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Typology: Law Court

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From Kafkaesque labyrinths of columns and arches to the abstraction of Modernist towers: the representation of justice in a world ruled by its absence is an intractable task 

The Palais de Justice in Brussels, built between 1866 and 1883, is a jarring Beaux-Arts heap looming over the capital, all aedicules bulging between bundles of columns, like eyeballs from a hanged-man’s head. It is so large that one might suspect its patron, Leopold II, of trying to compensate for something with its construction. That it was funded with the profits of the notoriously brutal Belgian Congo furnishes a hint: perhaps we should imagine its bulky form to be composed not of masonry – as WG Sebald put it, ‘the largest accumulation of stone blocks anywhere in Europe’ – but of 10 million human skulls, a vast mountain of remains caulked together with crusted blood and rubber. 

Xgag1 042

Xgag1 042

Source: ENA

The Palais de Justice in Brussels, completed in 1883 to the designs of Joseph Poelaert, is one of the largest buildings of the 19th century

Within the Palais, Sebald goes on, its ‘over seven hundred thousand cubic meters contains corridors and stairways leading nowhere, and doorless rooms and halls where no one would ever set foot, empty spaces surrounded by walls and representing the innermost secret of all sanctioned authority’. Held up by the scaffolding that has bound the building since 1982, the disorientating, disintegrating Palais de Justice is the haunted house at the heart of European darkness.

The law court is a building type condemned to the resolution of irreconcilables: it must manifest justice in a world ruled by its absence. The Palais attempts this with exorbitant scale, a gargantuan figure of justice dominating the territory. But within, the picture comes apart in its labyrinth, more Jarndyce and Jarndyce – ‘so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means’ – than the wisdom of Solon. Like the case in Bleak House, ‘Innumerable children have been born into the cause … innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why’. The Palais is justice as a monstrous confusion, and if in its global scale it seems to represent Benjamin’s idea of world history as a trial, it is one without end, without resolution, without judgement.

Defendants in the dock at nuremberg trials

Defendants in the dock at nuremberg trials

the Nuremberg Palace of Justice was chosen for the postwar war crimes tribunal because of its size and location in the Nazi party’s heartland

It is significant that, in Western Europe at least, the law court has only developed as a distinctive architectural type in the last three or four centuries, before which justice shared space with other social functions, or indeed took place out of doors, as it did for the Greeks and the ancient peoples of northern Europe. The Athenians had their Stoa Basileios, the building in which the tablets of the law were displayed and before which a statue of the goddess Themis stood guard, but proceedings generally took place in the fresh air, entwining – as Linda Mulcahy points out – the enactment of the law with the public.

Other traditions less inclined to democracy have sought different means for the spatial representation of justice. The imperial Chinese yamen, for instance, was the seat of the local administrator, who also enforced the law in accordance with his role as agent of the emperor. The yamen therefore assumed the form of a mini Forbidden City, a walled enclosure comprising various halls oriented along a north-south axis. While dispensing justice, the bureaucrat occupied a raised dais in the central building, which faced south – as did the emperor. The regularly arrayed structures in the compound were a picture of cosmic order, which was held together by the lynchpin of imperial authority. In consequence, most yamen were destroyed during the revolution.   

Kjcry3

Kjcry3

Source: Historic Collection / Alamy

An imperial Chinese yamen, residence and office of the local bureaucrat

The Jews also had and have courts, albeit with a great interregnum. Their loss was a response to historical disaster: the highest court in the land of Israel was the Great Sanhedrin, which met in the Hall of Hewn Stones set half inside and half without the sanctuary of the Second Temple. (The name distinguished it from the sacred buildings in the complex, in the construction of which stones cut with iron were forbidden.) Since the destruction of the temple, there has been no central legal authority among the diaspora and the halakha is administered by rabbis, though modern Israel has its courts, including the extraordinary supreme court in Jerusalem by Ram Carmi and Ada Carmi-Melamed.

In Ancient Rome, legal proceedings often took place in the forum, but the huge basilicae were also used for trials, along with many other administrative and commercial functions. The type was named after the Stoa Basileios in Athens, but unlike the Greeks, the Romans started to move the law indoors – a gradual process that ended with the enfoldment of the court within the palace. This demonstrates the risks inherent in the enclosure of the law, which begins with a republican concern for infrastructure and slips into tyrannical domination. 

D87reb

D87reb

Source: Chronicle / Alamy

The Great Sanhedrin – the Jewish high court – met in the Hall of Hewn Stones

Palace of justice vienna una stefanovic

Palace of justice vienna una stefanovic

Source: Una Stefanovic / Vienna Insider

the Viennese Justizpalast by Wielemans von Monteforte, completed in 1881

It has also been suggested by Clare Graham that the process of enclosure was motivated by new media technologies: the transformation of the law from an oral system to one encoded in written text demanded provision of spaces for writing. As a result, the legal process could no longer ‘be described as a gathering where a community solved its problems according to unwritten custom. Now it was an event in the life of an institution which perpetrated its authority through its own procedures’.

In the Middle Ages, the law continued to occupy semi-public space – for instance at Westminster, where three courts shared the great hall with other functions of state. In Paris, the Grand-Salle and the Grand-Chambre in the Palais de la Cité were used for legal proceedings. In the 19th century, after various upsets (including the burning of the Palais during the Commune), the buildings were patched up to form a Neo-Gothic ensemble, at the heart of which was plonked the Classical Palais de Justice in 1868. In London, only 30 years after Soane appended his much-criticised law courts to the north wall of Westminster Hall, the lot was swept away for Barry’s building, and the royal courts moved to Street’s gargantuan Neo-Gothic edifice on the Strand, opening in 1882.

Ddy79e

Ddy79e

Source: Heritage Image Partnership LTD / ALAMY

Westminster Hall was home to three concurrently running courts up to the 19th century

Landgericht berlin, littenstraße, eingangshalle, 160906, ako

Landgericht berlin, littenstraße, eingangshalle, 160906, ako

Source: Ansgar Koreng / CC BY-SA 3.0 (DE)

The Landgericht in Berlin has an extraordinary hall designed by Otto Schmalz and completed in 1904

In the meantime, the law court had developed as type, changing with alterations in legal practice. In English towns such as Worcester, Abingdon and Warwick, courtrooms began to be cordoned off from the remainder of the guild or county halls that they shared, using pillars or arches as dividers. This late 17th-century development coincided with the increasing specialisation of society as the Industrial Revolution gained tempo. Purpose-built law courts existed from the time of the Old Bailey of 1668; one of the grandest is John Carr’s Palladian Assize Courts at York of 1773.

The rise of adversarial, lawyer-led proceedings meant that the space of the courtroom also required clearer definition, so partitions of increasing complexity were inserted, sometimes topped with huge metal spikes – as in Newcastle Guildhall – to prevent transcellular movement. The specialisation of the legal profession also prompted demands for segregated entrances, and the defendant was equipped with an individual dock, often reached by a subterranean passage. Many courthouses had large public halls, salles des pas perdus, which functioned as entrances and circulation spaces before the courtrooms themselves.  Here, litigants, lawyers, jurors and judges could mingle with each other and members of the public in a way which seems inappropriate today. Now, these rooms are often off limits to the public, who have dedicated routes from the street to their viewing galleries.  

Gettyimages 51988465

Gettyimages 51988465

Source: Pool / AFP / Getty Images

Thanks to TV, court proceedings can be observed from the home – in cases such as that of OJ Simpson, the audience can be in the millions

These changes gave the court and its proceedings a dramatic, even theatrical, flavour as the various actors took the stage from their dedicated entrances, each at the allotted point in the action. Foucault – who generally argued that the spectacularity of the law vanished with the end of the scaffold – was inclined to admit that spectacle was in fact enfolded in the trial, which in liberal democracies depends on its visibility however much of an ideological smokescreen this clarity may turn out to be. (As Mulcahy points out, as society has become less ostensibly hierarchical, the court became paradoxically more so, and less open to the public.)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the law court spread around Europe and then the world with colonialists and their successor regimes. There is the vast Palazzo di Giustizia in Rome, a hideous Neo-Renaissance lump, the building of which raised suspicions of corruption, and was therefore nicknamed the Palazzaccio, the bad palace. Vienna has an equally overripe Justizpalast, its ornate hall dominated by an enthroned statue of justice. There are Neo-Gothic courts in Mumbai, Dallas and Jefferson County, Washington. Delhi has a post-Independence Lutyensesque supreme court, and Lima’s Palacio de Justicia is a smaller cousin of the one in Brussels.

Jefferson county

Jefferson county

Source: Courtesy of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation

The courthouse in Jefferson County, Washington, resembles a fire station

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Krx8b9

Source: Takatoshi Kurikawa / Alamy

The Lutyensesque post-Independence supreme court in Delhi

In the 20th century, Modernists and independence movements bred a new generation of law courts, although the United States clung on to Neoclassical grandiosity well into the 1930s, in the form of Cass Gilbert’s Supreme Court in Washington (described by one lawyer of the time as ‘bombastically pretentious’), and his skyscraping (and fairly absurd) Thurgood Marshall courthouse in Lower Manhattan of 1936. Elsewhere, less-imperially flavoured courthouses prevailed, as in Brasília and Chandigarh. Postwar, the Americans also went modern, with Mies’s 30-storey courthouse on Federal Plaza in Chicago, and Wright’s law courts in his bizarre Marin County Civic Center. It is notable that in the latter two examples, the law court rejoins an ensemble of civic functions, whether through aesthetic nondifferentiation or actual incorporation.

In recent years, the law court has changed again. A less-deferential society has led to a flattening of the court’s topography, with the dock and the judge’s dais occasionally shrinking down to the floor. A potentially more fundamental change is suggested by the incursion of video technology, which allows defendants and witnesses to attend remotely. One might speculate that the specialised court building, first developed partly due to the invention of one recording medium – writing – will eventually wither away thanks to the dominance of another, although the long delay in the adoption of such technology demonstrates the enduring importance of the courtroom as physical space.

Chandigarh high court

Chandigarh high court

Source: GB Pandey / Wikimedia

Le Corbusier’s High Court at Chandigarh

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5432622856 5abe0893c5 o

Source: C William Brubaker Collection (University of Illinois at Chicago) BRU003_03_CF

Mies’s law court tower stands to the left of his Federal Plaza ensemble in Chicago

Law Court Offices, Venice, Italy, by C+S Architects, 2012

Many of the spacious foyers, the salles des pas perdus, which gave entrance to the grand law courts of the 19th century, have since been withdrawn from public access. This extraordinary looming monolith on the Piazzale Roma reverses the trend, providing offices and a grandly scaled public entrance for the Venetian law courts. The towering proportions and striking, almost windowless, black copper cladding of the building give it a forbidding quality despite its vernacular pitched roof form, and visitors enter in a Dantesque fashion, scuttling beneath a somewhat oppressive cantilevered porch, which puts the doorway in deep shadow. However, once within the building, the gleaming white interior soars seven storeys, traversed by a hanging black staircase that beckons the visitor upwards. 

C+s lcv e05 (b) copia 2

C+s lcv e05 (b) copia 2

Source: Alessandro Pello

C+s lcv i06 (s)

C+s lcv i06 (s)

Source: Pietro Savorelli

Kununurra Courthouse, Kununurra, Australia, by TAG Architects + Iredale Pederson Hook Architects, 2014 

The isolated north-western town of Kununurra has around 7,000 inhabitants and is mostly characterised by an undistinguished low-rise Outback architecture. But from its sea of corrugated roofs protrudes a strange, eye-catching profile – a form not entirely alien to this townscape of big sheds and small shacks but distinguished by its scale and thoughtfulness. This undulating grey roof shelters the courthouse, announcing the building’s presence without admonishment. Softening the juridical function is the theme here – a local landscape is engraved on the building’s flank and a generously scaled public foyer lined, like much of the interior, with timber and indigenous artworks. These tactical engagements with place mediate between state power and Aboriginal populace, an often fraught relationship that may not be resolvable by architecture. Yet the provision of such comfortable spaces for people undergoing stressful experiences is welcome.

4 141025 knx court house 3001+3004

4 141025 knx court house 3001+3004

Source: Peter Bennetts

1 141025 knx court house 1727+1730

1 141025 knx court house 1727+1730

Source: Peter Bennetts

District Court Extension, Alingsås, Sweden, by Tengbom, 2016

In extending the district courthouse of Alingsås to incorporate two further court rooms, Tengbom decided to emulate the scale and gabled silhouette of the extant late-19th-century building. However, rather than proceeding in a straightforwardly mimetic manner – the cause of an earlier design being rejected – the architects chose to clad the entire envelope in zinc. This was applied in panels of irregular width, revealing the hand-crafted nature of the technique. The interiors and furnishings are of wood with zinc accents recalling the facade, and the courtrooms themselves occupy the upper storey up to the roofline, giving these spaces impressive volume. This was insisted on by the designers, who ameliorated the potential difficulties arising from such a decision with the aid of acousticians.

74 09530 1 gerlach

74 09530 1 gerlach

Source: Felix Gerlach

Img 6600 almung olausson

Img 6600 almung olausson

Source: Fritz Olausson

Court of Justice, Hasselt, Belgium, by Jürgen Mayer H Architects, 2013

The idea of the courthouse as an imposing or even admonitory presence was once common, but in recent years has tended to be rejected in favour of ‘human-scaled’ architecture (whatever that means), softer edges, and ‘warmer’ materials and colours. Not so in the case of this multi-use building for the city of Hasselt. The structure incorporates six law courts to one side of the building, a library and classrooms for the university law faculty on the other, and, in the centre, an office tower surmounted by a restaurant with panoramic views. The building takes the form of a blob erupting from a rectangular podium, and, with its somewhat 1970s orange and brown colour scheme, is wilfully ungainly. The architects claim that the bizarre silhouette is inspired by the hazelnut trees on the city’s coat of arms, a motif that is continued inside the building with leaf-vein patterned walls.

Jmayerh hasselt fdujardin 001 m

Jmayerh hasselt fdujardin 001 m

Source: Filip Dujardin

Jmayerh hasselt fdujardin 2 008

Jmayerh hasselt fdujardin 2 008

Source: Filip Dujardin

Leading image: The statue atop the Old Bailey by EW Mountford is re-gilded. Source: PA Images

This piece is featured in the AR’s September 2018 on Belgium – click here to pick up your copy today 

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