Twenty-three miles north of where I sit are two sublime sports stadiums, each peculiarly well-suited to its function: Orioles Park and Camden Yards and whatever the Ravens’ stadium is called this week. The older of the two, Orioles Park at Camden Yards, was built in 1992. If it didn’t singlehandedly end the era of the duel-use sports stadium, it at least drove a stake through that blighted era’s heart. If only it had also prevented the dual-use courtroom.
The disappointing new courtroom in the Washington Navy Yard is designed for use as both a trial-level and appellate courtroom. And it suffers due to its lack of a focused purpose. While I haven’t seen an actual oral argument in the courtroom, if it is configured for appellate arguments as it was the day I saw it, then I think it will have the widest gap between the podium and the bench of any appellate courtroom I’ve ever seen. (See a picture of the courtroom on the second page of this link.) And that is a horrible blow to functionality. The ideal oral argument isn’t an oration, but a conversation. The old tiny, intimate NMCCA courtroom on the first deck of the Washington Navy Yard’s Forge Building was perfectly configured to promote conversation. But in the new courtroom, with its huge well, the advocate may feel the need to use a bullhorn to be heard at the bench. (Even the Building 200 courtroom used in the interim between Building 111 and Building 58 had a well-worn charm that is absent from its successor.)
Another blow to functionality concerns the building’s exterior. Architecturally, the building is pleasantly plain. Its subtle architectural features — including a small brick cornice and soldier course brick arches above the windows on the front elevation — are even more understated because of the uniform white-wash exterior. And the traffic light sticking out from the building’s east elevation is delightfully quirky in a naval space-saving kind of way. But it isn’t at all apparent to me how a member of the public actually gets into the building. I had an appointment each of the two times I’ve been there, and I was barely able to get in. According to the JAGMAG article about the courtroom, “Facility requirements included both public and restricted entry.” It seems to have failed to meet the former criterion.
Apart from these functionality problems, the courtroom is architecturally incoherent in the most literal sense of the word. At the University of Virginia there is a story — probably apocryphal — that attempts to explain why the University’s chapel is a revival Gothic stone structure while all the buildings around it are neo-classical brick edifices. There was a mix-up in building materials intended for the UVA chapel, so the story goes, and Sage Chapel at Cornell University — which is made of brick while all the buildings around it are stone structures. Well perhaps someone mixed up the plans for the NMCCA courtroom’s ceiling with those intended for another courtroom and some jurisdiction has a brand-new modern industrial courtroom with a classical ceiling. Because the interplay between the new NMCCA’s courtroom and its overhead is so discordant that the most charitable possible explanation is a mix-up in the building plans. You can see some of this effect in the picture available through the link above, though you’ve got to sit in the courtroom to appreciate the full effect. From the floor to about nine feet up the walls, the courtroom is traditional but boring. Unfortunately, nothing in the courtroom is evocative of a naval experience — this could be a county courtroom in just about any state in the Union. What a missed opportunity. Worse still, the marble in the courtroom — no doubt intended to give the room a classy feeling — looks like something out of a mid-range tract McMansion. It suggests not class, but an attempt at classiness. But from nine feet or so up, the room is exposed industrial — with ceiling supports and HVAC equipment visible from the traditional courtroom below.
I suspect that functionality concerns — so overlooked in the building’s exterior — suddenly took over in the courtroom itself and explain the architect’s bizarre choices. The traditional courtroom is good for acoustics while the exposed industrial look was probably designed to allow light into the room from the skylights in the ceiling above. But these were hardly the only available choices. The very pleasant and functional AFCCA courtroom has a stark white drop ceiling made of metal panels formed with faux plaster design elements. And even with the louvered window shades partially closed during oral arguments, the AFCCA courtroom is brighter than the NMCCA courtroom with its large skylights. So a traditional courtroom with a cost-effective traditional ceiling was an option. Alternatively, the ACCA courtroom has a modern feel, with its wood-and-glass bench. (See an artist’s rendition here.) If a major goal of the new NMCCA courtroom’s design was to bring in natural light from above, then a courtroom designed like ACCA’s could have fit well with the exposed ceiling supports and HVAC ducts. But unfortunately, no concern for symmetry was displayed.
The failure of NMCCA’s courtroom is even more disappointing in light of the stunning architectural successes sprinkled throughout the Washington Navy Yard — the Navy’s oldest base and former Naval Gun Factory that now provides office space for thousands of naval servicemembers and bureaucrats. Consider, for example, the Washington Navy Yard’s “town center” in Building 21. The building was once used to make huge guns for Navy warships — and an enormous hook on a track that once slid molten metal across the production floor now looms over the dining area, giving the whole place a dynamic feel. Maybe one of the problems with the Building 58 renovation is that the structure was originally a barracks, later a storehouse, and finally a museum before its conversion to the “Appellate Center of Excellence.” (Unfortunately, no, I’m not making up that name — and certainly no one will be tempted to call it an architectural center of excellence.) So perhaps a cause of the courtroom’s — and entire building’s — lack of drama is the lack of drama in the building’s history. But more could have been done to give the courtroom a sense of purpose and place.
With the money spent, it’s probably too late to attempt to harmonize the courtroom’s discordant elements — or even to reduce their clash. But some things can be done to improve functionality. Signs could be placed on the building’s exteriors to give visitors a clue how to gain entry. And while I’m not sure whether electronics require the podium to remain anchored where it is in the picture, if not, it should be pushed far closer to the bench. And surely some nautical elements can be added to give the courtroom a naval feel.
But even with such improvements, the Navy Yard’s new dual-use courtroom will still disappoint. While I haven’t been to the current CGCCA courtroom (though I once attended a CGCMR argument at Buzzards Point), NMCCA’s courtroom as currently configured is the least successful of the military appellate courtrooms I have visited.