And Justice for All

By staff October 1, 2008

After years of discussion, debate and even a failed referendum, Bradenton at last has a handsome judicial center, one that sits proudly in the center of its downtown, honoring the city’s history while providing state-of-the-art courtrooms, offices and support systems.

The site, next to the dignified, white-columned historic courthouse at Manatee Avenue West and 12th Street, opposite the county administration building and near the corner of Old Main Street, could not be better suited to its purpose: to provide an iconic focus on one of the most important functions of government, the administration of justice under the law.

The new building, the product of a collaboration between Bradenton-based Fawley Bryant Architects and the Tampa office of HOK Architecture, Engineering and Planning, occupies the space from Sixth Avenue Westto a new plaza joining Manatee Avenue.

Sizeable as it is, the building sits lightly on the land, providing generous expanses of glass at ground level in public areas while giving due consideration to the difficult issues of security inherent in a structure housing the judicial functions belonging to Florida’s Twelfth Circuit Court.

Despite its weighty function, the new building and its environs are people-friendly to an extraordinary degree. To a great extent, this welcoming attitude is created by the pedestrian mall that runs between the old and new courthouses, defined on the south side by the buildings themselves, but widening to a natural gathering spot on the north, providing light and air to the imposing expanse of glass defining the lobby of the new building and framing the historic structure for the benefit of those within. Another feature contributing to the human scale of the building is the curved façade at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 10th Street, a graceful sheltered arcade that includes the entrance to the legal library, accessible to the public. To create this accommodation to pedestrians at a high-traffic intersection is a welcome gesture, aimed at reducing the intimidation factor of such a powerful government structure.

It is never easy to coordinate architecture so widely separated by time and style, but Fawley Bryant has achieved an unusually comfortable pairing of the two buildings by creating implied horizontal connections between them, employing the height of the pediment atop the columns of the old building as the point at which various setbacks and details are created on the new one. During a recent tour of the complex, architect Richard Fawley said that one of the original plans included a glass roof over this public space, a plan later dropped because of its cost. Whatever the reason, the results are serendipitous precisely because the canopy is imaginary rather than real, a much more effective evocation of the historic links between the two courthouses.

Both the old and new buildings are faced with warm brick in various shades of warm earth colors. On the new structure, the brick panels between the strong verticals of glass-enclosed light wells minimize the considerable bulk of the building while echoing the strong thrust of the while columns on its historic mate across the plaza. These warm colors are carried into the interior, which begins with a superb, soaring lobby. Once past the inevitable security apparatus, the visitor is struck by the glittering strength of the metal-clad columns on either side of the staircases and escalators to the second level, where the building’s functions begin, safely atop security entrances and parking for vehicles carrying judges and trial defendants. 

It’s not often that one can report favorably on the quality of spaces, finish and materials in a public building of such a utilitarian nature. In this case, however, the light-filled public areas, hallways, waiting areas and court rooms meet and often exceed very high standards. Ceilings are high, beautifully detailed where they meet the walls, which, in turn, are finished to exceptional levels, including the use of environmentally friendly bamboo for the dados and doors. Hardware is sturdy and elegant, as is the signage, both printed and electronic. The result is warm and non-threatening, clearly an important characteristic for a courthouse whose primary mission is the dispensing of humane solutions to human conflict.

The design team paid much attention to the technological requirements of today’s justice system. Information systems, television monitoring and security devices have been incorporated unobtrusively in the building, providing enough capacity for future development. Duncan Broyd of HOK spoke enthusiastically of this aspect of the project, while pointing out that extra space and air-conditioning capacity have been “banked” in the building to satisfy future needs at minimum cost. 

The community has gained a welcome and welcoming presence in Bradenton’s historic center, one that helps to link the urban core with the graceful and imaginative municipal amenities along the riverfront just two blocks to the north, including the City Hall complex, the Bishop Planetarium, the South Florida Museum and the marina.

It was worth the wait, Bradenton, to get it right!  

Sarasota’s Richard Storm has won awards from the Florida Society of Professional Journalists and the Florida Magazine Association for this column.

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