The buildings where justice is administered are diverse in terms of design and intended impact, writes Kay Hill
Words by Kay Hill
For those in the legal profession, the courthouse is a place of work that needs to be comfortable and secure, while for witnesses and jurors it’s an unfamiliar setting that needs to put them at ease. But what about the public and the accused individuals? Should they tremble at the power of the judiciary expressed in an austere monumental building, or should they be reassured by seeing the transparency of justice at work in an accessible, functional space?
It seems to depend, at least a little, on where you are the world as to which of those last two aims is given more importance – although recent courthouses seem to have achieved a little of both, by offering buildings with a sense of seriousness and gravity but a scale and transparency that make them less threatening and more human.
The new Palace of Justice in Córdoba spans contains 26 courtrooms, prison cells, the Forensic Institute, court archives and, rather more happily, a venue for weddings and a cafe. Set in an area dominated by apartment blocks, the design is fragmented into a series of conjoined blocks to hide its mass, with gaps in the building intended to reference the traditional Moorish ‘afniyah’ courtyards found in historic parts of Córdoba.
The different uses of the building are kept relatively separate, with prisoners using the underground parking garage and cells, high-security offices in the upper floors, and wedding guests and court visitors in different areas of the ground floor. While the building is imposing, the sense of austerity is lightened by the latticed façade and large entrances that seek to reassure the nervous visitor. The fact it was named ‘best government building’ by the public in the A+Awards suggests it has found a place in local hearts.
Local reaction to the United States Courthouse in Salt Lake City was more muted – the giant, 10-storey cubic courthouse rapidly earned the nickname the ‘Borg Cube’ – a reference to the hive-minded Star Trek villains. In fact, the distinctive shape, according to architects Thomas Phifer and Partners, ‘emanates from our search for a form that is strong, iconic, transparent, and metaphorically egalitarian as a symbol of the American judiciary system’. The building contains 10 courtrooms, suites for the judges, administration offices, and US Marshall and Probation services.
The US architect, along with structural engineer Reaveley, had to allow for a phenomenal level of security within the design. While all courthouses, by their nature, require a level of protection against smuggled weapons and break-out attempts, the Utah building was specified to be capable of withstanding bomb blasts from its underground parking as well as externally. The resulting design, says the architect, projects ‘grounded dignity, immovable order, and an equal face to all sides’.
Internally, the building belies its rather stern exterior – the glass and aluminium façades allow visibility in and out and provide most of the building, including the courtrooms, with natural light, as well as expansive views across the Wasatch Mountain and the Great Salt Lake from some areas. The highlight of the three-storey main entry lobby is a glass feature staircase suspended from the ceiling by steel rods and wrapped in a wooden screen. According to the architect, the building ‘strives to embody the ideals and aspirations of the American judiciary system – clarity of order, transparency of process, fairness of disposition, and timeless relevance – in a building that invites participation, illuminates its civic purpose, and celebrates the extraordinary qualities of nature that characterise this region’.
Toulkarem Courthouse near Nablus in Palestine, by Bethlehem-based AAU Anastas, is on a far smaller scale at 8,938 sq m, but makes up for it with an impressive presence. Local limestone from the Hebron area creates a monumental outer stone envelope, punctuated with windows set deep into inclined stone geometries, protecting the interiors from the harsh sunlight and offering framed views of the city beyond. With the massive stone staircase leading up to the main entrance, the building is initially imposing – but there are opposing ambiances at work. The second building behind it, connected by a glass-enclosed courtyard, is lighter and more decorative, with a complex filigree steel façade recalling the carved wooded ‘mashrabiya’ screens common in Islamic architecture. Once through the dramatic entrance, the waiting areas are light and open.
The extension to Paphos District Court in Cyprus by Varda Studio shares some of the bright, white modern geometry of the Córdoba and Utah projects, but on a far smaller scale at 4,100 sq m. Human-sized rather than monumental, the building was created by architect Andreas Vardas with the intention of demystifying the court experience. ‘We did not seek to make the building imposing, threatening or oppressive, like more traditional court buildings,’ says Vardas. ‘Modern design values like access to daylight, a shallower plan and a straightforward layout make the building more accessible to the public, suggesting to a visitor that the justice system is likewise accessible to all. There are many spaces with large windows, including some corridors, and courtyards provide natural light to the core of the building. We hope this design will present the court process as something that is part of wider society and public life, and demystify the experience of being in a justice building.’
A key design feature of the extension is the square holes in the façade, which simultaneously enclose and expose. ‘It was important to create a degree of separation of the entrance space from the outside world,’ says Vardas. ‘On the other hand it reflects our idea of emphasising the wider connection to society and the importance of accessibility and transparency in reference to the justice system, by regulating and filtering the daylight that enters the interior, and doing the same to the views of the exterior from inside. ’
The same contrasts of visibility and privacy, openness and security are elegantly approached in the 12,400 sq m Lund District Court in Sweden. The design, by architect FOJAB, was the result of a competition to create the most modern courthouse in Sweden. From the outside there is no doubt that it’s a high-security building – the massive plinth of limestone on which it stands gives a sense of solidity – but looking upwards, the copper and glass façade has a more welcoming air, while the public entrance is deliberately human-scaled.
According to architect and creative director Stefan Johansson: ‘A key consideration throughout our design process was finding ways to express the district court’s societal importance – its crucial role in enabling a healthy legal system and local democracy. The courthouse is a freestanding building with a characteristic design, located at the heart of Lund – it is inevitably a building of significance to all of Lund’s citizens. We worked deliberately to balance the building’s natural dignity and authority with a sense of openness and humility.’
The need to appear transparent and open while also protecting the safety of judges and the privacy of those involved in court proceedings is solved by the use of a partial moat of water, a physical barrier against intrusion that also creates subtle reflections of the building above. ‘A mirror of water reflects light and the green trees into the building while creating a respectful distance, safeguarding the privacy and security of justice from the public gaze,’ the architect explains. ‘The relationship between transparent and non-transparent sections is carefully considered to balance views, daylight and visibility.’
The Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct in New Zealand is a large-scale project from architect Warren and Mahoney built to extraordinarily high engineering standards – although here with earthquakes in mind rather than bombs. The 40,000 sq m complex houses 19 courtrooms; the city’s central police station; the control functions for fire, corrections and ambulance services; civil defence; the city council; and a state-of-the-art emergency operations centre. Born out of the destruction of the city’s devastating earthquakes, the multi-functional building was a practical response to an unexpected clean slate.
Constructed to New Zealand’s IL4 earthquake rating – meaning it can withstand a one in 2,500-year seismic event – the design was intended to break with the past. Nick Warring, project principal, explains: ‘The facility is transformative, breaking away from the 19th- and 20th-century traditions of defensive and “exclusive” architecture and embracing a more open, transparent and connected environment. Generally, the traditional architecture of courts and police buildings designed in the 19th and 20th centuries, whether neo-classical or modernist, is densely massed and visually impenetrable, and deliberately conveys an intimidating sense of authority. By contrast, we employed a design approach that inverts this by openly inviting the public into the precinct. Its basic framework was laid out with public entry into and movement around the complex as the primary design driver.
‘One of the most important factors steering this development was the Ministry of Justice’s over-arching vision for a more open, less formidable relationship between the public and physical justice environments,’ says Warring. The new facility was created to be open to the public both physically and visually – with the foyer, waiting and circulation spaces arranged around a central, light-filled courtyard that is a familiar theme in Christchurch architecture. There is natural light and views over the city even from inside the courtrooms, and great attention has been paid to wayfinding. ‘This combination of design strategies is intended to decrease stress in situations that can be innately difficult for both visitors and occupants in the court environment,’ Warring explains.
The serious nature of a court building is still recognised – the palette of bronze, stone, glass and timber was chosen to convey permanence and weight – but the introduction of Maori art throughout the project was intended at the same time to provide a comforting familiarity and inclusive feel. The exterior artwork of sculpted metal shield-shapes representing a kakapo feather cloak, culturally significant to Maori people, is particularly striking.
Transparency reaches new levels in two buildings, both commissioned by the French Agence Publique pour l’Immobilier de la Justice, yet more than 4,000 miles away from each other. The extension to the Douai courthouse in France by Hamonic+Masson & Associés and the new courthouse in Pointe-à-Pitre on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe by Ignacio Prego Architectures share many principles, albeit resulting in quite different buildings.
In Douai, the new courtrooms are bathed in light and have extensive glazing, designed, according to the architect, to stop the process of justice feeling theatrical and to avoid ‘the anxiety related to dark rooms where the litigant could feel condemned before even being judged’.
The highlight of the building is the ‘salle des pas perdus’, or the room of lost steps – i.e. a waiting area where people pace up and down. At Douai there is a scenic spot to pace – or better still, to sit and look out over the peace of the adjacent river – as the waiting area, an extension of the public space, is designed to look like it has been naturally eroded by the flow of water.
In Guadeloupe, architects Ignacio Prego and Rémi Souleau, partners at Ignacio Prego Architectures, felt a burden to create a building that would calm human fears. ‘A courthouse is a challenging piece of architecture,’ says Prego, ‘as it needs to respect in its structure the fears and emotions of citizens confronted with one of the most disturbing human experiences. Our building conveys the idea that justice must come close to citizens rather than be at a distance and must reassure rather than petrify. In contrast to the architectural solemnity traditionally linked to the rigid lack of imagination of the courts, our building offers an obvious warmth that comes from the immediate legibility of its forms and by its freedom from authoritarian codes. The hope for peaceful justice is embodied in a building that makes no attempt to intimidate passers-by, so they will immediately understand that the public justice service is accessible to all.’
The balance between privacy and openness has been carefully struck, explains Souleau: ‘The building is transparent in its function and the three courtrooms are perceptible from the street, but glimpsed rather than completely on view, as the modesty and statutory restraint of the judiciary requires an intimate setting away from curiosity. Through a subtle play of transparency and protection via light dancing through the immense glass walls, a point of balance is found between the necessary visibility and the withdrawal required by the law.’
The architects say that the overbearing design of some traditional courtrooms can almost be a form of coercion used against defendants: ‘The delicacy of the new courthouse extends beyond its physical form … it also pays attention to the physical and mental experience of those who use it. The court traditionally focuses on imposing control and paternalistic order, without thinking of the needs and anxieties of those whom it judges; the space which shelters the judiciary thus participates in the use of force.
‘We believe it’s possible to give the physical space of justice its symbolic grandeur by making it more sensitive, gracious and approachable. In the new Palace of Justice the ideas of reparation and judgment are carried out in an environment where justice can be delivered calmly and peacefully, in a space that takes into account the stresses and emotions of the users.’
United States District Courthouse, Salt Lake City
Image Credit: Reaveley Engineers & Associates
The 39,948 sq m, 10-storey courthouse in Salt Lake City, US, was created in a powerful cubic form taking up a whole block of the city. It contains 10 courtrooms for the District Court of Utah, 14 judges’ chamber suites, administration offices and the probation and US Marshall Services.
Thomas Phifer and Partners
Reaveley Engineers & Associates
Fisher Marantz Stone
Toulkarem Courthouse, Nablus, Palestine
Image Credit: Mikaela Burstow
The 8,938 sq m courthouse in Toulkarem comprises a stone-clad building atop a dramatic flight of steps, leading to a second, lighter building behind it, with a façade of shimmering gold-patterned steel. The interconnected buildings are on the edge of the town centre, kick-starting urban development in the area.
United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)
Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development
ABA’AD Contracting Company
Paphos District Court, Cyprus
Image Credit: Creative Photo Room / Maria Efthymiou
The 4,100 sq m extension to the Paphos District Court in Cyprus was designed to be a simple, unimposing and accessible building, filled with natural light. The welcoming ground floor entrance leads visitors into a high-ceilinged space where the staircase has a sculptural impact.
Alpha Ioannou Construction
CK WATT Engineering LTD
Milliams Electrical Contractors LTD
Lund District Court, Sweden
Image Credit: Felix Gerlach
Image Credit: Felix Gerlach
The 12,400 sq m District Court in Lund, completed in 2018, has four different security zones for the public, prosecutors and magistrates, court personnel and people deprived of liberty. It uses expanses of glass in the public areas, while privacy is protected by a seamless barrier of smooth water.
NCC Building Syd
Palais de Justice, Douai, France
Image Credit: Takuji Shimmura
The 1,800 sq m riverside extension to the Palais de Justice in the French town of Douai was completed in 2019, forming two new courtrooms and a waiting space that has a visual twist on its French name ‘salle de pas perdus’ (room of lost steps – i.e. where the worried might walk aimlessly round in circles). Here the steps are literal – heading down towards the river as if they have been carved organically by the water itself.
Hamonic+Masson & Associés
APIJ – Agence Publique pour l’Immobilier de la Justice
Scoping, Cap Terre
Public Agency for Justice Real Estate.
Palais de Justice, Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe
Image Credit: Luc Boegly, Laure Vasconi
The new 5,893 sq m court complex in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, is open and transparent, with the ability to see right through the building from the street, although the courtrooms maintain a sheltered intimacy. The building brings a variety of court services together on a single site, while increasing from a single court chamber to three. It was intended to show a judiciary that was modern, accessible and looking to the future.
Ignacio Prego Architectures
Rémi Souleau, Ignacio Prego
APIJ – Agence Publique pour l’Immobilier de la Justice
Bouygues, NFI Nofrag
Haver & Boecker.