A mixed verdict on Mayne courthouse

Times Staff Writer

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.

Smith, who favors strait-laced, irony-free neoclassicism, is the sort of designer with whom the old, pre-Mayne Hogan would have gotten along swimmingly. Then, just before Thanksgiving, the GSA abruptly reversed course and named Leslie Shepherd, Feiner's deputy, to the chief architect post, while handing Smith a federal architecture fellowship.

The point is not that Smith would have been a disaster as chief architect, as some advocates of progressive architecture have claimed, or that the Feiner approach has been faultless. A few of the GSA's recent experiments with well-known architects have fizzled, including Richard Meier's 2000 federal courthouse in Phoenix, an all-white modernist temple in the desert that serves as a monument to the idea that architecture has little obligation to site, climate or local history.

But the obvious schism within the federal government about the GSA's direction -- the division of labor between Shepherd and Smith remains unclear -- suggests that the heartening, bipartisan story line of the friendship between Mayne and Hogan has helped prop up a useful illusion about the ease of compromise in contemporary America.

With the GSA already committed to building several more courthouses -- and having earmarked more than $12 billion for future construction of all kinds -- the important questions raised, if not settled, by Mayne's Oregon design are hardly academic ones.

They include: How should buildings assert their publicness if not by relying on traditional symbols? Can new pieces of civic architecture offer a platform for dialogue in a country divided between red states and blue? Is an American public that has flocked to experimental buildings that house cultural facilities, such as Herzog & de Meuron's De Young Museum in San Francisco and Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, ready to embrace the same kind of design for a courthouse or city hall?

From afar, the Morse Courthouse and the tale of the surprising friendship between a judge and his client appeared to offer a fresh, bracing take on those issues.

Indeed, it has often seemed that the sort of challenge posed by Hogan was exactly what Mayne needed to produce his first unreservedly great building.

Until now much of his work has been marked by an odd combination of aloofness and aggression: the looming, shimmering facade of the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, for example, a building quickly nicknamed the Death Star by Angelenos, or the blade-like metal screens that hang down over kindergartners' heads on the playground of the Science Center School near USC.

Such projects can be read as oversized canvases on which Mayne worked out some of his own deep-seated anxieties about the inequities of American life, and how architecture ought to respond to them, at the expense of the buildings' users. Maybe grappling with a client who pushed hard for a traditional notion of public architecture would provide a useful corrective.

The finished courthouse undermines that notion. It now seems fairer to say that Mayne's most powerful designs have relied for their singular character on a classic L.A. mixture, carefully calibrated, of sunshine and noir.

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christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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