Courthouse Architecture

To a greater or lesser extent, we identify with our public buildings, and our public buildings and monuments identify our cities. Public buildings generally serve more than simply utilitarian purpose. As James O'Gorman notes in ABC of Architecture: "Architecture is a form of communication. It speaks. It can convey through its design its place in society, its content." Legal proceedings did not begin in specialized courthouses, or law courts. Taverns and other buildings served equally well. Nikolaus Pevsner, in A History of Building Types, writes: "Separate monumental buildings for law courts began in the English provinces with York, where in 1705 a Debtors' Prison had been built in a Vanbrughian style close to the castle keep." He identifies separate buildings for law courts in France to date from the late eighteenth century. The courthouse in particular has a message to communicate. Embodying both public and private space, the courthouse should not only do justice, but "be seen" to do justice. Appearances matter and should be consistent with the message.

As the American legal community became more professionalized in the nineteenth century, rituals as well as the message they were sending to the community through their courthouses became important. As an instance of public space, the courthouse is a tangible and intangible place. It has a look, feel and appearance; its architecture is a message. And within its space, good and bad, horrible and wonderful, things happen. Law is not enough: there must be a notion that justice goes hand in glove with law. These buildings purport to speak to that, or so their designers intend.

An interesting study was made in Padua, Italy in 2000, which asked whether courthouse architecture could affect a perceived likelihood of conviction. Anne Maass and others in "Intimidating Buildings: Can Courthouse Architecture Affect Perceived Likelihood of Conviction?" concluded architectural design could affect the way in which participants in the justice system perceived their chances. They compared two courthouses in Padua, Italy. One was older, originally a 14th century convent and later turned into a courthouse in the 19th century. It was rebuilt in the 1930s following fire damage, and had a residential look, with warm colors and a large wooden door. The newer one, a massive, steel-gray structure in a semi-circular shape, was built in 1991. In an interactive approach, the authors interviewed people and, with photographs of the two buildings, sought to elicit their imagined feelings as if they were entering each of the buildings. They then asked for responses from the study group as to how they would view a hypothetical friend's chances of being convicted, based on the particular courthouse. Without identifying any particular rationale, the study participants had less faith in a favorable outcome in the new building. This may seem the obvious answer, but despite the author's warnings against reading too much into this, the study believed that there was something to the result.

Ultimately, as a practical matter, it is not a question of how many "warm" touches a courthouse has. Most people facing judicial process for the first time will likely find the building intimidating. They are public buildings, and just as the Judicial branch of the United States considers its courthouses representative of itself, so the state's courthouses speak for the state. The courthouse represents the face of government to its citizens in as a fundamental philosophical component of the American psyche: the sense of justice. Law is not enough: there must be a notion that justice goes hand in glove with law. Courthouse architecture purports to speak to that.

View the original article here


Post a Comment