Closing main doors to the Supreme Court sends troubling message

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The decision to close the front doors of the Supreme Court to visitors, announced Monday and enacted Tuesday, is no small tweak to the security arrangements of the nation's capital. It is not a minor detour on the tourist path nor a mere question of convenience, like deciding to enter through the garage door rather than trek around to the vestigial front porch. The closing of the front doors of the Supreme Court, like so many mindless decisions attributed to security concerns, is a grand affront -- architecturally, symbolically, politically. The decision will enforce new and unwanted meanings on one of the city's most dramatic and successful public buildings.

All across Washington, the doors, terraces and plazas of our essential public buildings have been closed off to the public, likely forever. But the closing of this front door, which will now be used only for exiting the building, is not just another front door lost to paranoia. It is the loss of what may be the nation's most important portal.

It also radically distorts the vigorous architecture of Cass Gilbert, who designed the 1935 courthouse with an entrance portico that orchestrates the entire meaning and drama of the building. If a line should be drawn in the sand against the security-uber-alles mind-set, it is here, and now. The court should immediately reconsider and rescind a decision that warps the symbolism of its own home.

Few buildings have accomplished their purpose as completely, and established themselves as fully in the public's respect as the marble palace of the Supreme Court. It may be barely older than your grandfather, but the building seems to have been there since time immemorial, thanks to Gilbert's grandly proportioned and classical front door. Its double ranks of Corinthian columns support an easy-to-read pediment, part of a grand and legible narrative that begins at the street and proceeds all the way to the inner sanctum of the courtroom.

Unlike the east face of the Capitol, with its three pediments and balanced wings, the full impact of the Supreme Court is concentrated in this entrance. It is the essential first experience of a design that breaks with the highly domestic space of the White House and the balanced deliberative chambers of the Capitol, in favor of a long nave-like central hall, flanked by stumpy and completely subordinate wings. And this yields an essential statement about the court's role in the republic: Ideally, it speaks with unity, authority and finality.

Anyone who has visited the court, ascended those white steps and entered the Great Hall is surprised by the sudden modulations in this architectural symphony. The 16 colossal marble columns of the entrance give way to a much more austere and archaic interior space, as if the court is advertising its majesty on the outside, while allowing a surprising amount of democratic proximity on the inside.

Despite its name, the Great Hall leads very quickly to the courtroom. In architectural terms, the court may be the most immediately accessible branch of government, and that's as it should be. Justice is awe inspiring and available to all, swiftly and without distinction.

That drama is now gone. Starting Tuesday, general visitors will enter the lower level of the portico from the northwest side and ascend one of two vault-like stairways to the Great Hall. These stairs are strikingly unadorned and dismal. They have relatively little grandeur and they don't offer a structured procession or view of the building. Unlike the court's two spiral staircases -- lovely follies that quietly subvert the strict axial plan of the building with Aristotelian suggestions of something more flexible than rigid justice -- these secondary staircases are faceless and forceful. Their unnerving power echoes the statue of a seated male figure -- the Authority of Law -- which stands at the south edge of the grand staircase outside.

That statue, the power of the entrance plaza (already defaced by bollards), the sweep of the main staircase, the compelling force of the large columns and the reassuring simplicity of the Great Hall are now all rendered mute and meaningless ornament, to be looked at in passing, but no longer part of a living, temporal experience of the building. That visitors can still leave via the grand front door is of little comfort. This relegates the opening promise of the portal -- "Equal Justice Under Law" -- to the rearview mirror. It is no longer a promise at all, no longer an expectation of the visitor upon entrance. Now, to read it, the visitor must turn around, like Orpheus, and hope it wasn't just an illusion.

By a thousand reflexive cuts, architecture loses its power to mean anything. The loss to the citizens of the United States is enormous. We are becoming a nation of moles, timorous creatures who scurry through side and subterranean entrances. Soon, we will lose our basic architectural literacy. The emotional experience of entering a grand space has been reduced to a single feeling: impatience in the august presence of the magnetometer.

Architects have, of course, been arguing for decades that these grand, classical entrances encoded unwanted messages: authority and hierarchy. But this argument is generally made to promote more democratic and accessible space, and it is an ongoing architectural dialogue, a living critique of buildings and public life. Now, by fiat, by diktat, the court has neutered its building, insulted the public and yielded to fear.

This is not an architectural, aesthetic or security decision, isolated from the court's larger function. The justices have called into question their own ability to rule impartially on cases that balance security concerns with constitutionally guaranteed liberties. The justices, with Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting, have made their priorities known, as clearly as if they had they had sold naming rights to the Great Hall to the highest corporate bidder. They stand on the side of security -- a regime of absolute and irrevocable decisions often made by unelected officials and not subject to any meaningful public appeal. Beauty, architecture and the need for a democratic people to experience inspiring symbolic public space weigh lightly, if at all, in the scales.

Of course, with a car bomb smoking in Times Square, and memories of 9/11 still more than fresh in public memory, fear is everywhere, and much of it is justified. But the court, perhaps more than any other branch of government, is meant to be fearless. It is the last bastion against corrosive group-think, the defender of unpopular causes and vilified minorities. For more than 75 years, Cass Gilbert's magnificent public edifice embodied all of this, declaring in stone essential lessons of justice, personal liberty and democracy. Now that vision too has been sacrificed to expediency.

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