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Editorial: On power and justice and why you can’t have one without the other

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The architecture related to power and justice was for centuries a combined form, in which ‘the majesty of the law’ could be both devised, interpreted and ruled upon from within a single building complex

Power without justice is tyranny; justice without power is meaningless, for who can deliver it? That is why the architecture related to these matters was for centuries a combined form, in which ‘the majesty of the law’ could be both devised, interpreted and ruled upon from within a single building complex. The distinction between royalty (indeed divinity) and the highest court in the land was a matter of spatial arrangement, not physical location. In Europe, it is only in recent decades that this relationship has been disrupted. In the case of the UK it took place in 2009, when a Supreme Court replaced the Law Lords who had operated under the Lord Chancellor – responsible for all judicial appointments – in the House of Lords, Parliament’s upper (or second) chamber. Needless to say, as with much delivered by the Blair administration, this reform was nowhere near as radical as it first appeared. For one thing, every member of the new court is styled as a Lord or Lady. For another, the court’s location is a stone’s throw from the Palace of Westminster on the other side of Parliament Square. You could be forgiven for thinking that little has changed. Bishops retain their place in the Lords, as does a band of hereditary peers.

‘Architecture of power is conditional upon power being exercised within it; once power moves elsewhere the building, however grand it may appear, loses its meaning’

Symbolically, however, the change was more significant, in tune with the spirit of the American constitution, where the separation of powers makes the appointment of Supreme Court judges such a contentious political matter. This court was deliberately created to prevent overmighty politicians from introducing legislation which might be regarded as tyrannical in the context of the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, the location of the court, near the Capitol, emphasises the close relationship between law makers and judges, who determine not only what the law means, but whether or not a particular piece of legislation is valid, suggesting that judges’ rulings are themselves an example of power at work. But although power comes in many shapes and forms, the relationship between legislature and judiciary is not exactly chicken-and-egg: ultimately you cannot have the second without the first, which is why the US Supreme Court could only exist as the result of a constitution decided by a proto-legislature. However grand some judges may feel themselves to be, in the end they are there because of a power greater than themselves.

Power and justice tend to be reflected in various ways architecturally: for example, by scale, grandeur, expense and permanence. Even if judges’ wigs are abandoned and interiors made more ‘comfortable’, as with the new Renzo Piano Paris judicial complex featured in this issue, for some reason the architecture is of a truly dominant (or aggressive) nature on the city skyline. It is almost as if the DNA of this sort of architecture requires buildings to reinforce the idea that although all are equal under the law, we need to remember just how important the law is. By contrast, as a result of cost-savings on the part of the UK government, regional courts and judges’ accommodation are being severely cut back; there is now a suggestion that ‘pop-up courts’ could emerge in pubs (reviving a medieval tradition), or in supermarkets. Just how far this will become reality remains to be seen, but it coincides with the biggest change in the architectural circumstances of law makers since the Palace of Westminster (the UK Houses of Parliament) largely burned down, in 1834. Now decades of inadequate maintenance and changed building and safety standards have prompted a decision that Parliamentarians will vacate the building for up to a decade, while a retrofit project which could cost £4 billion is undertaken. 

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A good example of a building whose image has changed profoundly as a result of different users is what is now Soho House in the former East Berlin. Currently a club, hotel, restaurant and bar, the building started life as the Jonass department store in the 1920s, before being confiscated by the Nazis and turned into the headquarters for the Hitler Youth organisation. In 1945 it became an even greater symbol of power as home to the Soviet-backed East German government headed by Walter Ulbricht. The building subsequently housed the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, but was returned to relatives of the original department store owners after German reunification. Image courtesy of Heinz Funck / Bundesarchiv

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Empty for 12 years, the building was finally purchased by the Soho House organisation, which largely gutted the interior but kept the exterior. Architects for the original Neue Sachlichkeit-style building were Georg Bauer and Siegfried Friedlander. Photograph by Richard Lewisohn

This is a reminder that the architecture of power is conditional upon power being exercised within it; once power moves elsewhere the building, however grand it may appear, loses its meaning. In old East Berlin, the building formerly occupied by Walter Ulbricht and his henchman is now a Soho House, full of the joys of eating and drinking, including use of the old ‘Politbüro Room’, where the only orders now in evidence concern the menu. In the case of London, there has been some speculation as to whether Parliamentarians, having vacated the Palace of Westminster, might discover a taste for operating from contemporary architecture rather than that of the 19th century, even though Charles Barry’s plan – as Jeremy Melvin has pointed out – could be regarded as a perfect spatial description of the UK constitution at the time, with crown, aristocracy and the elected in a form of balance which for many reasons no longer applies. How can this type of architecture respond to the internet, electronic voting and the world of Skype? Will the enforced absence of politicians finally result in the century-long desire to reform thoroughly the second chamber, currently full of unelected placemen and has-beens who spend much of their time trying to ignore or bypass both the elected and the electorate? They make the judiciary look like models of probity. On this occasion, decisions about architecture may reflect the reform of politics.

Lead image: Queen Elizabeth II delivers her speech at the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster, 4 June 2014. The architecture of the Palace of Westminster could be regarded as a spatial description of the British constitution. Image courtesy of Carl Court - WPA Pool / Getty Images

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2018 issue on Power and Justice – click here to purchase a copy.