The Darth Vader Family Courthouse

Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: IF you type the word “courthouse” into a Google image search, you get hundreds of results that look really similar to the US supreme court building.
Brett Meyers (BM): Big steps, a granite corinthian collonade, topped by a grand pediment. If the architecture could talk, it would say “Respect me. Serious s*** happens here.”
RM: That’s Brett Meyers, he’s reporting this week’s show. He went to the New York County Family Court in lower Manhattan. It’s a building that looks nothing like the classic Roman and Greek-inspired architecture that most of us associate with courthouses.
Eugene Patron (EP): There’s little to equate “family” with the building beyond dysfunction.
BM: If the family court could have talked before its 2006 renovation, it would have said: “all who enter are doomed.”
EP: Built in 1975, this polished, black, cubic hulk is about as welcoming as the Death Star
BM: That’s Eugene Patron, reading from an article he wrote about his time as a paralegal in the building. He sums up the most common argument about the original design.
EP: The New York Family Court at 60 Lafayette Street is infamous in architecture circles as an example of form giving not a damn about function.
RM: And that’s an easy argument to make.
BM: Absolutely. It filled me with rage the first time I saw this building back in the late 90s. The design seemed so wrong for a family courthouse. It was like hiring Dick Cheney to be the nanny for your kids.
RM: It was brutalist. Think repetitive angles and thick, heavy forms and lots and lot of concrete. It’s a pretty polarizing style. Which I actually kind of like.
BM: And before the 2006 remodel, it was possible to appreciate this building from afar. Up close was a different story. The black granite panels that covered the whole thing were falling off and threatening to kill people on the ground. It was a looming and menacing building. Even the entrance was scary! There were these huge pylons offset at 45-degree angles so that when you entered the building, you couldn’t actually see what it was you were walking into. It was like walking into a black hole.
Miriam Hernandez (MH): Definitely very bleak and very- oh my god what is this! A black building! You know, is this a courthouse?
BM: Miriam Hernandez works there as an interpreter/translator.
MH: It didn’t really have the feeling of humanity or humane. It didn’t really have that.
BM: What kind of stuff happens inside?
MH: Oh my god the question should be what doesn’t happen. What doesn’t happen? It’s like you could write maybe a forever book about what takes place inside.
RM: And that forever book wouldn’t be a light read. It would have chapters about custody battles and divorces and abuse. Children going to family court and their fates being decided behind those doors. If anything, you would hope that the architecture would inspire trust, not fear. And maybe even convey a little bit of warmth. But instead, court employees refer to it as the “Darth Vader Building.”
“Luke, your mother and I are getting a divorce.”
BM: Pardon me, Lord. The question is- was the form of the New York County Family Courthouse completely antithetical to its function? I met a guy who’s got a really interesting theory about this.
RM: This guy goes by the name of Lofter1
Lofter1(L1): My Clark Kent is basically I do freelance research.
BM: By day, he’s a writer/researcher for a real estate blog. But his secret identity is Lofter1. It’s the handle he uses when contributing to Wired New York, this hugely popular website about all things New York City. The community section is basically a forum for urban design geeks, and Lofter1 is one of the biggest geeks on the site.
BM: How many posts have you posted since June?
L1: Way too many for a sane person! About, oh a couple thousand? I’m not sure. It’s like 28,000, something like that.
BM: 28, 131 posts.
L1: That’s as of when? Because you didn’t check this morning, did you? I’ve added a few.
BM: You’ve added a few today?
L1: Yeah. I go on there almost every day.
BM: In fact, he averages almost 13 posts per day. And most are related to architecture and urban planning. One of his first posts was about the remodel of the building we’re talking about, the family courthouse. The building we’re standing in front of.
BM: That old place? I felt like I was kneeling down and crawling through a teeny little… guhhh…hole in a cave. You know, I didn’t what there was- a bear, there were bats, there was something on the other side and I didn’t know what was going to happen.
L1: What happened inside was not going to be good. They should have put, you know, “abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Because that’s what the message was sending.
BM: And Lofter1 argues that that message had a timestamp. That old, black, shiny Death Star of a building reflected the New York of the times. The New York of the 70s, when it was built.
L1: Watergate. Financial distress. Social Divide. It all makes total sense.
BM: Total sense that this building looked the way it did. And this argument gains even more weight when you consider a 1977 story by famed New York Times reporter Laurie Johnston. The article profiles users of the court, in what is essentially a critique of the system. She interviews people who spend days shuffling from one waiting room to another. And their critiques of the bureaucracy go hand in hand with critiques of the architecture.
RM: Here’s a quote from the 1977 article. “It seems like a maze, this place. Or worse, it seems like it’s run like a prison, with uniforms all over. Maybe it’s meant to discourage you from moving ahead.
L1: It’s like, oh you want form to meet function, this is how this court functions. This is what this court does. It sucks people in and spits them out and there’s no feeling. It doesn’t solve the problems.
BM: Now, of course, the courthouse has been remodeled, and it’s warmer and friendlier. And it reflects a city that’s friendlier and more functional.
RM: The black facade is all gone. It’s kind of a light gray right now. And the entrance is all opened up. It even has kind of an awning.
L1: That doesn’t look unfriendly or imposing at all.
BM: And there’s no more threat that those black granite panels are going to fall off the side of the building and kill people.
RM: And, oh yeah, it’s also kind of boring.
BM: The remodel is definitely a little boring. And it’s not a building I want to talk to my friends about. But that original building angered me, and it was something I talked to my friends about. It was kind of dark and interesting.
RM: And now, Brett kind of misses the old building.
BM: But I also know that I’m privileged because I don’t have to interact with it. Because I don’t have to work there and I’m not a kid who has to walk into family court. For them, this mildly bland remodel is a definite improvement.
RM: And probably a sacrifice worth making. Come on, it’s for kids, man!

  1. Elizabeth Wybenga

    I love that I’m listening to the Darth Vader building podcast on May the 4th! Love how life gives us serendipitous moments!

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