CAAFlog » Architecture

ABA Journal has a collection of its 10 Best Apps for Lawyers, here.  I have to say that dLaw (or Droid Law) makes the Top 10 but doesn’t get my vote.  I added the CAAFlog Post RSS feed to the app and now everytime I launch the feeds link it crashes.  Plus, I can’t find a place where you can edit or remove feeds (although that may be operator error).

Just wanted to point out some resources for Navy and Marine Corps types that I can best sum up as resources with unfulfilled potential. 

Here is a link to the Navy Judge Advocate General Corps’ community blog. When you go to the blog you’ll see the last post was Friday with posts almost daily for many days before. As we here at could tell the upstart blogs in the Navy JAGC, a blog is most useful if it has 2 ingredients, (1) content on a regular basis and (2) an audience. And while it looks like the blog gets regular posts, unfortunately its target audience didn’t even know it existed–or at least the Navy JAG Corps members of this blog didn’t know it existed. And, unfortunately, as OFL also found, another feature of the Navy JAG Corps’ blog makes it lacking in the audience development area, it is inaccessible on his domain computer!!  When he clicked on the link his computer told him the Navy JAG Corps’ blog was:

ACCESS DENIED Internet Usage is Logged & Monitored Why is this site blocked? The site you are trying to reach has been Blacklisted and deemed an unacceptable risk to Air Force Networks.

I knew competition for top new JAs was tough, but blacklisting the other services’ official blog, that’s low.

In other Navy Judge Advocate news, here is a link to a feature I hadn’t known about, JAGTV. It has vignettes from new and old JAs from the Navy and Marine Corps. Seems like a good recruiting tool, though I wonder how the stars of JAGTV fair among their peers with the off beat sense of humor that CAAF has noted among JAs? Also, I would say that to make it a little more user friendly the JAG Corps ought to migrate some of the Navy JAG Corps’ blog description of each vignette to the JAGTV site.

AFCCA’s new courtroom has grandeur.  With a soaring ceiling, a forest’s worth of wood paneling, and a huge rendition of the court’s seal hanging behind the chief judge, the courtroom inspires awe, even if the effect was to dwarf the three judges sitting in the center of the courtroom, partially obscured by video monitors.. 

Still, AFCCA’s new courtroom has its quirks.

I was able to catch the second half of today’s inaugural argument in United States v. Boore.  Everything inside the courtroom seemed to function as designed, though there may be grounds to question some of those design decisions.  The acoustics were good when counsel were speaking.  They weren’t as good when the judges were speaking, but I suspect that’s because the judges weren’t as close to their microphones when they spoke.

One strange feature of the new courtroom is a Jumbotron composed of four separate video screens mounted on the courtroom’s right wall from the oral advocate’s perspective.  During the argument, the Jumbotron showed the counsel arguing the case — which would have been visible to the advocate in his peripheral vision.  I’m sure that isn’t necessary; no other court I’ve ever been in has had a Jumbotron.  I’m not sure it’s desirable.  I suspect the main reason for throwing the counsel’s giant image up on the Jumbotron was because it was there.

Some of the carpet — particularly by the entrance — already appeared worn even though today was the first time the courtroom was in use.  And while the quality of the carpet seemed tacky compared to the luxurious materials elsewhere in the courtroom, in the interest of fiscal sanity, I recommend keeping it.

My greatest qualm with the courtroom’s design is the amount of space between the counsel’s podium and the judges.  An oral argument should be a conversation, not a speech.  But the 15 feet of open space between the counsel and the center of the judges’ bench doesn’t inspire conversational tones.  I’ve previously complained about the distance between the podium and the appellate bench in NMCCA’s courtroom.  The distance in AFCCA’s new palace of appellate justice appears to be even greater.  (I’ll probably be in NMCCA’s courtroom on Friday; if so, I’ll check out the relative distance between podium and bench then.)  At both CAAF and the Supreme Court, by way of contrast, the podium seems just an arm’s reach from the bench.

Speaking of the NMCCA courtroom, one of its many problems is its lack of accessibility.  There’s no signage on the building.  If you were standing directly next to the Navy Yard’s Center of Appellate Excellence, you’d have no way to know that there was a court lurking inside.  And even if you somehow figured it out, you’d be left wondering how to get into the building.  When the building housed the Marine Corps Museum, the main entrance was on the west side, next to Leutze Park.  That still appears to be the main entrance.  But it’s inaccessible to  visitors.  Nothing tells the visitor that the actual entrance is the second of what look like two back doors on the building’s east side.  AFCCA’s courtroom, on the other hand, is well marked with signs, even though they read like they were written by someone for whom English is a second language.  (In the U.S., we say “Appellate Courtroom.”  “Courtroom Appellate,” as the signs say, reads like an overly literal translation of a sign written in French.)

But even with the signage and the well-designed entrance that (unlike NMCCA’s) architecturally communicates its function, on a normal day a visitor to AFCCA would be flummoxed as to how to enter the court.  The only exterior doors are locked with an electronic pad to control entry.  There’s no sign telling a visitor how to get in, no phone to call someone to open the door, and no list of phone numbers even if the visitor came equipped with a cell phone.  The entry is a sufficient distance from the court’s chambers that even vigorous pounding on the door would be unlikely to attract attention.  So, on a normal day, a visitor might be reduced to tiptoeing across AFCCA’s lawn to rap on a window and beg for someone to open the door.

But not today.  Today the front doors were  unlocked a  half hour before the argument and remained unlocked for the duration.  So for accessibility to see an oral argument, AFCCA’s courtroom gets a much higher grade than NMCCA’s.

It will be interesting to see whether, in time, the technology available inside AFCCA’s courtroom changes the way oral argument is presented.  Instead of seeing themselves on the courtroom’s Jumbotron, might counsel one day use it to depict a particularly salient piece of evidence from the case?  Will counsel deliver PowerPoint-enhanced arguments?  If so, would that be desirable?  Or are the Jumbotron and the monitors perched in front of each judge unwelcome departures from what should be, in its purest form, five lawyers reasoning with one another?  We’ll continue to think about these issues as AFCCA’s grand new courtroom comes into regular use.

Today’s Washington Post includes this architecture review of CAAF’s newly renovated neighbor, the Old City Hall and new D.C. Court of Appeals courthouse. CAAF’s courthouse is alluded to a couple of times in the article. Writing about a newly added square glass box on the D.C. Court of Appeals’ building’s E Street side — the same side as CAAF’s entrance — Phillip Kennicott writes, “It repositions the entrance of the building from the south to the north side, where the courthouse is elegantly flanked by two lesser and later court buildings.” The article also describes the building’s appearance from the south: “the relatively modest [D.C. Court of Appeals] building surmounted by the massive roof of the National Building Museum . . . looks like a little Acropolis, a striking contrast to the denatured and bland civic architecture that surrounds it.” Presumably Mr. Kennicott was including CAAF’s courthouse — which sits on the D.C. Court of Appeals’ west side — as one of the contrasting buildings.

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.