This view from the southeast shows the 1905 Frank E. Moss U.S. Courthouse in front of Phifer’s new building. When determining the color for the aluminum louvers that sheath the new structure, the design team looked to the tone of the historic building for inspiration.
Scott Frances / OTTO This view from the southeast shows the 1905 Frank E. Moss U.S. Courthouse in front of Phifer’s new building. When determining the color for the aluminum louvers that sheath the new structure, the design team looked to the tone of the historic building for inspiration.


Despite the fact that the Salt Lake City courthouse was just completed this past August, it was your first commission after starting your firm in New York in 1997. Why did this one take so long?
Thomas Phifer, AIA: We were invited to participate in a competition back in 1997, but not for the final site that we ended up with. The original program was an addition to the existing courts and it evolved into a new building. In the end, the site grew to include the entire city block behind the historic Moss courthouse.

It had to do, in part, with security after 9/11. But it also gave us more freedom in planning. And the delay was active waiting: It allowed us to learn from the other work that we were doing along the way. Being in practice is like being on a journey. The more we began to learn about light, and simplicity, and detail, the more this building began to develop. If we’d done it back in 1998, it would have been dramatically different.

View from the east
Scott Frances / OTTO View from the east

The expanded site gave you far more to work with.
Salt Lake City has extremely large blocks and exceptionally broad streets. If you pair that with the 50-foot security setback, we were able to have our building in a public garden with trees and plantings.

View from the west
Scott Frances / OTTO View from the west

You have talked about the expression of justice in our society through the purity of light. How do you explore that here?
We tried to express a sense of enlightenment: justice transparent, a spirit of openness and accessibility. We tried to achieve that through the building’s skin, or veil.

The public entrance at the southwest corner of the site is framed by projecting panels of polished stainless steel. Phifer used this treatment on all of the major openings in the building’s aluminum veil.
Scott Frances / OTTO The public entrance at the southwest corner of the site is framed by projecting panels of polished stainless steel. Phifer used this treatment on all of the major openings in the building’s aluminum veil.

And not veiled in the sense of hiding something, but veiled in the sense of diffusing light.
Diffusing the light, but also thin, to allow the building to participate in its context. We wanted the metaphor to be transparency to what’s happening inside.

But if the light changes, the transparency changes.
The light and the transparency continually change. As the sun moves around the anodized aluminum louvers, the façade goes from white to silver, transparent to opaque. The building transforms itself.

A reflecting pool in the northeast corner of the building is located behind the glass and aluminum skin; a break in the façade opens the space to parkland beyond.
Scott Frances / OTTO A reflecting pool in the northeast corner of the building is located behind the glass and aluminum skin; a break in the façade opens the space to parkland beyond.

It’s interesting that this veil is an identifying characteristic of the building, and yet it varies not only with the direction, but also with what’s behind it.
We wanted to take this cubic form, this noble, upright, monumental form that has little expression, and to honor the material. We looked at Donald Judd’s aluminum boxes and the simplicity of the volume. It allows the light and the material to be used to its greatest effect. We also loved the screws that attached the plates together. There was a certain honesty in how this was made in a very minimal way. It inspired us to expose the tectonics of the building, to take this simple veil and attach it beautifully to the glass façade and show all of the bolts.

The lobby is a triple-height, light-filled volume. A spiral staircase, clad in wooden slats, provides circulation for those who do not want to wait for the elevators at the core of the building.
Scott Frances / OTTO The lobby is a triple-height, light-filled volume. A spiral staircase, clad in wooden slats, provides circulation for those who do not want to wait for the elevators at the core of the building.

I can’t think of any precedent for enveloping a volume of this size in an aluminum veil.
It took us quite some time to trust that it would work, because this was a very thin, very taut expression. We thought, “Why not let the veil speak in a language to allow you to understand how the building works and mediate between the justice system inside and the city?” So we began to vary the width of the louvers and build up a layered conversation that hopefully made the façade rich. There’s no big architectural message through exuberant form, so the building turns out to be slightly mysterious in a way, for all its transparency.

In the public elevator lobby on a typical floor hangs an installation by James Carpenter (at left).
Scott Frances / OTTO In the public elevator lobby on a typical floor hangs an installation by James Carpenter (at left).

The simple cube belies a highly complex configuration within, with three separate kinds of circulation: prisoners, judges, public.
The organization of the building came from a square plan with the public in the middle and the courtrooms in the corners to get daylight. That allowed for private spaces—holding cells, jury deliberation rooms, judges’ elevators and corridors—between the courtrooms.

A person arriving from the street walks up the steps, and comes through the majesty of a three-story-high portal that seems even larger than it is because it is reflective, and into the lobby and then a skylit atrium in which James Carpenter did a spectacular installation that is about light coming down the middle of the building, where the elevator is. You go up, and you’re in the public circulation, and finally you go to the wood-lined courtrooms. The sequence was important.

We had to separate the judges, the prisoners, and the public—three circulation systems without any hint of crossing. That difference is expressed in the veil. The wider louvers shield the most private places: the jury deliberation rooms, the judges’ circulation, and the holding cells and prisoner circulation.

The wood-paneled courtrooms are positioned in the corners of the building.
Scott Frances / OTTO The wood-paneled courtrooms are positioned in the corners of the building.

And yet, historically, a celebration of the justice system has been somewhat ostentatious. That’s also been true of some of the current crop of courthouses.
Well, for years, we borrowed from Thomas Jefferson and the columns of Monticello. We used that as a symbol of justice. We now have different values and a different understanding of justice. There’s a wonderful voice that this building can speak with, this voice of luminosity, this voice of presence through light, and a spirit of using nothing more than what’s needed.

A roof terrace is sheltered behind the glass and aluminum curtainwall, but portals lined in polished stainless steel offer views of the distant mountains.
Scott Frances / OTTO A roof terrace is sheltered behind the glass and aluminum curtainwall, but portals lined in polished stainless steel offer views of the distant mountains.
Aluminum louver assemby detail
Scott Frances / OTTO Aluminum louver assemby detail


Reflecting pools in the plaza at the western edge of the site
Scott Frances / OTTO Reflecting pools in the plaza at the western edge of the site


A polished stainless steel vitrine
Scott Frances / OTTO A polished stainless steel vitrine


View of the entrance portal from the south
Scott Frances / OTTO View of the entrance portal from the south


view from the northeast
Scott Frances / OTTO view from the northeast

Drawings


Courtesy Thomas Phifer and Partners


Opposite: A shallow reflecting pool at the southwest corner of the site sits next to the polished stainless steel canopy of the public entrance. Beyond, visitors get a close-up view of the custom extruded and perforated aluminum sunscreen louvers, which are set roughly 15 inches in front of the aluminum curtainwall for optimal shading and daylight penetration, and to accommodate window washing.
Scott Frances / OTTO Opposite: A shallow reflecting pool at the southwest corner of the site sits next to the polished stainless steel canopy of the public entrance. Beyond, visitors get a close-up view of the custom extruded and perforated aluminum sunscreen louvers, which are set roughly 15 inches in front of the aluminum curtainwall for optimal shading and daylight penetration, and to accommodate window washing.

Project Credits

Project: United States Courthouse, Salt Lake City
Client: U.S. General Services Administration
Architect: Thomas Phifer and Partners, New York . Thomas Phifer, AIA (managing partner); Stephen Dayton, AIA (project partner); Mitch Crowder, Ina Ko, Katie Bennett, Robert Chan, Rebecca Garnett, Andrew Mazor, Jon Benner, Chien Ho Hsu (project team)
Executive Architect: Naylor Wentworth Lund Architects, Salt Lake City . Ross Wentworth AIA (principal); Sergey Akhpatelov, AIA (project partner); Steve Squires, Scott Smith, Erin Youngberg, Richard Judkins, Tyler Young, Barbara Fowler, Melissa van Schelt
Landscape Architect: E. A. Lyman Landscape Architects
Civil Engineer: McNeil Engineering
Mechanical Engineer: Van Boerum & Frank Associates
Structural Engineering: Reaveley Engineers + Associates
Blast Engineering: Weidlinger Associates
Electrical Engineering: BNA Consulting Engineers
Lighting Design: Fisher Marantz Stone
Building Enclosure/Artwork: James Carpenter Design Associates
Acoustics: Arup
Graphics: Piscatello Design Centre
LEED Consultant: CRSA Architecture
Elevators: Lerch Bates Associates
Pool Design: Water Design
Cost Estimating: Parametrix
General Contractor: Okland Construction
Size: 400,000 square feet
Cost: Withheld