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Transparency, democracy, high-security: Schmidt Hammer Lassen's International Criminal Court

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 2

‘You could say that everything that happens in this building is awful,’ says Bjarne Hammer, co-founder of Schmidt Hammer Lassen. ‘It’s about torture, killing people and the most horrible acts of war.’ He is describing the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Its purpose is noble, with a mandate to fight against impunity for perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. It is a place for child soldiers and survivors of mass slaughter to testify against victimisers. But this makes harrowing work for the 800 employees of the ICC, who spend their days engaged with the worst of what humanity has wrought on its own kind.

Schmidt Hammer Lassen Location plan

Schmidt Hammer Lassen Location plan

Location plan

There were calls for the establishment of an international court as early as 1919, however the ICC was only formally established in 2002, and didn’t issue its first arrest warrant until 2005. Those indicted include Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.

Since inception, the court has occupied dreary temporary accommodation in The Hague – two towers linked by a walkway at high level, located on a busy street corner surrounded by barbed wire and CCTV cameras. In 2007, the 123 member states agreed to fund a new permanent home, and a competition with cash prizes was launched for a new 72,000m2 site – the former Alexander military barracks on the city fringe, neighbour to similarly high-security complexes such as NATO. The competition finalists included OMA, David Chipperfield Architects and Mecanoo, and the winner was named as Ingenhoven Architects, with Schmidt Hammer Lassen in second place and Wiel Arets in third.

‘Accepting that their work is awful, from the beginning we wanted the architecture, the gardens, everything to underline hope’

In the end, runner-up Schmidt Hammer Lassen was awarded the contract with their proposal of six towers linked at podium level and surrounded by dunes, with courtrooms stacked in the central tower. The multiple towers break down the scale of the 54,600m2 complex while allowing daylight and views to permeate all workspaces, benefiting all employees. ‘It was important to create an organisational layout where all of the offices have a view – either of the sea, or The Hague – and daylight, which the space between towers allows,’ Hammer says. ‘Accepting that their work is awful, from the beginning we wanted the architecture, the gardens, everything to underline hope.’ 

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 3

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 3

Source: Anthony Coleman

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 1

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 1

Source: Anthony Coleman

Located between a low-rise residential neighbourhood and the Meijendel dune nature reserve, the newly opened ICC headquarters closely resembles the original competition proposal. The most notable alteration in design is the swap in the appearance of the central tower – originally clad in black timber, a journalist told me it had been changed for its aesthetic similarity to the Kaaba at Mecca. Now, English ivy climbs the facade of the central tower – a change that Hammer claims places the natural elements as the unifying central theme of the ICC, everything else is neutral – beige or grey (white paint is a security risk as it defeats the effectiveness of video cameras). Earth, plants, water and daylight: these are expressed through the views out to the nature reserve, as well as in a series of courtyard roof gardens, the design of which is inspired by the plants and temporal zones of member states. ‘No matter where they are, each culture always has a garden. It is the very smallest fundamental thing that we share,’ says Hammer.

‘And water,’ adds Stig L Andersson of landscape architect SLA. ‘Everywhere in the world people gather around water, and we all breathe the same air.’

Is that depressing, I ask, that the only common shared value between 123 states is ecology? ‘You could also say what fundamentally unifies us is violence,’ Andersson replies, ‘but that’s not a story we wanted to build on.’

‘The original brief from the ICC was almost oxymoronic in ambition: authoritarian, yet democratic; transparent, yet high security’

There is a tremendous emphasis on architectural representation in this project, with the expectation from the outset that the building physically embody the values of this young institution. And with 14 user groups feeding into the design, it was critical that the making of the ICC was as democratic in process as in form. The original brief from the ICC was almost oxymoronic in ambition: authoritarian, yet democratic; transparent, yet high security. It was also to provoke feelings of justice, hope and trust.

‘They asked for a building that would stand out,’ says Hammer, ‘and have transparency to show the fairness of what they do.’ 

This was of particular importance as the ICC is having a crisis of authority of late – although Hammer insists this never figured in their design discussions. Nevertheless the building’s completion comes at a critical point in the ICC’s brief 11-year history. Their relevance as an international body is increasingly under scrutiny in the press, in part because of the impunity of its non-members, which it may not investigate as they lie beyond its remit. Non-ratified countries include the United States, Israel, China, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and India, while the only Arab state to have joined the ICC is Jordan. 

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 4

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 4

Source: Anthony Coleman

In addition, over the past four years the ICC has also been accused of an African bias by the African Union, and nations such as Kenya and South Africa have threatened to withdraw their support. All nine official investigations by the ICC to date have been into African states and resulted in charges against black Africans. Over the past year, several countries have flouted the ICC’s authority in failing to detain Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during diplomatic visits abroad, most notably South Africa, despite an ICC warrant for his arrest (as the ICC has no police force, it relies on member nations to catch its accused). Called upon when national courts won’t prosecute, the ICC denies that it can express any bias, as it is either the country of origin or the United Nations that refers cases for it to investigate. But it has also branched out, launching preliminary examinations of both the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict and war crimes in Iraq carried out by British troops.

What is most striking about Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s building on first approach is its grandeur. It presides over the surreal dune landscape with its macro crenellated supergraphic form: it has authority and permanence in spades. SLA has described  it as ‘the world’s most advanced’ use of landscaping as terrorism prevention in a public building, all without the use of barbed wire – but in fact the design resembles that of a medieval castle. Similarities include a gatehouse, castle keep and a moat, although Andersson and Hammer say this is coincidental. Like hilltop fortifications,  the dunes expose anyone who attempts to approach the building by scaling them, while also preventing cars from being able to breach the perimeter.

The raised entrance piazza with its winding approach, set at an incline and pushed back from the road, also serves to prevent car bombing. There are large gaps between the paving stones on this public piazza making skateboarding unpleasant, if not impossible. The ‘gatehouse’, a common feature of castles, is a stand-alone entrance podium with airport-style security scanning. This leads to a moat that surrounds the building, crossed by two bridges that lead to  a second entrance and lobby, with reception desk and public café. A 3m-high concrete wall surrounds the moat and abuts the dunes, acting as a ha-ha – an English traditional landscaping trick designed to keep sheep from eating ornamental shrubs. The second entrance acts as a further barrier for lockdown in case of security breach – another common feature of castle design. From the lobby, there is a third set of doors leading to the lifts to the public courtroom viewing galleries and media centre in the central tower, where witnesses, judges and the accused will gather. This resembles the castle keep – the medieval stronghold at the centre of the castle – traditionally the tallest tower and the most secure. 

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 0

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 0

Source: Anthony Coleman

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 8

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 8

Source: Anthony Coleman

Employees have their own side entrance to the complex, while there is a distinct secure vehicle entrance for the accused (who live in an off-site detention centre) which brings them in underground and directly up to their holding cell. Due to security protocols, my tour of the new facility was limited in scope, and detailed drawings of the complex can’t be published, but we were made to understand that there is a dizzying network of corridors which prevent witnesses, accused, staff and the judges from inadvertently meeting. There is a Chinese wall between certain departments at the ICC, and these are physically separated with offices in distinct towers, although staff can mingle in the canteen. Judges have their own canteen, however. Every courtroom has four entrances, so that no chatter in the halls can take place – there is particular sensitivity around allowing anyone to intimidate a witness. 

Indeed, witness protection is a top priority. The aluminium facade had to be tested to resist the force of a 10kg bomb, and some of the glass is bullet-proof. Originally SHL wanted to use fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) for the facade, but realised at tender that the technology was too new – FRP had never been produced at this scale for this application, and would not be able to meet the stringent production time, which required 50 units installed per day. There are two kinds of trapezoidal window with the glass set at alternate angles distributed at random across the facade to create a feeling of movement and reflection, but also designed to defeat sniper targeting – the windows do not correspond to the section or office layout. What they were seeking to avoid was one head at each window, or any discernible pattern, which is why you can sometimes see the floor slab through the glass. Other panes are frosted. 

Schmidt Hammer Lassen section

Schmidt Hammer Lassen section

Section - click to expand

SHL claims it won the ICC contract because its daylit courtrooms would provide a soothing atmosphere – and much is said about how the design supports the witnesses on their journey to testify. Put bluntly, if you are about to face the person who burnt your family alive, you need all the psychological support you can get. But an emphasis on architectural representation can have unintended consequences – and viewing the holding cells for the accused says a lot about judicial processes in general. If soothing daylit spaces are intended to psychologically strengthen the witness, the dark grey holding cell complete with steel table and chair bolted to the floor, a slab for a bed, seatless stainless-steel prison toilet and sink are surely intended to bring the accused down a notch. This is no different from any other court, but it does say something about the idiom, ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Certainly the architecture has already chosen sides. One can’t really imagine a Western leader being held here.

Asked whether aesthetics or security came first, Hammer insists it all happened together. They did not work with a security consultant apart from ICC staff, but integrated security into all aspects of the design.

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 10

Schmidt Hammer Lassen ICC 10

‘The world has been evolving since we started this project in 2010. In this period of terror, security has become part of the design service,’ says Hammer. ‘It is up to the client to define the level, then we integrate it like any other need.’

The success of the new ICC building is  the collaboration of SHL and SLA to create  a high-security headquarters that might  have felt like a prison, but instead is a pleasant place to work despite an Orwellian atmosphere of surveillance.  The question is how Western architects will respond to an impossible, if urgent, design challenge: ‘How can we keep one step ahead of the terrorists without compromising on democracy?’ asks Hammer. ‘We must feel that we are free, that we are allowed to express ourselves and not threaten the fundamentals. We must still be open.’

Architect: Schmidt Hammer Lassen

Landscape architect: SLA Architects

Engineers: Royal Haskoning Nederland BV and Esbensen 

Photographs: Anthony Coleman

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