Competitions Competitions


Spring 1996

Back to Behrens?
by Stanley Collyer

To mention Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia is to conjure up visions of prototypical 18th century architecture. Thus, when a competition was announced for the design of a new courthouse in Williamsburg, there was considerable speculation among potential participants as to the role which traditional imagery would play in the selection process. Could one even assume that a modern design would be able to compete on a level playing field in this arena.

Quite to the contrary. Almost forgotten was an earlier, national design competition for a Festival Theatre and Fine Arts Center (November 1938-February 1939) at the College of William and Mary – just across the road from the present competition site. Won by the team of Eero Saarinen, Ralph Rapson, and Frederic James, the project was never fully built, due partially to controversy and the fact that World War II loomed just over the horizon. The other premiated designs read like a Who’s Who in the world of architecture at that time: Edward Durell Stone, Richard Neutra, Hugh Stubbins, George Fred Kick and William Keck, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Needless to say, all the prize-winning designs were modernist in appearance and content. There was somehow a tacit understanding that the design envelope should be pushed to the limit. When the eight winning designs went on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Lewis Mumford wrote:

“The fact that they winning design was ‘modern’ and that all the rest were equally without reference to the tastes and trimmings of another age is not exactly news. By now the only people who think there is any other way to design a building are the old-timers who haven’t died off yet and the suburban real estate speculators who have never sold a modern building for the good reason that they have never built one and don’t believe it can be done. The real news is that competitions are now being held in which the judges refuse to be bamboozled by elegant renderings in color, whose greatest architectural achievement is the sky. This makes the show a little dry for the spectator, who must examine the designs critically if he is to form an opinion of them, but it should be very helpful to architecture. The fact that no one was tempted to fit the new building into seventeenth-century Williamsburg by even adding as much as a pineapple to the forthright façade is naturally, all to the good. Williamsburg, after the Rockefeller restoration, is living institution; to house its new activities in Wren buildings would be just as false to the spirit of the restoration as it would be to the activities of themselves.”

The College of William and Mary took a cue from the competition of 1938-39 and went on to erect a number of modern structures as an extension of the campus. One of the most notable of these is the Muscarelle Museum of Art (1983-84) designed by Carlton Abbott and Associates. So, aside from the Colonial Williamsburg tradition, there have been serious attempts to incorporate contemporary design into the fabric of the city.

The Court House Competition

When the results of the Court House Competition were announced, architects who hesitated to enter the competition based on the quest of style must have felt their suspicions confirmed: the city’s new courthouse appears to be in the traditional, Williamsburg mold. The large, three-story shed designed by Miami architects Jorge Hernandez/Francis Lyn would appear to be a cross between Williamsburg’s historic Wren building and Peter Behren’s renowned turn-of-the-century AEG turbine factory building from Berlin. (Hernandez admitted afterwards that the Behren’s building came to mind while the Court House was being designed, but to label it, at the time, as a “shed” might have been a turn-off for the competition sponsors.)

The Court House was to be sited on a 10-acre parcel of land located on an area of 600 acres owned by the Casey family. This parcel was to be incorporated into the city and the remaining acreage around it was to be developed – based mainly on the results of a New Town Plan Competition. Due to time constraints, the Court House and New Town Plan competitions had to run simultaneously, each with its own jury. The very idea that the public and private sector – a dubious constellation in the minds of some – might collaborate successfully on a project of this nature led many to question the credibility of both competitions. This, despite assurances to the contrary by the competition advisers that this was a real project. This was only one of many considerations which led to a surprisingly low rate of submittals to the Court House Competition – only 100 in all.

Granted, the competition program did not specifically ask for participants to bow to a local, historical precedent. Still, phrases such as “respect the urban context,” may have led some to assume that the community was looking for something traditional. For those who did go ahead and register, the competition brief must have seemed overly detailed and complicated considering the short time period allotted for competitors to complete their entries. Just the sight of a 30-page abbreviated program must have given pause to many who were sitting on the fence. The Court’s insistence that a study put together by a consultant be included in the competition program unnecessarily added to the volume of materials each competitor had to digest.

Added to this was the fact that registrants received programs for both competitions – the Town Plan as well as Court House – and most would have felt compelled to read both, even though the intention may have been to enter only one competition. As it turned out, only a few participants chose to enter both competitions. One architect, probably expressing the thoughts of many who considered entering only the Court House Competition, remarked that designing a building without any knowledge of the Town Plan was paramount to selecting a tie without knowing the color of the suit. Finally, competitors had only about 4-5 weeks to deal with a program which contained a lot of nuts and bolts.

In fact, the early deadline which the sponsor set for starting construction on the building dictated the fast pace of the competitions. After the first round, the four Court House finalists had three weeks to refine their designs and build a model. For once, compensation to the prize winners was reasonable – $15,000 for each of the four who made a final presentation plus additional prize money at the end. That, in itself, should have provided the Williamsburg Competitions with considerable legitimacy and encouraged more to enter.

The Judging Process

The site where the Court House jury held its deliberations was located in a contemporary setting – in a “Sea Ranch style” building which was part of a fifteen-year-old, village-like government center on the edge of town. There was no hint of Colonial Williamsburg here, and this was probably symbolic of the way in which the jury went about its task. It was clear from the jury’s first-round choices that style did not play a major role in the selection process. Aside from the Hernandez/Lyn reference to Wren and a neoclassical entry by Gibson Worsham of Christianburg, Virginia, the other two finalists were decidedly modern – by Parallax Architects of Beverly Hills, California and Architectural Alliance of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The jury was made up of Ralph Johnson, FAIA, Perkins and Will, Chicago; David Lee, FAIA, Stull and Lee, Boston; Benjamin Forgey, Architecture Critic for The Washington Post; Michael Pittas, AICP, Los Angeles; and Judge Person, Williamsburg. The presence of Pittas, a planner, on the Court House rather than the Town Plan jury was at the insistence of Judge Person, who thought that the views of a planner would be useful as for the way in which the building might relate to the urban context and Town Plan.

Aside from providing a model for the second stage, the teams were asked to design a 70,000 SF building in order to say within the $12 million budget. The latter guideline was to become a sticky issue with the Parallax entry in this final round, as the square footage of their entry appeared to exceed those of the other finalists. Also, finalists were provided with plans of the four Town Plan schemes from the other competition and asked to site their buildings on each plan, at the same time indicating which of the Town Plans would be the best fit for their building. (This did not influence the Town Plan jury in its decision.)

The Presentations

The jury’s initial impression of the entries, before the presentations even began, was that the competitors had all gone far beyond the program requirement in building their models. The program only asked for simple massing models. However, most had been made out of wood and the Hernandez/Lyn model could even be pulled apart to show the partial, inner organization of the building in section.

Jorge Hernandez began the Hernandez/Lyn presentation by quoting passages from the program: “The aesthetic quality of the building should be such that it becomes a significant, civic symbol for the City of Williamsburg and James City/County. The visitor ought to have the feeling that the Court House is a major civic building on a major public space. The Court House should express in bricks and mortar (Hernandez’s emphasis) the collective memories, values and aspirations of the community and the community’s commitment to justice. The Court House should be responsive to and compatible with the local building traditions, history and culture.” Hernandez openly acknowledged the importance this wording had influencing their decision to enter. In this vein, the Hernandez/Lyn team apparently interpreted the “bricks and mortar” terminology literally, for they went some lengths to describe the type of brick to be used for the façade. (According to the authors of the program, “bricks and mortar” was used in a metaphorical sense.). Hernandez pointed out that their design was influenced by the “classroom building” structures of The College of William and Mary, part of the campus being located just across the main road from the site. The main assets of the winning Hernandez/Lyn scheme, in the eyes of the jury were:

- The three-story building representing a very compact, well-organized scheme. The four interior light wells compensated for the height of the building, in creating grand interior spaces. And the light wells opened up the possibility of bringing much-needed light into the interior of the structure. It was the “section” of the building which gained the attention of the jury and kept this entry in the forefront throughout their deliberations.

- As a large, three-story structure, the building would make a strong visual impact. This was in direct contrast to two of the other finalists, where the lack of height resulting in a diminished presence was viewed negatively.

Concerns voiced by the jury had to do with the entrance – situated at the end of the building and altered somewhat from the first round – and the issue of where a later, proposed 15,000 SF addition might be situated in relation to the existing building. Hernandez/Lyn suggested an L-shaped configuration just off the entrance, a solution the jury considered a bit awkward. But this was not the only finalist which, in the jury’s eyes, had a problem with the addition.

The Architectural Alliance, a team of architects from the University of Michigan led by Robert Levit and William Bricken, designed a modern, two-story structure with considerable glazing. The strength of this building was its organization and accessibility. The two-story building had a much larger footprint than the Hernandez/Lyn entry, due to emphasis on horizontal organization. The jury was unimpressed by the entrance – which was the feature intended to lend the building a high-profile presence – and had questions about texture. Since the presentation was completely in black and white, there was no indication as to what color palette the architects might have in mind. To the jury’s question about the materials to be used in the columns, the architects replied that they would use concrete, and might be infused with an oxidation color process. One of the more interesting exchanges had to do with the building’s imagery. To the jury’s question about the Williamsburg context, Bricken replied that to imitate Colonial Williamsburg would represent a disservice to the original buildings and the whole idea of preservation.

The jury’s concern about the Architectural Alliance entry centered principally around the low profile which the building presented to the outside world. This was hardly enhanced by an entrance which the jury found lacking. There was a comment to the effect that it (the entrance) gave the building the appearance of a shopping mall. Had this entry won, the jury felt there would be a problem relating it to the site of the winning Town Plan entry: the orientation of the building would have to be shifted away from its present southern orientation. This pointed up one disadvantage of running the two competitions simultaneously. To their credit, the architects stated that most of the time allotted preparing for stage II was spent dealing with organizational questions, and their entry reflected this. Their strong showing in this area kept them in the hunt right up to the very end.

The only entry from Virginia among the finalists, a neoclassical building which had a very textbook look to it, was presented by Gibson Worsham of Christianburg. One of the most interesting features of this axial-configured structure was an interior courtyard, essentially separated from the outside world. It was without any intricate landscaping and meant for contemplation and repose. The building called for the adornment of a number of the interior surfaces with murals and public art. How much this would raise the cost of the building was not mentioned, and maybe it was intended to be off-budget. This entry had some of the most spacious courtrooms – 14 feet in height. The presentation was sprinkled with references ranging from Williamsburg to Hartford (Connecticut) and England. In fact, one of the jurors commented that “he (Worsham) never saw a historical precedent he didn’t like.” One might have assumed that the author wasn’t convinced that the building would stand on its own merits, but needed to be justified with historical reference. It became apparent from the jury’s reaction that this entry was going to be an also-ran.

The scheme of Parallax Architects (Craig Jameson and John Masotta) from Beverly Hills, California was, at first glance, the most simple and straightforward approach of all the entries. It was bar-shaped in configuration, representing a “hard edge” in the description by the architects. The jury was attracted by the non-symmetry of the front elevation, with the entrance shifted slightly to one side to avoid a static visual impression. However, in the event an addition was to be added – most probably to the side having less volume – the impression of complete symmetry would be reestablished and the building would relinquish a visual feature which provided it with character. Of interest was that this building had much in common with a number of the post-World War II classroom buildings of neighboring William and Mary, not only in footprint, but even in appearance.

A stumbling block concerning volume and price came up during the Parallax presentation. The Parallax entry had almost 90,000 SF rather than the 70,000 SF required by the program. Part of this was due to a large 8,000 SF space used as an atrium. Parallax contended that they had an estimate from an experienced Virginia firm which had priced their scheme at $12 million, but at $100 per square foot rather than the $130 the others were using. Although their entry was not disqualified based on this estimate, it did bring into question a procedure whereby each participating firm was using their own estimator. (According to the advisers, lack of money precluded the sponsor’s use of an outside estimator to run the numbers on all of the entries before they were judged.) In the end, the organizational shortcomings of the Parallax design dropped it into a Third Place tie together with Gibson Worsham.


Because a “traditional” scheme carried the day in Williamsburg, many architects will be saying, ‘I told you so.’ In this case, the jury was hardly seeking out traditional solutions. It just so happened that the most innovatively organized scheme on the inside happened to be traditional on the outside. In the words of one jury, “it was a lion in sheep’s clothing.” A half century after the fabled Arts Center Competition of 1938-39, Williamsburg will be getting a building heavily laden with historicism. It promises to be an excellent solution on the inside. To compete with Wren and maybe in Behrens on the outside will be a tall order.