SOM’s glass cube courthouse wins a national award

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The new downtown federal courthouse, a glass cube with a pleated facade, won a major design award. Light pours in from the skylight, and a six-story photograph of Yosemite Falls cascades down the atrium.

The American Institute of Architects caused a stir by giving no building its Twenty-five Year Award in 2018.

This is a prize that goes to a building that has “stood the test of time and continues to set standards of excellence for its architectural design and significance.”

Past winners include Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. So what was so bad about buildings from 25-35 years ago?

“We just didn’t feel comfortable with elevating any of the submissions this year,” said Lee Becker, the jury chair and a partner with DC-based firm Hartman Cox. He emphasized that their range of choices is limited to the submissions they receive from the design firms.

However, their decision has critics asking if it’s because their time frame coincides with postmodernism, which many architects loathe.

Becker insists nobody “on the jury had an aversion to any ism, whether it was Modernism, Post-Modernism or anything.”

But the AIA did bestow an Honor Award for architecture on nine buildings, including the new Federal Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, on the south of 1st at Broadway. This building — an elegant 10-story cube clad in pleated glass that appears to hover over a public plaza — gained fame as the backdrop in a widely published picture from last year’s Women’s March.

It was designed for the General Services Administration by the Los Angeles office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, or SOM, whose landmark buildings include the Willis Tower in Chicago, the Freedom Tower in New York and Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Jury chair Lee Becker tells DnA “the building fits its context extremely well, has a really sophisticated facade,” and jurors were especially impressed by “the quality of light in the building… oftentimes the courtrooms wind up in the middle of the building and don’t have good light. And SOM did an amazing job at having light filtered down through the building.”

DnA talks with SOM architects Michael Mann and José Palacios about how the courthouse represented a Rubik’s Cube of a design challenge (they put four courthouses on every floor, around an atrium, and arrived at a perfect cube) as well as their excitement at seeing “how this building became a part of the city” when crowds packed the plaza for the 2017 Women’s March.

The courthouse was prominent at the Women’s March in downtown LA. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

We also hear from Catherine Opie, creator of the public art in the atrium, about her cascade of photographs of Yosemite Falls that she hopes convey “the scales of justice,” so that all of a sudden in the middle of the piece you go from the hope and light of the atrium to the dark murky forest of Yosemite “in the same way that if you have to go before a federal judge your life might be in that same place.”