The Multnomah County Central Courthouse is a vastly improved user experience, with moments of beauty along the way.
Before you even pass through security, the new Multnomah County Central Courthouse is a big functional improvement over its predecessor, a historic 1914 building that couldn't fully anticipate 21st-century needs.
Instead of a long line often winding out of the building, there is room inside this new SRG Partnership-designed courthouse for a covered, airport-like security line that's protected from the elements.
Once inside the soaring, multi-story lobby occupying the Central Courthouse's northwest corner, it's hard not to marvel.
With its tall, thin board-formed concrete columns and a wood-clad ceiling extending past the huge glass entry wall to form a canopy outside, this lobby must instantly rank among the most impressive in Portland. The columns recall classical-style government buildings in Rome or Washington, D.C., as well as modernist icons like Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic Johnson Wax Building. All the while, a massive wall mural by Lynn Basa gives this vast room a pleasing jolt of color.
The lobby is so grand that one wishes it weren't wedged into just one corner. Why not devote more ground-floor square footage to public space and extend the lobby to the east side of the building, where the river view is? Unfortunately, function seems to have won out over form. The client insisted on placing a holding cell for incoming prisoners on the ground floor.
Thankfully those serving jury duty are whisked upstairs to a third-floor waiting room on the east side of the building that does enjoy fantastic views. And there is one other compelling ground-floor space, although it's not part of the lobby: the preserved Jefferson Station building next door.
Formerly known as the Jefferson Station and dating to 1909, this former Portland General Electric substation now houses traffic and small-claims courts. A massive crane was left in place, as was the original brick interior cladding, making this a handsome preservation win. Even so, this combination of the L-shaped new courthouse building and the Jefferson Station building, which essentially forms a U shape, feels disjointed.
Viewed from the east bank of the Willamette River or the Hawthorne Bridge, the Multnomah County Central Courthouse's asymmetrical façade pattern is striking. SRG executed this design aspect well, with simple, elegant limestone cladding giving the building visual clarity instead of looking busy.
That said, this asymmetrical exterior window patterning has been around for easily 20 years now, perhaps best exemplified by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo's Murcia City Hall (completed in 1998) or, on a local level, Holst Architecture's 937 Condominiums in Portland's Pearl District (2008). It's nearing status as a 21st-century cliché, not unlike the curving roof patterns that today scream the '90s. But to be fair, the classically styled Multnomah County Courthouse, completed in 1914 and now due to be renovated into offices by new owner NBP Capital, was no stylistic pioneer either.
What matters most is that these courthouses serve their occupants — not just County employees but citizens. But a government building's appearance should stand the test of time and hopefully communicate that it's not just another office building. The limestone is common to government buildings, but it still doesn't look much like a courthouse per se. Extending the lobby and its columns would have helped.
Ultimately this client was not interested in cutting-edge or grand public-building design as much as simple competence, functionality, and local partners. Back when Multnomah County solicited proposals, an explicit preference for working with Portland-area firms helped SRG beat out internationally-renowned architects and firms from other cities vying for the commission like Holland's Rem Koolhaas and Chicago's Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. SRG was even a surprise winner over locals like Hacker and ZGF.
But this is a new era for the firm, with high-profile projects including this courthouse, the Knight Cancer Research Building at OHSU, and the new Hayward Field in Eugene.
And besides, gazing out from virtually any upper floor of the Multnomah County Courthouse, the views are wondrous.
PDX Starting Grounds is a stylish cappuccino bar on the third floor owned and operated bya blind man. Jury areas look out to the Hawthorne Bridge and the river.
Moving upward, the design stacks courtroom lobbies along that same east glass-ensconced façade. Inside the courtrooms themselves, clerestory windows borrow natural light from the lobby, and baffling materials create ideal acoustics where a jury could hear even a whispered testimony across the room.
Ultimately, this courthouse balances the desire for grand, bold architectural gestures befitting a riverfront public building with a restraining hand of functionality and budget. Yet in between is a much-improved court-going experience for everyone involved. In this courthouse, with these views, even jury duty will not be such drudgery. If that's not a successful design, I don't know what is.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
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