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Mecklenburg County Courthouse, Charlotte, NC, United States

Tuesday 01 Jul 2008

Courthouse Solution for Mecklenburg County

© Gordon Schneck 
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24/01/10 Rosemary, Charlotte
In November 2009, thirty international students in Charlotte to study English at the English Language Training Institute at UNC Charlotte toured this building. As a long-time resident of Mecklenburg County, I was SO PROUD to hear their comments. The plan of the building helped them understand a concept that was particularly new to many of them! An unintended consequence, possibly, of a great design. They were particularly impressed with the family courts on level seven, and the visual and spatial considerations made to ease any uncertainty children might have, coming into such a new space (with tension-filled parents!)
The building itself is lovely, and I could see its efficiency for people working there or coming for whatever purpose. And, a special thank you to whatever person thought about the weather we have in Charlotte - sunny at one hour, sudden showers at another. Shelter outside the building allows for adjustment for pedestrians.
As an English teacher who loves the power of the written word - the quotes on the exterior panels continue to inspire passersby - and my students, without ANY encouragement from me, jotted down some in their notebooks. Deepening understanding of the US judicial system by visiting a building - unusual but quite possible in the case of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.
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Converging four facilities into one, three architects produce a design set to stand as a pillar for the justice system 

To keep pace with the increasing demands of a growing population, Mecklenburg County expanded their courts system piece by piece. This strategy ultimately led to a fragmented system, spread through four different facilities. Faced with continued population growth and space shortages Mecklenburg County again faced the need for expansion space. Recognising a need for change the County hired the TriVenture Team of HDR Architecture, KMW, and Schenkel Shultz to consolidate all of the courtrooms under one roof. The courthouse was the first step in defining a new Government District and in addressing the deficiencies of the present multi-building court complex, including overcrowding, a shortage of courtrooms, disjointed traffic paper flow and compromised security, among others.

There were three main challenges the architects faced in the design: To provide a clear, calm and cohesive environment that expresses the dignity of the courts, civic trust and justice; to utilize quality materials in a prudent and economical manner that is fitting to a public project and to unify the great diversity of program requirements within a single facility, including courtrooms, administration spaces and civil processing areas.

The first of these challenges was met by approaching the issue of circulation in the design. At its center, public circulation encircles a day-lit atrium which provides orientation to first-time visitors, offers a sense of spaciousness to offset tensions frequently associated with judicial proceedings, and brings reflected light deep within the building. A colonnade creates a distinctive architectural feature in the atrium, supporting a semicircular roof terrace at the fifth level.

The second challenge was met in the courthouse's simple yet empirically strong design. The street entrance is distinguished with soaring columns rising through four levels of covered exterior space, creating a strong sense of place and a welcomed shelter to pedestrians. A reinterpreted cornice at the corner of the building extends outward to convey an image of permanence and dignity.

The third challenge was met by focusing on the functional purpose of the design. Courts on upper floors have been organized by their function, with supporting offices and ancillary functions: criminal courts on levels three and four; civil courts on level five; and family courts on level seven.

The building includes shelled courts initially to provide future flexibility and growth needs. The Courthouse conveys a civic purpose both inside and outside of the building. It will serve as a focal point and gateway to Center City and reflects the dignity and gravity of our judicial system.

As a testament to its design the Courthouse is to be included in the American Institute of Architects, Committee on Justice, 2007-2008 Justice Facility Review.

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HDR Architecture

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