We finished a strong semester yesterday in truly noble surroundings, celebrating the end of the Des Moines Courthouse Studio project by holding our review in the lobby of the Mies van der Rohe Home Savings and Loan (now the Catholic Diocese) building downtown. Recently restored, the Mies space looks fantastic, and six interdisciplinary teams did it justice with schemes for a truly difficult mash-up program of federal courthouse and mixed commercial and residential uses on the riverfront site of the former YMCA building.
I posted about the studio at the start of the semester, but basically we were exploring the possibility of putting a new Federal Courthouse on a site that the City of Des Moines would prefer to have developed commercially. Could you, we wondered, do both? Could you put a truly monumental Federal building on a site and still have room for apartments, restaurants, coffee shops and bars that would keep the life of the city going? Or, as one student put it in the run up to our mid-review, can a building be urban and civic at the same time?
I’d say that our answer, after fifteen weeks of exploration and development, would be a qualified “maybe.” Not surprisingly, the security considerations that go into a courthouse really mitigate against the open, pedestrian nature of a downtown mixed-use structure. Still, student teams of interior designers, architects, and landscape architects came up with some clever strategies of separating court functions from the surrounding streets with buffers of mixed-use development, and they tackled the notoriously difficult circulation requirements that come with prisoner, judicial, and jury circulation with equally sophisticated elevatoring and logistic strategies. What do you do with criminal defendants when the fire alarms go off? These sorts of questions have real consequences for building design, and they make it obvious why so much courthouse design in the post-Oklahoma City bombing era have tended toward fortresses more than engagement.
The Courthouse controversy in Des Moines is ongoing–the Federal Courts and the City are still discussing where it will go, and it’s one of the biggest questions the resurgent downtown will face in the coming years. We held the review in the middle of downtown on purpose, and were really happy to have a steady stream of architects and designers stop in throughout the afternoon. That speaks well to the commitment that Des Moines’ design community feels toward the city’s development, and we’re hoping that this studio, in a small way, helps keep the conversation going.