United States Courthouse

United States Courthouse in Central Islip, New York by Richard Meier & Partners, 2000

When critiquing the building's of Richard Meier it is difficult to find a fresh perspective, as his building's have not changed much since he appeared on the architecture scene, as part of the New York Five, in the mid-70's. From the onset he created glass and steel boxes (an occasional piano curve added for variety), covered in white aluminum panels. The emphasis was and is geometry and light, the building acting as an illustration and backdrop, respectively. The United States Courthouse and Federal Building on Long Island continues Meier's regimented design approach, though on a scale the firm has grown to accomplish. Though the courthouse illustrates the negative aspects of Meier's designs (repetition, geometric reliance & contextual ignorance) it also is an example of what is commendable in his designs (attention to detail and articulation of light and space).

Entry to the courthouse is via a raised stone podium, with landscaping and reflecting pools, to a conical drum that leads to an 11-story atrium (another prominent Meier feature). The atrium acts as a focal point and a means of orientation. Public corridors extend from the atrium along the south curtain wall, overlooking the plaza below and the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. The north side houses the offices and the judge's chamber: the elevation articulated accordingly with narrow ribbon windows. These two distinct facades are separated by a pair of walls that peak above the adjacent parapets, intersecting the atrium. The distinction between the two sides of the building is both formal and programmatic, acting as a separation between public and judicial circulation.

The separation of different uses by a datum wall is a formal approach that is driven by the plan. This is not extraordinary for Meier, though, as most of his buildings utilize geometric devices in plan as a starting point for his designs. His reliance upon two-dimensional design considerations is also evident in the courthouse's elevations. For example, the repetitious south facade is broken up by a vertical fissure of balconies, located according to elevation, not programmatic considerations. Meier's ignorance of context is apparent in the elevations also: painted white aluminum panels that call attention to the building rather than creating a dialogue with its surroundings (the courthouse is adjacent to the existing County Courthouse). The fact that Meier constantly uses these white panels in any context reinforces his ignorance of context and, combined with his geometric tendencies, says he wants to create easily replicated (by his staff) signature buildings.

Negative aspects aside Meier's buildings have an appeal, apparent to architects and laypersons alike. The image at left attests to his ability to articulate light and views, as light is filtered into the public corridor through well-detailed brise-soleil. His consideration of views leads me to believe that a fondness for site is present, though not in a formal manner. His meticulous detailing adds scale to the buildings that are now in danger of overwhelming. And his use of light is masterful, all the more apparent as it washes on the stark white surface of his interiors. But with Meier's buildings it is a love-hate situation. Not necessarily that one either loves or hates his buildings, but that what one person finds in his buildings to love another person hates his buildings for the same reason.

Photographs copyright Kristen Richards.