitors a clue how to gain entry. And while I'm not sure whether electronics require the podium to remain anchored where it is in the picture, if not, it should be pushed far closer to the bench. And surely some nautical elements can be added to give the courtroom a naval feel.

But even with such improvements, the Navy Yard's new dual-use courtroom will still disappoint. While I haven't been to the current CGCCA courtroom (though I once attended a CGCMR argument at Buzzards Point), NMCCA's courtroom as currently configured is the least successful of the military appellate courtrooms I have visited.


Anonymous said...

Think of exposed HVAC equipment as a nod to Naval architecture.

Anonymous said...

Someone needs a new hobby.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that the services could not come together and make use of the same courtroom and office complex. It would not only make fiscal sense, but a more consolidated government and defense appellate divisions would be a good resource for both.

BAC, Local 4 MD said...

One stumper throughout the building is the decision to leave so much of the old brickwork unexposed (the only exception being, I believe, in the judges' pantry (?!) where, of course, it looks great). I understand that one of the lower-ranking CEC guys was in favor of exposing quite a bit more (and I think this would have really gone a long way toward making the building fit in with other Navy Yard architecture), but the idea was nixed from above. The result is that while the offices are certainly clean and newish looking, they are also terribly sterile and dull. In a few years, the building will be completely unremarkable.

Only thing I’ll add re the courtroom is that the benches were clearly chosen for their lack of comfort. Mission accomplished.

Funny, but I actually harbor similar complaints about the new Nationals’ stadium. Though it offers good views, I find the aesthetic very disappointing; a missed opportunity.

Oh, and let's not even get started on the "Appellate Center of Excellence." Evidently, Admirals Bill and Ted won that naming battle.

Anonymous said...

It is transformation gone wrong. Not surprising.

Anonymous said...

While reading this I thought it was a joke. But then again, we in the legal community think that we take priority over all else. I've seen the new courtroom, I've attended military functions there and I find it to be a nice, functional dual use courtroom. The idea is that there are not that many appellate aguments and not that many trials so a dual use court is appropriate.

It would be great to have 15 foot ceilings, and marble imported on the USS CONSTITUTION brought from Egypt. Alas that didn't happen. However, things such as existing structural requirements, ADA compliance, budgets and real world events impact building such a structure. If I could open a checkbook and have no restaints whatsoever I might have chosen differently but such is not the case.

Frankly I thought the old NMCCA courtroom in Bldg 111 was a joke and gave no sense of judicial decorum. The interim at building 200 was even worse.

But then again, a perfectly created courtroom should take priority over othing things such as fighting two wars. Again, we forget uniformed lawyers are but a small part of the overall military. Frankly they had to make that courtroom so large as to fit in all of our egos.

And fianlly, I had nothing to do with designing, planning, funding or anything else for that new building so I come in with complete objectivity. By the way, the reason the building is white is because that is the color of the building (a former Marine barracks complete with a brig) in its original state. The WNY, when restoring buildings, requires them to be in roughly the same state as their original use.

Please help me, I seem to have fallen off my high horse.

Cloudesley Shovell said...

I agree w/the last anon at 147pm. This courtroom is a great improvement over the previous two.

I also like the fact that the original brig space in the basement was preserved as such, right down to the (decorative) iron bars.

CAAFlog is also correct in noting that the building is a bit overboard on the locked doors. There is only one phone accessible to the public, just inside one of the two east-side entrances. Come armed with a long list of phone numbers, because chances are nobody will answer the few numbers actually listed next to the phone.

The architect put in a duty desk . . .why isn't it staffed?

Anonymous said...

Those of us who work with the reserves and Guard think: Appellate courtroom? Courtroom? You guys have courtrooms?

Anonymous said...

And we in the AD side say, Reserves? We have Reserves?

Gene Fidell said...

I look forward to seeing the new courtroom. Aesthetics aside, I trust it will no longer be necessary for defense counsel, witnesses and spectators to pass through the trial counsels' reception desk and workspaces in order to enter the courtroom.

CAAFlog said...

1347 Anon, at the risk of stating the obvious, I'm not the one who decided to spend $14.5 million to build a Center of Appellate Excellence while we fight two wars. And it was the Navy that used taxpayer-funded resources, like JAG magazine, to tout the new courtroom. How dare I offer a different view? Shame on me.

My argument wasn't for a more expensive courtroom. On the contrary, it would have saved money, been more aesthetically successful, and created a sense of place and purpose if we had spent a few hundred dollars buying rope and provided the architect with a few hours of a boatswain's mate's time to appoint the courtroom with it rather than buying either cheap or expensive marble.

But if you're serious about trying to improve the military's tooth-to-tail ratio -- as am I -- then perhaps you will join me in advocating the elimination of the CCAs -- which would quickly save more money than the Navy wasted by kicking NAMARA out of Building 111.

And revealing your name is probably a better way to assure us of your "complete objectivity" than anonymously assuring us of your "complete objectivity."

CAAFlog said...

Maryland Bricklayer, I couldn't agree with you more about the desirability of exposed brick. The exposed brick in the WNY town center contributes to its warm feeling and preexisting brick was integrated marvelously into parts of the refurbished Quadrangle Building.

Regarding Nationals Park, the Post's superb baseball writer, Tom Boswell, provided an insightful review here: (Sorry, I have no idea how to make a hypertext link in a comment.) He argues that the best MLB ballparks are "in no particular order": Fenway, Yankee Stadium (farewell!), Wrigley, Dodger Stadium (which has looked fabulous during the playoffs), AT&T Park, PNC Park, and Camden Yards.

Boswell doesn't think Nationals Park cracks the top ten, classifying it instead with Petco, the Jake, Coors Field, Busch Stadium, and Citizens Bank Park.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Anonymous 01:47 and cloudseley. The courtroom is nice for it's cost, rapid construction time and utility. It's nice. Period. We're fighting two wars and Navy got a decent dual-use courtroom built in under 18 months. Nice.

What a waste of CAAFlog space, if I wanted HGTV, I'd go there.

Anonymous said...

"So I come in with complete objectivity."

Jesus? Is that you? I have been waiting for you to speak to me and my prayers have been answered. Alas, you speak on a military blog!

If you are a lawyer, or even a critical thinker, then I think you should reflect on the meaning of "objectivity"...especially in its "complete" form. I'm skeptical.

A "completely objective" commentator does not exist. That notion died in the academy circa 1959. Anon: you're old!

(Or you have a slightly inflated view of your own opinions; or you're a judge)

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:05 - You need not repeat yourself by saying "inflated view of your own opinions" AND "judge."

Anonymous said...

Agree with the poster who said the Navy wasted a lot of money and time by relocating NAMARA from Building 111. This took place during an ongoing armed conflict and while NMCCA was getting smacked routinely by CAAF for post-trial delay. Perhaps now that our community has its third star, this sort of thing is less likely to happen in the future.