United States Courthouse, Austin TX


LOCATION: Austin, Texas
SIZE: 252,000 sq. ft.
OWNERS: U.S. General Services Administration
ARCHITECT: Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Inc.
AWARDS: 2014 GSA Design Award of Merit
PHOTOGRAPHER: © Timothy Hursley

DESIGN TEAM:Robert Osten
 James Perry
 Dan Weissman

Austin: the bustling Texas city where great music, mouth-watering BBQ, old school cowboys and new school investment bankers mix to create a unique urban environment and experience. Across from Republic Square Park and a short walk from the Texas State Capitol and the heart of downtown, the city skyline is reflected in the two-story glass curtain wall of the new Austin Federal Courthouse.

Peering in through the glass façade of this modern, yet elegant, monolithic building mass, you sense an unusual transparency; it seems that the design is as much for the public as for the inner workings of the judicial system. A two-story glass art wall was commissioned to separate the grand lobby from the jury assembly room beyond, while also acting as a luminous mural, to be experienced by visitors and passers-by alike.

Electric lighting both frontlights the textured, colored art glass and backlights the feature wall by lighting the white gyp wall beyond in the jury assembly. A combination of adjustable accent fixtures and a few theatrical spots (for precise beam control) bring out the richness of the glass color and texture by raking the front surface with light. Linear fluorescent fixtures mounted on a structural header behind the glass, in combination with recessed linear fluorescent fixtures in the high ceiling of the jury assembly, asymmetrically light the wall beyond. The indirect light from this large bulkhead wall-surface creates a ‘glow’ for the upper portion of the art wall that transitions from day to night.

Numerous computer models and small mockups were created during design, but extensive time was spent on-site in the past few months with the artist (Clifford Ross) and the Architect (Mack Scogin Merrill Elam) after the final installation was complete. This allowed for lighting adjustments to be made that could not be predicted without seeing the actual glass wall in its entirety, within the contextual built form. The lighting in both the grand lobby and the jury assembly needed to be ‘massaged’ to maintain appropriate aesthetics and function for the building occupants, as well as to enhance the experience of the art wall.

Custom length cross-baffle snoots were mocked up and fabricated to minimize the veiling reflections in the art glass (due to the scale of the wall and lobby and numerous potential viewing positions).

Miniature valances were designed and installed on the ceiling to shield the direct view of staggered lines of linear lensed downlights in the jury assembly; these could be seen from the lobby and detracted from the experience of the art wall. Solving the experiential issue of the art wall in this case required creating a solution that was architecturally clean, without minimizing the aesthetics of the fixtures or the general lighting for the jury assembly room.

Portions of the recessed wall washer reflectors were painted matte black to reduce any visible source brightness from the lobby side of the art wall, without significantly affecting the overall performance and output of the fixtures.

Different neutral density light reduction films were tested and then applied to the outer glass wall of the jury assembly, directly beyond the art wall, to balance the brightness and contrast while maintaining a sense of transparency. This was initially done for an architectural photo shoot; subsequently, a recommendation was made to the GSA for a permanent glass treatment to balance the backdrop of the art wall during the day, without hindering the wonderful daylit quality of the jury assembly.

All variables of the final installation were tested through collaborative team analysis and mockups; electric lighting, building geometry and daylight conditions were all studied, and modifications were made to every critical detail. The two-story architectural glass wall is realized as a one-of-a-kind art installation.