Law Courts

Raül P. Avilla Royo:

Power is represented by official architecture. A judicial city is a representation of the power of justice. What is at stake here is the image of justice in terms of its symbols and character. The image of the public buildings is a heritage of signs that cannot be changed without some risk.

Jean Nouvel, ‘Memory of the Judicial Centre of Nantes’ (2002)

Legal trials have been performed in many different places throughout history, from under a tree to a specialised building, since the idea of Justice and the regulation of communities through rules and laws was first introduced. Aristotle in his “Nicomachean Ethics” from the 3rd century BC, proposed two types of justice: corrective justice (remedying the unequal distributions of gain and loss in a transaction between two people) and distributive justice (how to divide wealth in society). However, the law court as a modern institution only exists since the Enlightenment in the 18th century. 

Despite the law code in Western society having been very influenced by ancient Roman law, the most significant change in the understanding of law court buildings occurred as a result of the large social and political changes in the 17th century in France. There are especially two texts related to law and justice that are thought to have inspired, years after their publication, the French Revolution. In 1747 Montesquieu published The Spirit of Laws, which proposed a separation of the three powers of the state and, in 1782, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published The Social Contract, which stated that the people should only obey legitimate powers. Thus, the power of the king did not come from God, but from the will of the people, who should therefore be able to choose the laws under which they live. These ideas caused the transformation from a feudal to a democratic society, and led to the formation of the modern nation state and its institutions.

The French Revolution was a crucial moment in history with a clear impact on the way justice would be perceived and trials held. It was also a decisive moment for law court typologies. While previously trials were held in buildings with many other purposes, such as public houses, castles, assembly rooms, manor houses or churches, for first time in history, justice was given a building with an exclusive purpose. The building became identified with both the function of trials and the institutional representation of justice, one of the three powers of the modern state.

These associations went through adaptations and changes, but some characteristics have remained over time and shaped the idea of the law court typology. The first one is how the idea of monumentality is expressed through the façade, which must transmit solemnity and a clear idea of law. This dates back to Étienne-Louis Boullée, whose design for a law court at the end of the 18th century uses bigness and solemnity as a metaphor for the triumph of virtue over the vice. Even the name of law courts, usually called “palaces of justice” implies the character that the building should have.[i] Starting with the so-called “revolutionary architects”, who after the Rococo returned to a classical language of architecture, the idea of tectonic expression and monolithic architecture became synonymous with representing the state, as well as the idea of justice through architecture. The second characteristic of law courts is the courtroom itself, the inner space where justice is carried out. Unlike the greatly varying size of the building, which in some cases was designed as large as possible for representational reasons, the courtroom has maintained a relatively similar size, as the “ritual” taking place inside had a clearly defined set of protocols and actors, a jury or judge, a prosecutor and a defendant.

At the courtrooms became public in a modern state, its pedagogical task shifted from exhibiting punishment in public to showing the controlled protocols of justice.[ii] The prison as the institutionalised representation of punishment complemented this pedagogical task of the trial. This connection existed both physically, Boullée’s and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s law courts had prisons next to them, and metaphorically, as the trial is understood as the first step of punishment.

Between the monumentality of the facade and the intimacy of the courtroom a set of increasing secondary functions assisted the judicial process. Law courts became specialised both in their function, civic, criminal, family or juvenile courts, and their jurisdiction, district, federal or supreme. This specialisation eventually led to the “Law Court Design Guides” to standardise law court buildings and their protocols. Along with a standardisation of law courts, and despite each country having its own legal system, a growing global society saw the need for international law. After World War II, unprecedented international war trials were held and in 1945 the International Court of Justice was established in The Hague. Other international courts were built after the Cold War, such as the European International Court (Dominique Perrault, Luxemburg, 1996-2008) and the Strasbourg Human Rights Court (Richard Rogers, 1989).

The media plays a major new role in the perception of justice. Unlike in ancient societies, it is no longer possible to have a large portion of the population present in a courtroom.[iii] Therefore, justice is represented to society through mass media, at times turning trials of public interest into a spectacle. The media has introduced a new variable to the design of courtrooms, making even more explicit the dramatisation of justice. Outside the courtroom, the media has also highlighted the representative role of justice architecture, as it becomes the backdrop to news reports.

Thanks to the media, the association between the institution and the building has strengthened. The law court building has become a physical symbol of the state. As Allan Brodie states: “law courts are designed to be recognised externally and understood internally”.[iv]


The law court typology has existed for less than 250 years, as justice was not always carried out in spaces specifically designed for this purpose. After the Enlightenment and the birth of the nation state, the three powers of the state were separated and a new building typology for the function of justice was needed.

The modern law court has three elements that identify it. First, its facade as an element that expresses a collective idea of justice at an urban scale. The second element is the courtroom, the specific space in which trials take place. It communicates the idea of justice at a smaller scale through the position and relation of the different legal actors. Although the layout of the courtroom has changed over time, it preserved the morphology of a “theatre” and the idea of spatially expressing authorities – be this the authority of kings or judges. Even though the size of the building has greatly changed over time, the size of the courtroom is rather similar in all cases due to the needs of the legal protocols that take place in it.

Between the big box – the enveloping facade – and the small box – the courtroom – there is a connecting network of corridors. Both the corridors and courtroom are clearly defined by the law court design guides in different countries. Justice buildings are not the only ones subjected to these “design guides”, but it can be said that they are the most restrictive and extensive ones.[v] These contemporary design guides realise Michel Foucault’s idea that the control of space shapes the behaviour of citizens, make them understand the spatialised idea of power, hierarchy and obedience. The plan becomes a functional diagram that hierarchically relates different programmes and subjugate “architectural creativity”.[vi] Since Boullée’s and Bernard’s projects, the plan has become increasingly specific, responding to security and programmatic requirements, such as the growing demands of secondary functions and administrative areas.

Few law courts are developed in section when compared to other building typologies. In many law courts, there is a disconnection between the plan and the facade. This is also evident in the existing design guides that provide restrictive details on sizes of rooms, materials to be used and the furniture. The elevation, due to this freedom, becomes the main design challenge for architects. Whereas the plan became increasingly articulated by functions, the facade became an element of stylistic experimentation. From the classical facades of Boullée or Joseph Poelaert that develop an image of power and monumentality on a podium plinth to Richard Rogers’s use of glass as an expression of modernity and transparency of justice.

In contrast to these singular building examples, David Chipperfield’s court buildings in Barcelona respond to the question: how to build an entire “city of justice”, which includes law courts but also public housing, commercial buildings and administration? His answer is a monolithic facade to all buildings without distinguishing between their functions. Chipperfield suggests that a facade does not represent anymore the law courts itself but the idea of justice. Moreover, as justice has to be “majestic” – in the words of Boullée – Chipperfield creates a unifying facade that creates an impressive scale not through a large building but a complex of buildings. Unlike Boullée or Poelaert, or even for Rogers, he does not place the buildings on a podium but directly on the ground. One might understand that Chipperfield wants to recover the idea of a multi-functional building for justice that was abandoned with revolutionary architecture in the 18th century.

Perhaps this is explained by a change from a feudal society to a modern democracy, when the powers of the state had to be separated into individual institutions. The legal and spatial protocols had to become clear and neutral in order to demonstrate the justness of the state and the trial. Paradoxically, attempting to represent a neutral, transparent and modern justice system, the law court typology produced increasing spatial hierarchies, as well as new surveillance and control strategies. However, one can argue that a neutral space may never be achieved by architecture, especially by an architecture with a strong representative function. 


[i] The word “court” refers to a tribunal, a building and a courtyard, an inner space, in a single term that relates people and space.
[ii] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Pantheon Books, 1977)
[iii] The concept of citizen has changed over time and in different societies. In ancient Greek societies, slaves were not considered as citizen, and women were not allowed to attend affairs of the state. The assembly buildings could hold some hundreds of people to take direct part in decisions of law and justice.
[iv] A. Brodie, G., Winter, and S. Porter, “The Law Court 1800-2000: Development in Form and Function” (London: English Heritage, unpublished, 2000)
[v] Linda Mulcahy describes the UK Law Court Design Guide as a “Foucauldian scholars dream”. The guide is a document with 1,000 pages that prescribe in detail how the space must be configured, as a “plethora of techniques employed to stage manage interactions” where “the importance of architectural creativity is recognized by the Design Guide but its aspirations are largely limited to the facade and entrance hall”. In Legal Architecture: Justice, Due Process and the Place of Law (Oxford: Routledge, 2011).
[vi] Idem.

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