Like the square, the lobby is intended as a social mixing chamber. A staircase at the front leads down to a daycare center, gym and meeting room, all of which will be open to the public. A large staircase that anchors the back leads you to the elevator benches, which also serve as an informal seating area.
When you reach the stairs and head back towards the lobby, you open up with a view of the busy lower level, including a playground. To the left of the lobby, a long, faceted shape that houses the upper level offices shoots outward, pokes through the front window and juts out over the street, breaking the line between inside and outside.
Mr. Mayne’s nostalgia for the modern is reinforced in the elevator ride to the office floors. Following the example of the complicated skip-stop system that Le Corbusier invented in 1952 for his Unité d’Habitation building in Marseille, France, the elevators stop on other floors. From there stairs lead up or down to large, loft-like spaces that are saturated with light.
The feeling of airiness is magical. Protected by the perforated steel screen, the windows can be operated from the inside, and when they are open a cool breeze blows through the room. Beautiful corrugated concrete ceilings direct the air from north to south and sensitize us to the nature that is waiting outside. (Unfortunately, part of that effect has been lost through the establishment of a rough system of partitions and office cubicles.) Aside from compositional inspiration, what the architect clearly wants to pull from modernist ancestors like Le Corbusier is an unshakable optimism. In a world where commerce regularly outperforms civil service, Mr Mayne seems to be telling us that the values of modernity in the old world may not be that bad. Instead of obliterating this architectural past, he wants to fill it with the human element that modernity has forgotten, the quirks and strange joys that a building can root personally and emotionally.
The sad paradox is that this vision can be threatened if the Design Excellence program is not left intact. The federal building was Mr. Feiner’s last major assignment as director, and few architects believe this level of ambition will survive his departure. Let’s hope they are wrong and that this project will inspire more daring government commissions.