Wake Justice Center’s design succeeds where it matters most – at the human level

CorrespondentJune 29, 2013 

The new Wake County Justice Center opens Monday.

SCOTT SHARPE — ssharpe@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— For any architecture firm, it would be a plum assignment:

Design a 577,000-square-foot public building to keep up with the needs of a rapidly growing county government over the next 80 years.

Separate its two functions: public administration, and an active judiciary with 19 courtrooms.

Develop clear circulation patterns for both groups, but make sure that the judiciary’s three constituencies – its judges and staff, its jailed detainees and the general public – meet only in its courtrooms.

O’Brien/Atkins Associates of Research Triangle Park joined HOK’s justice practice in Washington, D.C., to win the commission. And though their new building solidly solves the functional challenges presented by the county, its design is not quite so successful.

For inspiration, the architects looked diagonally across Salisbury Street to the county’s Waverly F. Akins Building. A 1940s Art Moderne gem originally built for the Durham Life Insurance Co., it is surely Raleigh’s finest high-rise. With a polished, red granite base, and clad in limestone that gracefully steps back all the way to the top of its 15 stories, it was designed by Luther Lashmit of Northup and O’Brien in Winston-Salem.

The Akins Building achieves a rare balance between vertical and horizontal design elements.

When it wants to emphasize that it is a tall building, its narrow windows align with indented vertical panels between floors – and soar skyward. As it reaches up, it is crowned at the edge of wide horizontal setbacks with restrained ornament in the form of streamlined finials. It reinforces a human scale at its base, where paned windows are banded horizontally to relate to those passing by on the sidewalks it hugs.

The new Justice Center takes some of its cues from its neighbor, but where Lashmit used a light touch to connect to sky and street, here the hand is heavier. The architects used dark green granite at the building’s base, and a limestone-like precast concrete above. It’s a gesture toward Akins, but alas, a limited one.

This building is all about the vertical, even for the low, three-story podium that begins to wrap around the 11-story tower. The podium is set back behind planters and benches, with tall, plate-glass windows aiming straight up. The courts’ entrance to the tower is set back even further from Salisbury, separated from the street by a plaza.

So where Akins snugs to the sidewalk, this structure recedes to emphasize its height. Where the human scale of Akins’ wide horizontal windows and low red granite base comfort the pedestrian, the center’s planters, benches and distant green granite do not. They seem afterthoughts instead.

Then there are the vertical fins between windows, reaching from first floor to top of the tower. Even the shorter podium uses them, presumably as design elements to tie it to its taller sibling. They seem unnecessary ornament: The tower is tall without them, and the podium is short, with no need to look tall.

Inside, the architects fare far better. Besides the entrance on Salisbury, it offers a second one at Martin and McDowell streets, catty-cornered to Nash Square.

Visitors enter through two sets of glass doors into a low-ceilinged vestibule. Once past security, they’ll encounter the architects’ most astonishing, compression-to-expansion achievement here: a soaring, awe-inspiring, five-story atrium. It is supported by columns clad in brightly polished, black-and-white Margherita granite from Brazil, reaching up to clerestory windows that drench taupe terrazzo floors in natural sunlight.

This is a space that makes way-finding easy. County employees man an information desk, with four electronic dockets containing case and courtroom information above. A ground-based electronic directory guides visitors to specific offices. A freestanding stairway leads to commissioners’ second-floor meeting space.

For all its size and height, this building’s interior succeeds best in its most intimate spaces. Its 19 courtrooms are hushed and quiet affairs, their walls lined in cherry wood panels, some acoustically treated. Those who approach the judge’s bench will lay their hands upon a slab of brown Michelangelo marble, veined in gold and white, and quarried in Afghanistan. The same stone lines the hallways.

Those hallways contain waiting areas with benches made of Brazilian granite, facing walls of gray and gold Jerusalem limestone. Gently carved into them are chevron patterns that echo decorative metal grilles outside. Where natural light strikes them, the patterns charm and soothe the onlooker all at once.

This building achieves all the client asked of its architects, and more. Judges and staff have their own elevator access from a below-ground garage, and detainees arrive in courtrooms through two isolated elevators, from holding areas also below grade. The public uses 10 high-speed elevators in the atrium. As for growth, the building’s sixth floor stands empty, ready to accommodate future needs.

Architects as gifted as Luther Lashmit are rare indeed, and Raleigh is both blessed and cursed to have his 1942 Akins Building here. We’re blessed because it is so beautiful, and cursed because it is so difficult to live up to its design.

But if this new Justice Center disappoints somewhat at the street level, its interiors make up for that in spaces where good design matters most – at the human level, with warmth, and a sensitive touch.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national publications and publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.

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