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Courting Beauty in Construction : Architecture: New Van Nuys Municipal Court combines functionalism and dignity of its design.

<i> Whiteson is a Los Angeles architect and author whose most recent book is "The Watts Towers of Los Angeles." </i>

For criminal prosecutor Terry Siegel, the new Van Nuys Municipal Court is “the prettiest place I’ve ever worked.”

The building is so open and cheerful, said Siegel, that “it lightens even the often unpleasant business of prosecution.”

Designed by the local firm of Dworsky Associates, the $50-million, award-winning facility demonstrates how a functional building can be made graceful by the dignity of its architecture.

The Van Nuys Municipal Court is part of Los Angeles County’s $500-million courthouse construction program, planned for completion over the next decade. Major judicial facilities also are proposed near Los Angeles International Airport, in the west San Fernando Valley and in West Los Angeles.

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“The openness of (the Van Nuys) design came as a surprise, but most of us liked it after the first gulp,” said Deputy Court Administrator Robert Quist, who worked with the courthouse architects.

“The architecture is serious without being authoritarian,” said Quist, “and the building works well for the people who use it. Our judges, in fact, are tickled pink.”

“We decided upon the ordered yet open look of the architecture,” firm partner Dan Dworsky said. “Apart from its functional requirements, the court administration had no set ideas about architectural style or the kind of feeling it wanted the design to generate.”

The result is a blending of formality with freedom from form. The formal, symmetrical courthouse facade, for example, is lightened by a 10-story wall of glass that opens its public spaces to outside view.

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Framed in gray granite, the front facade is imposing yet accessible, a reflection of democracy’s promise of “justice for all,” say its designers.

The main frontage of the building reaches out to the Erwin Street Mall and pulls in light with a protruding, three-story rotunda enclosed in glass bricks.

Inside, space is divided into three main zones.

The front zone, which faces the mall, includes the public spaces seen through the glass wall. Here, people awaiting their turn in court may stroll, sit or gaze out over the civic center toward the Art Deco tower of the 1932 Valley Municipal Building, better known as the Van Nuys City Hall.

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Escalators link the lower three levels of the public spaces, where visitors find court clerks and the two large arraignment courts. There’s a 200-seat cafeteria in the basement.

The courtrooms are on the third through the 10th floors of the middle zone. The ground floor of this area is reserved for county marshals and prisoner holding cells. Prisoners are brought into the courthouse through a rear sally port secured by steel roller shutter doors. (County marshals prefer to bring them into courthouse basements for security reasons. But with no room for vehicle ramps, the entry for this courthouse is on ground level.)

The rear zone, separated from the public areas by a secured corridor, includes the judges’ chambers and the rooms where juries retire to deliberate. The view from their southern windows overlooks the flat landscape of the inner valley rolling toward the Santa Monica Mountains.

“The building’s layout was determined by this simple hierarchy of spaces,” said architect Robert Levine of Dworsky Associates and the courthouse’s principal designer.

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The building’s oblong shape fits the rectangular site next to the Erwin Street Mall. Its symmetrical plan was fixed by the architects’ desire to relate the main axis of the courthouse to the distinctive Van Nuys City Hall tower.

In some areas, design was compromised to fit functional needs. The Municipal Court clerk’s reception hall on the second floor is cramped. The long, curved counter where people line up to pay traffic and other fines is cut off from the sky-lit rotunda by the main elevator bank.

Despite these drawbacks, the architects have achieved an overall sense of simplicity and space, said Quist.

Light gray Formica replaces the usual gray granite on most internal walls in the public areas. This saves money on maintenance and lightens the look.

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The few areas of granite, such as those around the elevators, are embellished by portentous texts etched into the stone, such as: “Justice Is the Sum of All Moral Duty.”

The light gray color is repeated in the courtrooms, where it contrasts with the oak or mahogany paneling in the sections reserved for judges, juries and court staff. Public seating areas are surrounded by carpeted walls to absorb the sounds of whispered conversation.

The lighting is as muted as the decor. Pale blues and greens come together in carpeting, seat covers and other textiles throughout the building.

The Van Nuys Court is not Dworsky Associates’ first foray into judicial architecture. The firm’s design for the Sheriff’s Operations Center and Jail Complex in San Joaquin County was lauded by the American Institute of Architects’ Architecture for Justice committee as a model of “varied spaces that break the monotony . . . (and) respond sensitively to the (privacy) needs of visitors.”

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The firm also is developing plans for a municipal courthouse in Ventura County.

Although the 90-member firm’s name may not be widely known outside the profession, Dworsky Associates, located on Wilshire Boulevard, has designed or collaborated in the creation of several major Los Angeles public buildings, including the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, the Angelus Plaza residential complex on Bunker Hill and the downtown Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve Bank.

The quality of public architecture can be vital to the economic and social life of a city, according to Dan Dworsky.

And, in “Vision Van Nuys,” a 1988 planning study sponsored by the Los Angeles City Planning Department and the Urban Design Advisory Coalition, the Erwin Street Mall is seen as pivotal to the future of the city’s civic center.

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The mall “should be a formal, urban approach to the various civic buildings,” said the study.

The creation of this strong center is vital to the rehabilitation of the run-down Van Nuys central business district, which, the report states, has suffered from the flux of major commercial activity to regional shopping malls.

“We feel it’s important to set fine standards for the design of public buildings,” said Dworsky principal Robert Rosenberg. “Civic architecture should establish a tone for much of what is built by private interests.”


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