It’s hard to imagine a place where more desperate and depressing drama unfolds on a daily basis than a family courthouse — custody battles, abuse, divorce. And if you were to design a place to reflect and amplify that misery, not mitigate it, it’d probably take the form of the old New York County Family Courthouse in Lower Manhattan.
The original shiny black cube, built in 1975, was referred to as the “Darth Vader Building” by court employees (presumably after 1977). The foreboding and intimidating structure was primarily criticized in relation to its function as a family courthouse, which should strive to inspire a feeling of trust, authority, and (one hopes) inclusion.
The building was remodeled in 2006. The bones are largely the same, but the shiny, black cladding is gone, replaced by a more conventional grey/beige. The problematic entrance to the building has been completely opened up, making ingress and egress a much less daunting proposition. To quote our 99% Invisible reporter this week, Brett Myers (a producer at Youth Radio), “walking into the building is no longer like being consumed by a beast.”
But a little something was lost in the facelift. The original building was definitely not boring and commanded your attention. I don’t know if the same can be said for the current design. Modern design principles and cultural preservation are not necessarily at loggerheads, but when they do come into conflict, it’s not always easy to answer which ideology should win.