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City of Justice by David Chipperfield Architects/b720, Barcelona, Spain

David Chipperfield attempts to develop a appropriate aesthetic for a model legal factory. Photography by Christian Richters

Let me say this at the start. I had the same reaction as most others I know who have seen David Chipperfield’s new City of Justice in Barcelona, whether in pictures or from the road outside. Isn’t it a bit forbidding? Do its cage-like blocks not suggest prison to the accused in advance of any verdict, and imply that he is guilty until proved innocent? Local critics have called it a fortress, and the F-word - Fascist - hovers in many discussions of it. Even the President of Catalonia, at the opening ceremony, chose to praise it with flinty words: ‘It will fortify confidence in the legal system.’

Soon after charming German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prince Charles and countless others with his reconstruction of the Neues Museum in Berlin (AR May 2009), David Chipperfield has completed his most cussed work to date, as well as his largest. The question is, why would he want to do that? The short answer, according to the architect, is: ‘These are great big legal factories. Do you take a machine and disguise it or do you celebrate its normative qualities? Do you camouflage it? Do you somehow make it more friendly by softening these volumes? It seemed daft to do that at this scale.’ For a longer answer, it helps first to lay out a few facts.

The idea behind the City of Justice was to unify Barcelona’s courts in a single vast complex, together with the court house of the neighbouring municipality of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat. The site straddles the border of Barcelona and L’Hospitalet, with the bulk of it on the Barcelona side. Like areas on municipal edges everywhere, it has an air of neglect. It is located on the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, a multi-lane road that runs through the city before heading out towards the airport. At the point where the City of Justice is placed, the road runs through an edge territory with indeterminate apartment and office blocks. Further up the road, a red, sock-like hotel with associated office building is near completion: officially it is by Toyo Ito, albeit seemingly in collaboration with Dr Seuss.

In conjunction with Barcelona-based practice b720, David Chipperfield Architects won the competition to design the City of Justice in 2002, beating Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Ricardo Bofill and MBM Arquitectes. The City of Justice was the baby of the ruling political party, which was in danger of losing office before construction started. There was therefore a rush to get the project irreversibly on-site before elections in 2004, when the opposition duly took power.

As expected, and as is common with municipal regime changes in Spain, as elsewhere, the incoming party tried to cancel the work of the outgoing party. It found that the project had progressed too far to be abandoned, so contented itself with shrinking it. Storeys were shaved off the as-yet unbuilt blocks, and one entire block was removed from the plans. It was, says Chipperfield, ‘a difficult project. It had no parents; it was a political football’.

The completed Chipperfield/b720 project consists of eight blocks in differently coloured concrete, in a freeform distribution across the site. Four, in tones of eau de nil, mulberry, dust and rust, are dedicated to providing justice to Barcelona. Their lower storeys contain courtrooms flanked by broad public corridors and waiting areas; the upper floors contain offices. There is a separate plum-coloured building dedicated to forensic science, and two cash-earning apartment blocks, in terracotta and sand shades. The L’Hospitalet courthouse, meanwhile, stands self-contained and mustard yellow across a road, and on the other side of the municipal boundary. An additional block, to contain apartments and commercial premises, is under construction. The total area is 330,000m².

Two public routes cross the site from south to north. One, free of access, traverses a new piazza; the other, subject to security controls, passes through an enclosed glass atrium that links the court buildings. These are also linked underground, by passages connecting cells, morgues and other necessities of justice, while running through the complex are the separated circulation systems needed to keep judiciary, defendants and the public apart. Appearing as several blocks above ground, the courts are therefore a single joined-up organism.

Each block - whether Barcelona or L’Hospitalet court buildings, forensic laboratories or commercial offices - is constructed identically. Made of structural in-situ concrete cages with vertical windows set back from the front surface, they are laid out to a 60cm module that is varied occasionally to allow the greater width required for access by the fire department. The module widens at the base in those places where shops will be installed, but is otherwise the same whether offices lie behind it, or passages serving court rooms.

The atrium, in contrast to the coloured concrete blocks, is black, grey and white. Its external walls are mostly of glass, with a fine diamond-gridded steel mesh filtering light, providing security, and creating a kind of haze when looking out from the inside. A scattering of jacaranda and gleditsia trees and concrete benches occupy the cobbled piazza.

Explaining his choice of technique, Chipperfield says: ‘It is for this climate and this light: why make a glass tower in Barcelona?’ In Spain, he adds, building is a ‘very flexible system, and you can be a victim of this flexibility. Initial drawings are a template and nothing more’. Contractors, in other words, are free to interpret them as they think fit. He contrasts this with Germany, where ‘there is no flexibility. Any anomalies are going to be solved in advance’.

Therefore, ‘you need to anchor the project. That’s where the concrete facades came from. They are irrevocable and undeniable physical presences. The builders either build them or they don’t. There is nothing in between’.

Had the firm specified expensive Swiss glass, Chipperfield says, it would probably have ended up with a cheaper approximation. The repeated openings are also forgiving to flaws. ‘In general terms I wouldn’t complain about the quality of the concrete, but it is also broken up so you don’t notice the faults.’

‘I am really happy. I think… boom!’ adds Chipperfield, suggesting the force of the architecture by hitting his hand with his fist. ‘It is anonymous and quite powerful. It is a non-detail building. It would be a beautiful ruin.’ Clearly, the repetitive concrete is more than a tactic for dealing with the seven contractors who erected the City of Justice. It is central to the intent of the project.

What is startling about the City of Justice is partly its endless repetition, and the narrowness of the windows, which suggest fortification, but also the fact that the grids suppress the different uses behind them. Most architects would take the chance to vary the rhythm, perhaps by creating something more arcade-like, with broad corridors for people waiting outside courts. Chipperfield considered such options and rejected them. Indeed, even the atrium, which is the means by which the complex becomes permeable and accessible, and a little friendly, would ideally not be there. ‘This would be such a nice project without the atrium,’ he says.

‘There’s something very ruthless about them,’ he says of his blocks. ‘You can use the same windows for an office and a corridor. And why not? In architecture we’re always very uncomfortable about what something looks like. So we’re just shapemaking. But I’m always suspicious of using differences to shape a facade. I’m against the idea that architecture is a representation of programmatic differences. It undermines its own fundament; it becomes an expression of other things rather than an expression of itself. We didn’t want go for a flight of fancy every time. That would weaken it.’

‘The authority of the volumes becomes their saving grace,’ he continues, stressing that the impressive constructional presence of the blocks is what makes the project. He says that there is a balance between ‘linguistic and abstract’ - that the City of Justice is suggestive of certain known architectural types, but is also ‘about itself rather than representing one thing or another’. Thus the blocks ‘look like normal office buildings, but they aren’t’. Once started on creating this half-abstract architecture, ‘you had to lead where it wanted to go’.

There is something refreshing and heroic about the City of Justice’s refusal to ingratiate. We have seen law courts that try to behave as if justice is nice, by adding playful bits, when it isn’t. There have been court buildings that foster the myth of ‘transparency’, wrapping themselves in glass under the illusion that this will somehow increase public knowledge of the processes within. The City of Justice, by contrast, declares that the law is a serious business, and that it has its element of intimidation, as well as being essential to civic society.

A striking thing about the complex is its echo of the paintings of 20th-century Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, which is acknowledged by the architects. The painterly colours, the hard-to-read scale, the mute volumes, the half-familiar types and the skewed perspectives are all reminiscent of de Chirico. So is the play between fixed objects and elusive atmosphere: a sense, for all the blocks’ weight, of unreality.

De Chirico explores themes such as melancholy and alienation, from which the usually upbeat profession of architecture shies away. Here, Chipperfield seems to say that such things are part of cities and of the law - and he might be right.

The City of Justice creates, as intended, a powerful urban presence. It feels like a thing built rather than assembled. It defines a territory of the city whose character is shaped by the business of law, but also serves other purposes. Its consistency creates substance in an area of pointless difference, while the plan works skilfully with its surroundings to create a rich tissue of spaces. The central piazza is likely to be the most satisfying public space for miles. When fully in use, the complex will absorb a huge daily flux of people - 4,000 employees of the justice department and 12,000 visitors - and the robustness and quality of the architecture will be required to give dignity to an experience that could easily descend into shabbiness.

As you move about the City, both inside and out, the presence of the module is insistent but shifting, presenting itself in different angles, glimpses and hues. The combination of steel mesh and concrete module creates strange moirés and curious moments of dreaminess, which the thumping blocks might not at first lead you to expect. Out of the repetition emerges a surprising, almost other-worldly atmosphere.

The more you see of the complex, the more it grows on you (or at least, me), and the more Chipperfield’s explanations make sense. The question remains whether the City’s qualities of authority and substance could have been achieved without the prison feeling which many will sense. At its worst, the grid creates spaces such as office floors from which the view is through one relentless grid, across a court, to another identical grid - which could get you down if you worked there. There is also a moment in the piazza where, facing the side of the atrium, you might expect the building at last to give a little, but it presents only a mute mesh. Might some tweak of the proportions, or the admission of at least one other rhythm, have been possible? Could the building be more approachable without diminishing its power? Unlike the architects, I haven’t done studies of these possibilities, but my guess is yes, it could.

Architect David Chipperfield Architects, London, UK, in association with b720, Barcelona, Spain
Structural Engineer Jane Wernick Associates
Services Engineer Arup

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