According to one controversial biological theory, cells began to evolve on the day when a large prokaryotic cell ingested several smaller ones. Rather than dying, which would have been the polite thing, these throve to such a degree inside their host that an entirely new organism, the eukaryotic cell, came into existence.
As with the smallest organisms on earth, so with its largest cities. New York City as we know it came into being in 1898, when the five boroughs were consolidated into Greater New York. That is a nice way of saying that the borough of Manhattan, formerly known as New York tout court, assimilated to itself the other four.
But just as some biologists believe that the components of a eukaryotic cell retain traces of their earlier autonomy, so can you find in Brooklyn distinct evidence of a time when it was a city unto itself, indeed the biggest city, after New York, in the entire republic. This is especially evident in Brooklyn's civic center around Columbus Park and Cadman Square.
Borough Hall, the nearby post office, and the various courthouses are worthy of a substantial American city, on par with, say, Cleveland or Buffalo or even Chicago. And there is a spirit to the civic center that seems closer to those other cities than to Manhattan. For there is always a difference between the paramount city in a nation and all the others: a discernible, if not quite quantifiable diminution in the wattage on which they run, a visceral sense that one is not quite at the center of culture, power, or wealth.
I was put in mind of all this when I visited the newly expanded federal courthouse in Brooklyn at 225 Cadman Plaza East, which has just opened to designs by the Manhattan firm of Cesar Pelli Architects (recently renamed Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects). If you look at other works by this accomplished firm, like the World Financial Center or the new Bloomberg Tower on Lexington Avenue and 59th Street, you feel that they are perfectly suited to Manhattan and would make less sense anywhere else. But when you look at the new courthouse, you feel that this building would not make sense in Manhattan, though it does in Brooklyn, and it would in Buffalo or Cleveland.
In part this is because it is a "federal" building, and thus partakes of the stylistic ethos of most federal architectural projects. But it has more to do with the fact that no urban agglomeration, whether Brooklyn or anywhere else in America, exhibits the same density as Manhattan. Because they do not inhabit an all-too-finite island, buildings elsewhere usually have more space between them. And even when they rise as skyscrapers, it is usually for other reasons than the crushing imperatives of the real estate market.
In contrast with most large buildings in Manhattan, the new courthouse is characterized by a certain indolent massiveness, a sense that it has space to spare. With one arraignment courtroom, four magistrate courtrooms, eight district courtrooms, and 13 judges' chambers, it consists of three interrelated parts: a main structure that is largely a slab on a base, a pre-existing six-story courthouse, and an entrance lobby that connects the two.
The building's construction took longer than anticipated, which probably explains why it already feels a little dated, despite its newness. The design was conceived more than a decade ago, when the taste for vernacular details was far more dominant than it is today. At the courthouse, this residual taste expresses itself in the way its broad bulk hunkers up 14 stories above a three-story base from which it is hardly even recessed.
Outright reference to any vernacular idiom is hard to find, having been attenuated - perhaps in response to the changing fashions - to vague allusions. It is most evident in the vestigial fins along the top of the building, as well as in the limestone bays that distantly recall the art deco of Rockefeller Center and a thousand federal buildings across the country.
Far more representative of the now outmoded vernacular taste is the building's massing. Instead of being modular and repetitive, like Modernist structures, or deliberately irregular and imbalanced, like buildings designed in the now reigning Deconstructivist style (both elements can be seen, by the way, in Richard Meier's far more accomplished federal building in Islip), it is classical in its subordination of the parts to the overall design. Vertically, it illustrates the classical tripartite division of tall buildings into a base, a midsection, and a summit. Horizontally, the curving mass of its mid-section is articulated further by a prominent central passage with two slightly recessed flanks.
The best thing about the building is the entrance lobby that connects the two main parts of the courthouse. Its greenish glass-and-steel curtain wall is configured as a curving cylinder; as such it bears a passing resemblance to that marvelously spiraling inter-block zone that Mr. Pelli's firm designed for the Bloomberg Tower. Though I was not allowed to go deeper into this part of the courthouse - it is not yet completed - I can say that the lofty travertine atrium and staggered stairways that greet the visitor show an artistic vision and a refinement that are not found, and perhaps were never even sought, in the rest of the building.