The Case Against Meier

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Jan. 25 2001 3:00 AM

The Case Against Meier

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When I was summoned to jury duty just before Christmas, I naturally assumed that I would serve at the boring, '60s-era courthouse in Brooklyn Heights, 10 minutes from my house. Instead I was called to the new United States Courthouse and Federal Building in Central Islip, Long Island. This gargantuan, stark-white building was designed by the celebrity architect Richard Meier, who is loved and hated for the collection of abstract buildings that make up the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The trial lasted nearly three weeks, giving me plenty of time to divine the subtleties of Meier's latest effort. If you live in New York City, an extended stay at the Central Islip courthouse could lie in your future as well. Having built one of the largest courthouses in the United States, the government intends to fill it up at least partly with jurors from far-flung ZIP codes in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

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This mammoth piece of patronage was bestowed on depressed, underpopulated Central Islip partly through the efforts of the Republican political boss former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. D'Amato was known as  "Senator Pothole" for his ability to bring government largess to New York and was so closely identified with the building that a minion suggested naming it for him. The Meier courthouse has essentially replaced the 10,000-bed mental hospital that served as Central Islip's economic engine until state hospitals were closed down during the move toward deinstitutionalization. The hospital is long gone. But the vast white spaces and towering rooms of the courthouse convey the coldness and architectural tyranny that one might expect from an early 20th-century mental ward.

Do not worry about getting lost on the way to court. At 12 stories, this stark white structure is the largest in the county, visible from a great distance and unmissable in this flat, low-rise landscape. The building consists of a long, sleek rectangle of glass and white aluminum fronted by a tapered cylinder that some have called a coffee pot but that struck me as a metallic white version of the cooling towers found at nuclear power plants. Meier's composition—the curves against the straight lines, all of it raised on a pedestal—is breathtaking from a distance. But the scale and the composition grow steadily more alienating as you approach this mammoth building on foot. The sense of menace is augmented by the raised concrete plaza that pedestrians must cross to enter the building. The plaza is blank, unadorned, and a tad fascistic in its effect. Crossing it on foot reminded me of that nightmare in which the dreamer runs furiously, getting nowhere. This is penis-waving by the architect, his way of saying "not so fast—slow down and look at what I have done here," while the visitor is belittled by the vast white bulk of the building. Without a doubt, this courthouse will become famous in the annals of science fiction. It could easily have served as the futuristic prison in the early George Lucas movie THX-1138 or as the company that manufactured superhuman clones ("more human than human") in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.  

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The great cylinder through which you enter the building conducts wind downward onto the plaza and into the rotunda itself. This effect was so pronounced in December that some of the doors were chained shut to prevent them banging open. Step inside the cylinder, and you encounter a vast, empty rotunda that soars up 180 feet. Eye-opening, yes. But heatable, no. During the time I spent in the building, the guards who manned the metal-detectors and the security booth were huddled around a space heater grumbling about the cold. Walk through the metal-detectors and you enter an even larger space, a vast central atrium that extends the full height of the building, revealing a cross-section of the floors above. This was meant to be a public space. But during my weeks in Central Islip, people seemed hesitant to congregate and tended to rush across the space as quickly as possible. This sense of urgency stemmed from the gargantuan emptiness above the atrium and from the absence of nooks in the room that might shelter intimate conversation. After a few days, some of us were acutely aware that the walkways above the atrium were open to people or things that might actually fall. There were butter-fingered lawyers up there with briefcases, janitors with brooms and dustpans, and careless workman tossing around screwdrivers, still putting the place together. My fellow jurors speculated about what would happen if a depressed defendant ever jumped from one of those upper walkways. The consensus was that the government would wall up the atrium with Plexiglas, the kind used by bullet-proofed liquor stores in bad neighborhoods.

The hallways, atrium, courtrooms, and judges' quarters are all soaring spaces. But our jury room had little majesty. The room was too small to accommodate the initial jury of 16—which included four alternates—and barely big enough to house the 12 who remained when the alternates were dismissed. We were reaching over each other for doughnuts, breathing uncomfortably in each others' faces, with no personal space to speak of.  For relief from each other during the lunch break, many of us retreated to our cars in the parking lot.

Great public structures tend to have great men's rooms, with urinals and toilets by the score. But the bathrooms just off the jury room (two toilets for 16 coffee-swigging adults) were inadequate and dirty after just a few days. Even the main bathrooms by the elevators were too small for the massive scale of the building. The jurors were scraping shoulders with nervous defendants and their lawyers, all vying for urinals, toilets, and a place to wash their hands. This congestion at the pissoir is a bad omen, given that the courthouse is not yet fully staffed and has yet to house one of those sensational trials that draws an audience from the four corners of the Earth. At least we learned where Mr. Meier found the space for that atrium and those soaring hallways: He chopped it out of the bathrooms. 

Brent Staples is on the editorial board of the New York Times and is a member of Slate's book-reviewing team.

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