Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 2, 2003

A soulless, out-of-context courthouse design

“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like,” is a phrase often uttered by intimidated art neophytes while gazing at Pollocks and Kandinskys, Miros and de Koonings. Similarly, I don’t know much about architecture, but I know what I like.

And I know that I don’t like the Morgan Hill Courthouse design.

Last week, Santa Clara County staff and Ross Drulis Cusenbery architects unveiled plans for the two-story county courthouse and one-story office building complex planned for the corner of Diana Avenue and Butterfield Boulevard.

I’m sure many thoughtful hours were spent on the courthouse design. Unfortunately, the proposed building would be more at home on Hedding Street in San Jose than on any street in Morgan Hill.

The design takes no cues from any of Morgan Hill’s notable buildings. There’s no reference to the graceful style of the now-closed Saint Louise Hospital; no nod to the lovely Craftsman lines of the nearby community center; no acknowledgment of the stately Mission Revival architecture of the William Weeks-designed Carden Academy building.

These buildings boast beautiful details, bold color, frequent use of plane changes and curved lines, and pitched roofs.

Instead, the proposed courthouse is a blocky gray monolith offering a series of right angles covered in limestone and plaster, topped with a flat roof. If you’re viewing the courthouse from the parking lot, it does offer one curve – a tacked-on and out-of-place drum-shaped entry lobby.

I believe the county courthouse will benefit Morgan Hill economically. But we’re going to be looking at the facility for decades, and I, for one, don’t want to be looking at the building they’ve come up with.

To be fair, there are good ideas included in the courthouse plan, starting with a walled, covered transfer area for in-custody defendants, called a sallyport.

I’m fond of the placement of the courthouse’s public corridors alongside a wall with many (boxy) windows facing Butterfield Boulevard, and I like plans to bury courtrooms and offices in the building’s interior.

I’m also in favor of the heavily landscaped parking lot and setback areas and the placement of benches along Butterfield Boulevard.

But the building’s exterior, which resembles the bland, soulless office buildings lining urban streets in downtown San Jose, needs a complete overhaul.

Let’s send architects back to the drawing board with this brief:

• Evoke Morgan Hill – choose a style already found in town and create a building that evokes that style. Refuse to settle for the nondescript government-office-building-style facility currently proposed. The courthouse needn’t be a correct-to-the-switchplates-and-heat-registers replica of the chosen style, but its major elements – the roof, windows, eaves, colors and exterior finishes – should use its vocabulary, as architects sometimes say.

• Give the buildings some life – and that means more interesting lines and bolder use of color than the proposed drab white and gray rectangles. The courthouse should call to mind a charming, rural county seat, not dreary, cubicle-bound bureaucrats. And it ought to resonate with the dramatic color used on buildings throughout downtown.

• No flat roof – even if it means Morgan Hill must hike the current 40-foot height limit to accommodate a peaked or curved roof. Flat roof lines scream tilt-up buildings and cheap retail strip malls. We don’t want to look at a flat-roofed courthouse for the next 40 or 50 years.

The courthouse will last for decades. We need to make sure that – like Saint Louise Hospital, the Carden Academy building, and the community center – the courthouse enriches us aesthetically, not just economically.

Otherwise, we’ll have a deep understanding of Frank Lloyd Wright’s warning: “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

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