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COURT-COMPLEX DESIGN STIRS AN ADVERSARIAL AIR

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Utah's $68 million court complex will look a lot like court complexes in other cities, and critics and state officials are divided over whether that's a bad thing.

Two local architects, a lawmaker and the Utah Heritage Foundation held a press conference Monday to criticize the design for the building as ugly and redundant.The complex, to be built directly west of the Salt Lake City-County Building, is the most expensive building in state history and second only to the state Capitol in size.

The Legislature didn't realize it was getting a piecemeal design thrown together from other projects the firm has done, said Rep. Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake.

"Utahns deserve a building that reflects our culture, aspirations and beliefs," Jones said. "What we are getting is the McDonald's of court complexes."

HOK, the San Francisco architectural firm that designed the building, has used a similar design for a county court complex in Washington and a federal court complex in Missouri, said architect Robert Bliss.

"How many state capitols look alike?" asked presiding 3rd District Judge Michael Murphy.

Utah was not seeking a wholly original design, said Wayne Bingham, the state's assistant director for design and construction.

The design should go to the Legislature for review, Jones said. But Murphy said court officials have been to the Legislature seven times on this project.

Architects and construction companies teamed up this spring to enter design proposals for the 417,00-square-foot complex. HOK, in conjunction with the locally owned MHTN Architects, entered the winning design. Big "D" Construction will build the complex.

Bliss and architect Frank Ferguson said the requirements of the contest were so narrow that most firms chose not to enter. "A contest like that should have had 100 entries," Bliss said.

Contestants were given a list of requirements eight inches thick, Bingham acknowledged. Originality was not on the list.

Court officials are more concerned that the building can be used efficiently by all of the courts than they are that the building look different from every other court complex in the country, Murphy said.

HOK has used similar designs - particularly of the rotunda - in the Missouri and Washington buildings, acknowledged Greg Williams, vice president of the San Francisco firm. But many elements of Utah's building have never been replicated in any other court complex the company has designed, he said.

The presence of a rotunda and an open, airy central space is common in civic buildings across the country, Bingham said. Jones and the architects particularly criticized that part of the design as repetitive.

Rotundas, columns and open spaces often distinguish important government buildings from office buildings, Bingham said.

The way the courtrooms and chambers are clustered together and a strong design presence in the back of the building are completely unique to Utah's building, he said.

Bliss and Ferguson say the design is questionable. The two men likened the design to the architecture of the Third Reich and Stalin's Russia. "It recalls Berlin in 1939 and Hitler's plans for the city," Ferguson said.

Mike Leventhal, director of the Utah Heritage Foundation, called the design "brutish." The proposed building "doesn't speak of Utah. It doesn't speak of Salt Lake City. It doesn't mirror anything up and down the street," he said.

HOK chose several elements that reflect Utah, Williams said. The building will be built of limestone because many of Utah's early buildings were built from similar stone. "Some of the LDS buildings are of limestone or a similar light, white stone."

The roof of the dome over the rotunda is copper, Williams said. That choice, too, is because of Utah's strong copper industry and heavy use of copper in other buildings. "I believe the dome on the state capitol is copper. We felt like the building is a good contrast to the City-County Building. We felt like the wrong thing to do would be to parrot the the City-County Building."

HOK bosses were also startled by the press conference. But Williams looked at it this way: "The purpose of architecture as art is to provoke thought and comment. I'm glad to know we're doing that."