Unless you're a lawyer, you probably don't look forward to spending time in courthouses, since most of us associate them with jury duty or maybe lawsuits. Courthouses of the past captured our attention with their handsome expressions of judicial authority and civic pride. But in recent years, security concerns have turned many of these buildings into glorified bunkers. Americans today have an uneasy relationship with government; we want our public institutions to instill respect and project strength, but we don't want them to cost much or be too powerful. In their design for the new U.S. Courthouse in Austin, Texas, the Atlanta-based architects Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam wrestled with these conflicting notions, finding resolution in a building that's muscular in its massing and materials but engaging in its use of daylight and transparency.
The 252,000-square-foot, $102.6 million courthouse replaces a smaller one a few blocks north, which was designed by local architect Charles H. Page and New York architect Kenneth Franzheim and opened in 1936. Like its predecessor, the new courthouse was built during a severe economic downturn, thanks to stimulus spending. Its full-block site, west of Republic Square Park, one of the city's three remaining downtown historic squares, places it strategically near Antoine Predock's City Hall (2004), Andersson-Wise's 37-story W Hotel and Residences (2010), and all the honky-tonk bars on West Sixth Street.