The Darth Vader Family Courthouse

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
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:
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.”

Roman Mars:
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:
There’s little to equate “family” with the building beyond dysfunction.

Brett Meyers:
If the family court could have talked before its 2006 renovation, it would have said, “All who enter are doomed.”

Eugene Patron:
Built in 1975, this polished black, cubist hulk is about as welcoming as the Death Star

Brett Meyers:
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.

Eugene Patron:
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.

Roman Mars:
And that’s an easy argument to make.

Brett Meyers:
Absolutely. It filled me with rage the first time I saw this building back in the late 90s. The design just seemed so wrong for a family courthouse. It was like hiring Dick Cheney to be the nanny for your kids.

Roman Mars:
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.

Brett Meyers:
And before the 2006 remodel, it was possible to appreciate this building but from afar. Up close was a different story. The shiny 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 stepping into a black hole.

Miriam Hernandez: (laughs)
Definitely very bleak and very “oh my god what is this!” A black building, you know? Is this a courthouse?

Brett Meyers:
Miriam Hernandez works there as an interpreter/translator.

Miriam Hernandez:
It didn’t really have the feeling of humanity or humane. It didn’t really have that.

Brett Meyers:
What kind of stuff happens inside?

Miriam Hernandez:
Oh my god, the question should be what doesn’t happen. (chuckles) What doesn’t happen? It’s like you could write maybe a forever book about what takes place inside.

Roman Mars:
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.”

[Darth Vader Voice: “Luke, your mother and I are getting a divorce.”]

Brett Meyers:
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.

Roman Mars:
This guy goes by the name of “Lofter1.”

Lofter1:
My Clark Kent is basically I do freelance research.

Brett Meyers:
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.

Brett Meyers:
“How many posts have you posted since June?”

Lofter1:
“Way too many, for a sane person! About, oh a couple thousand? I’m not sure. It’s like 28,000, something like that.”

Brett Meyers:
“28,131 posts.”

Lofter1:
“That’s as of when? Because you didn’t check this morning, did you? I’ve added a few.”

Brett Meyers:
“You’ve added a few today?”

Lofter1:
“Yeah. I go on there almost every day.”

Brett Meyers:
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.

Brett Meyers:
“That old place? I felt like I was kneeling down and crawling through a teeny little, uhhh…, hole in a cave, you know? I didn’t know what the hell… there was a bear, there were bats, there was something on the other side…”

Lofter1:
“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.”

Brett Meyers:
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 back in the 70s when it was built.

Lofter1:
“Watergate. Financial distress. Social divide. It all makes total sense.”

Brett Meyers:
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.

Roman Mars:
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 going ahead.”

Lofter1:
“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.”

Brett Meyers:
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.

Roman Mars:
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.

Lofter1:
“That doesn’t look imposing or unfriendly at all.”

Brett Meyers:
And there’s no more threat that those black granite panels are going to fall off the side of the building and kill people.

Roman Mars:
And, oh yeah, it’s also kind of boring.

Brett Meyers:
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.

Roman Mars:
And now, Brett kind of misses the old building.

Brett Meyers:
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 milky bland remodel is a definite improvement.

Roman Mars:
And probably a sacrifice worth making. Come on, it’s for kids, man.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week y Brett Meyers and me, Roman Mars. With support from LUNAR, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW 91.7, local public radio in San Francisco, the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. You can find out more at the website. It’s 99percentinvisible.org.

  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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