Built with a minimal budget, Lake|Flato Architects’ San Antonio Federal Courthouse focuses on the most affordable material of all: daylight

Bright-Line Rule

Built with a minimal budget, Lake|Flato Architects’ San Antonio Federal Courthouse focuses on the most affordable material of all: daylight

Though subdued, the courthouse facade is loaded with symbolism. The eight stone pilasters on the north face reference the building's eight courtrooms, while horizontal brick courses break the elevation into 12 sections, representing the 12 members of a jury. (Robert Gomez)

“The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine” is an apt comment on the construction of the new San Antonio federal courthouse. Officially opened in April, the project was first awarded in 2009 to Lake|Flato, which had designed a five-story structure and a lower bar building that enclosed an open-air courtyard. In 2013, the effort was put on hold when the federal government shut down, owing to attempts by congressional Republicans to defund Obamacare. In 2016, with a new president-elect about to enter the White House, the project was revived, but it quickly stalled again the following year because of an updated budget that slashed funding. San Antonio, as it happened, did not vote for Donald J. Trump, a factor that certainly didn’t work in its favor, especially in the context of a regime that was already skeptical about spending federal dollars on the General Services Administration’s design excellence program.

In responding to these tightened purse strings, Lake|Flato reconfigured the courthouse into something much more conventional: a three-story structure with an atrium. It was a decided compromise for the firm, which was excited about its first courthouse commission and one in its hometown. The architects sought to deliver a truly innovative building, one that would invert the typically cloistered and fortresslike bearing of the courthouse typology while consuming less energy and putting users in direct contact with the natural environment—and, in doing so, activating the landscape’s intimations of life, liberty, and happiness. The atrium would not be the architects’ final concession, but, analyzing the constraints at hand, they did see a way to achieve some of their aspirations. If they couldn’t open the building to the air, they would at least daylight its interior while greeting the street with a dignified but gregarious face.

wood-paneled atrium of a courthouse
Oak screens and balconies punctuate the courtroom floors. (Robert Gomez)

The courthouse occupies the southeast corner of South Santa Rosa Avenue and Nueva Street. From there, it is a brief walk across San Pedro Creek, which forms the eastern border of the site, to San Antonio’s Main Plaza. Originally called Plaza de las Islas, this open space is the heart of the historic city and evidence of the Hispanic urbanism that organized the town before the freeways enabled development across hill and prairie in all directions. Renovated by Lake|Flato in 2008, the plaza, with its burbling fountain, abuts San Fernando Cathedral, which was first constructed in 1731; the towering cypress trees of the legendary San Antonio River Walk (nearby steps leading down to it were also designed by Lake|Flato); and the Bexar County Courthouse, a magnificent Romanesque Revival red sandstone pile designed by noted 19th-century Texas architect J. Riely Gordon.

The importance of the county courthouses of Texas, the most iconic of which were built from 1885 to 1901, is well documented, if not well known. Briefly, in a time when the security of personal property and life itself were often held at the mercy of the meanest man with a gun, courthouses symbolized the power of the state as a protective and democratic institution that established law and order, much as the church did for early Spanish colonists. In this era, courthouses were monumental structures on the order of cathedrals that were funded with public moneys. Lake|Flato, which has built its career designing modern, environmentally responsive buildings imbued with traditional materials and building craft, pondered these precedents heavily while designing the federal courthouse.

interior of a courtroom with wood detailing
Top-floor courtrooms receive daylight from a clerestory. (Robert Gomez)

As the seat of the Western District of Texas, which oversees an area of 93,000 square miles—almost the size of Oregon—the building contains administrative offices for all the federal courthouses from Waco to El Paso, as well as its own district and municipal courtrooms, associated judges’ and clerks’ chambers, U.S. marshals’ quarters, a prisoner cellblock, and a jury assembly room, as well as spaces for naturalizations and other ceremonies. The architects housed the administrative functions in the southern wing and the courtrooms and judges’ and clerks’ chambers in the north wing, which faces Nueva Street.

On the northern elevation, the facade is broken up into a rhythm of rough-cut Lueders limestone pilasters alternating with inset glass panels. The pilasters, of which there are eight, representing the eight courtrooms, are broken into 12 bands, representing the 12 members of a traditional jury, by horizontal redbrick courses finished with a German smear, a common local building style. (By the 1880s, San Antonio’s population was mostly German.) The western facade, which faces South Santa Rosa Avenue, is largely glass shaded by a sizable gray painted metal brise-soleil supported by large steel pipe columns. The southern face, which currently looks onto a gated parking lot, picks up the rhythm of the north side, though the indents between stone pilasters were value-engineered out, leaving a flat surface with terra-cotta spandrel panels between the windows.

section view of a federal courthouse
A section shows how daylight infiltrates the building through window walls and clerestories. (Courtesy Lake|Flato)
site plan illustration of a federal courthouse
Landscaping connects the courthouse to San Pedro Creek. (Courtesy Lake|Flato)

Taken as a whole, the composition is orderly if a bit staid, especially when compared with the nearby Bexar courthouse, whose rusticated stone blocks are stacked in an ebullient array of configurations. But considering that at a certain point in budget discussions it was proposed that the building be finished with stucco, it’s a victory that the architects and their liaison, U.S. district judge Xavier Rodriguez, fought hard enough to ensure that it is at least clad with local stone.

The courthouse is elevated above street level on a 4-foot plinth, giving it a temple- like prominence. Set far back from the curb for security reasons (the same ones that all federal buildings must follow post–Timothy McVeigh), it is surrounded by landscaping completed by Alta Architects. The terrain features native plantings and bioswales that reference San Antonio’s historic acequias and filter stormwater before it runs into San Pedro Creek. Large stone tiers step down from the building’s eastern face to the creek, which used to be treated as little more than a back-alley drainage ditch but is undergoing its own redevelopment. One day soon it will feature a walking path that leads all the way to the creek’s confluence with the San Antonio River.

atrium of a courthouse building
White acoustic plaster pilasters in the atrium pick up the rhythm established on the facade. (Robert Gomez)

When one walks through the main entrance, on the building’s west elevation, there’s no getting around the security screening that greets visitors upon entry. Things get better on the other side of the metal detectors, where the first bits of public art appear in the elevator lobby. The elevator doors themselves feature a shadow pattern of the plan of downtown San Antonio, while three paintings by longtime Lake|Flato partner and collaborator Matt Morris hang above. They depict the city at discrete moments in its three-century history: in 1750, 1850, and 1950. The entire lobby itself sits atop the old Camino Real, which runs south all the way to Mexico City.

Turning the corner, visitors move from the compressed space of the lobby into the expansive and bright atrium. It is, in fact, cathedralesque. The north and south wings of the building splay out, following the trapezoidal geometry of the site. Large pilasters of acoustic plaster rise to the full height of the space, breaking up the wood-paneled loggias that flank the atrium and echoing the rhythm established on the facade. The floor’s terrazzo abstracts the region’s historic waterways into a field of green, white, and brown. The same pattern is repeated in the clerestory windows that peek out of dormers in the wood ceiling. At the far end are a raised wooden dais and a stairway that leads to the jury assembly room, which is separated from the atrium by an operable glass wall. Two works by the artist Thomas Glassford grace this space: A pendant of blown glass shapes hangs across from a 15-foot-by-50-foot mural of overlapping patterns in blue, red, orange, and green. Glassford, who grew up in Laredo, Texas, before moving to Mexico City in the 1990s to start his art career, creates abstract works that play with notions of cultural hybridity—a nice fit for a space that hosts naturalization ceremonies.

atrium of a courthouse building with glass art suspended from ceiling
The atrium features two large artworks by Thomas Glassford. (Robert Gomez)

In his comments at the courthouse’s opening ceremony, Lake|Flato cofounder David Lake spoke about light. “Daylight is without prejudice,” he said. “It falls upon us equally. It illuminates.” It also comes free of charge, making it a key asset for this cash-strapped project. That the courthouse is clear and easy to navigate is cause for commendation. It doesn’t mirror the labyrinthine proceedings of jurisprudence, nor the polarized politics that plagued its construction, and that’s a good thing.

Design architect: Lake|Flato Architects
Design-build architect: SLAM Collaborative
Construction administration: Alta Architects (formerly Muñoz & Company)
Design-build contractor: Brasfield & Gorrie
Structural engineer: Datum Engineers
MEP: Integral Group
Landscape architect: Alta Architects (formerly Muñoz & Company)
Facade consultant: Arup
Blast consultant: Hinman
Facade system: Kawneer