United States Courthouse in Cedar Rapids earns 2016 AIA Justice Facilities Review award

The United States Courthouse in Cedar Rapids — designed by OPN Architects with William Rawn Associates — was honored this week by The American Institute of Architects Academy of Architecture for Justice. The courthouse, which opened in 2012, is one of eight recipients of the Justice Facilities Review award.

The award honors justice facilities that demonstrate thoughtful, beautiful, and functional solutions to complex justice design issues.

The jury appreciated the basic themes of clarity and simplicity in this project, which presents itself as a straightforward gesture of a building in a park, nestled along the river, as well as a significant element within the context of this city. One juror noted that the “gentle sweep of the building toward the river is as if the river created the shape—it really is a pleasure to study this solution on this site.”

Another juror said “(This project was) one of my favorites; architecturally, diagrammatically, all of it.”

The design of the courthouse for the Northern District of Iowa in Cedar Rapids strives to both convey authority while still connecting to its community. This courthouse is not only a symbol of justice, but also of rebirth.

In 2008, days after a 500-year-flood submerged 10 square miles of Cedar Rapids, then President George W. Bush flew to the community of 120,000 to survey the damage. What he saw – hundreds of homes, businesses, and civic buildings underwater up to 9-feet in some places – was an almost complete devastation of the city’s downtown core and surrounding neighborhoods.

He was moved by this birds-eye view of the deluge’s breadth and depth to declare the community a federal disaster zone. In doing so, funds for a new federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids were immediately released and the project, which had long been shelved, was suddenly a symbol of the U.S. government’s commitment to the city’s resurgence. That pledge in the days following the flood had a profound effect on Cedar Rapids’ resiliency which reverberates nearly 10 years later.

As a result of a deliberate decision to design the building as a connection between the city’s downtown core and what was then a more industrial stretch along a busy street to the south, the areas adjacent to the courthouse have all been reborn. The courthouse was a catalyst for the construction of a new headquarters for a corporate avionics and aerospace company, human services campus, and parking structure. It also created incentive for an insurance company to move their headquarters to the flooded public library building, allowing a new public library to be built at the company’s former site. The new library as energized another quadrant of the downtown area in its own right.

The busy avenue flanking the courthouse’s back is no longer a barrier to pedestrians as court employees park on its south side and motorists are now accustomed to yielding at crosswalks. As a result, nightlife and cultural entities along one of the cross streets that runs from the far north of downtown through to the completely reborn NewBo District to the south have created a cohesive entertainment district that has connected and activated the two neighborhoods.

None of this development and rebirth would have taken place if the pledge to build the courthouse and invest in the city had not been made.