Fort Lauderdale Federal Courthouse
Often times we miss the story that is right in front of us. Take the United States Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. At first glance, we see a rough concrete structure, but let us take a moment to observe this architectural marvel from a different perspective. Perhaps what we will find is a metaphorical swamp built from concrete, steel, and glass; sitting in the middle of our downtown.
The concrete canopy above the Plaza is supported by long columns that are a metaphor for the cypress trees that would grow in a swamp. And below we find a public plaza with large stepped rectangular pools that gently cascade the water from upper to lower pools. They are painted a dark green so that the water, when still operational, would appear bottomless like a dark water swamp.
Seating under the canopy is not what it seems; instead, the metaphor of the cypress trees come to life. Look at the picture of a cypress above, a portion of the tree root comes up around the base and looks like a stump and a natural place to sit. The Architect, William Morgan, arranged concrete blocks approximating the height of the stops along the edge of the pools convenient for sitting like the knees of the cypress tree.
The narrative is not only beautiful but also provides a utilitarian purpose. In the oppressive Florida heat the public plaza, when operating, was a serene representation of the native swamp and creates the same cooling and quiet place of reflection as you would find in nature.
Due to the sensitive nature of legal discussions that occur at any courthouse, the running water would provide a sense of privacy in an open space. The sound of the water prevented the conversation from being heard by other pedestrians visiting the courthouse.
The architect William Morgan, a modernist, grew up in Jacksonville, Florida and went to Harvard in the late nineteen fifties. There Morgan studied under Walter Gropius who was the father of the Bauhaus and (modern) international style in Germany. Morgan studied in Italy on the Fulbright scholarship while a student at Harvard.
You can see a lot of reflection of Italian Renaissance design in the configuration of the Plaza. As with Michelangelo's capital in Rome, he offset some of the walkways on an angle from the rigid grid of the building so that you would feel the movement of the columns as you view the surrounding buildings through them while you walk. This is another way to engage the public in the architecture, perhaps without them even being aware.
The Plaza is raised above the street level by approximately 6 feet. I refer to it as one of the 3 hills in downtown Fort Lauderdale. I call it Federal Hill. When standing on this hill one gets a very different perspective than you would anywhere else at normal grade level. You can see further and get a much broader view of the surroundings as compared with the experience along the sidewalk.
The fountain is no longer working, and the building has some maintenance issues including the roof. Without the fountain operating and empty of water, the full experience of the design cannot be appreciated.
The stories of Fort Lauderdale are all around us. They are in the buildings, but often times we miss them because our eyes are untrained to see. Feel free to join the Civic Engagement Corporation’s mailing list or come out for a tour.