Friday, March 2, 2018

The Architecture of Power 3: The Supreme Court

The triad of American government is the Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court. These are established as co-equal branches of government. The Capitol building and the White House are the architectural edifices housing the first two. The remaining seat of power is the Supreme Court building. The architect for the Supreme Court faced a big challenge: how to make a building with relatively few programmatic requirements look as important and commanding as the other two loci of power.
Main facade of the Supreme Court building by architect Cass Gilbert. 
The Capitol building houses 435 representatives and 100 senators, plus an immense support staff (a substantial part of our bureaucracy), lobbyists, and the constant flow of journalists.  There is a lot going on in the Capitol, which is why it has expanded over the years with multiple additions and updates.  The Capitol is an ungainly, bloated edifice after accreting power for over two centuries. The architecture struggles gamely to cohere the sprawling results of multiple expansions.
The Contemplation of Justice by sculptor James Fraser.
The Authority of Law by sculptor James Fraser.
The design of the White House, on the other hand, downplays the immense power of the presidency, even though the administrative functions it houses are equally immense.  The President is, after all, a man of the people, not a king. The design strategy has been to minimize and disguise the numerous renovations, additions, and expansions. The White House still looks like a home, not the sprawling office building it mostly is.
The pediment contains nine figures by sculptor Robert Aitken in the manner
of Greco-Roman architecture. 
The Supreme court has specific and clearly defined powers that do not require much space - not in comparison to the former two branches of government.  After all, what does the Supreme Court need?  It is only nine people, plus staff. It has a library and meeting rooms, but no massive support bureaucracy. The architectural challenge for the Supreme Court building is to create a presence that can stand equal to the other arms of government.  Surprisingly, the architectural results are up to the task.
The floor plan reveals four open air courtyards. 
Originally the Supreme Court had no building of its own. The building we see today was commissioned by Congress in 1929. Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft convinced Congress that the Court needed its own digs. Cass Gilbert, who had designed several state supreme court buildings, was chosen as architect. Though known for neo-Gothic architecture, Gilbert employed the neo-classical style for the Supreme Court.  By the 1930s, neo-classical architecture was so closely identified with governmental power he could hardly take any other route. Designed by one architect in a short period of time, the Supreme Court building does not suffer from the additions, remodelings, intrusions, and rebuilding that burden the other two branches of government. The Supreme Court building is a beautifully coherent composition. Powerful in its simplicity, it seems fitting for a court of law. We expect clear and well-grounded decisions from this clear and well-grounded building. We do not always see such clarity of purpose in Supreme Court decisions, but at least we get a sense of that ideal in the architecture. One device used by the architect to expand the apparent size of the building is a series of four courtyards hidden from street view. Cass Gilbert increased the apparent mass of the building by devoting nearly half of its footprint to...nothing.
Organization of the main room of the Supreme Court. 
Where solemn chamber where the nine Supreme Court justices take their chairs. 
The heart of Washington D.C. is the Mall. One of the great urban spaces in the world, it stretches nearly two miles in length. The east end is bordered by the Capitol building, the middle by the White House, and the remainder is bordered by our most important museums and monuments. Nowhere to be seen is the Supreme Court building. This is a significant symbolic oversight. The three pillars of our government, supposedly equal in power and authority, are not equally represented in our most important civic space.  The Supreme Court is tucked away behind the Capitol, out of sight and out of awareness. This, in my opinion, is an enormous planning flaw. This is hardly Cass Gilbert's fault, of course. But one would logically expect to find the Supreme Court located at the site of the Lincoln Memorial or, perhaps, at the Jefferson Memorial. Those would be positions of importance equal to the White House or Capitol. Nevertheless, the architecture of the Supreme Court successfully conveys calm equanimity and power. The architecture is successful, even if the siting is not.
Main gallery in the Supreme Court Building. 
The Supreme Court building was brought in under its 9.74 million dollar budget. In fact, the treasury received a $94,000 refund upon its completion in 1935.


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