Make Justice Visible - May 4, 2022
Updated: May 15
Discrete, private, control, power. These are all words I think of when I try to characterize the spatial qualities of building typologies in the law-enforcement realm. Courthouses might be described as “places where the rule of law finds tangible expression” (Duncanson and Henderson, 2021, p.31). My only prior experience with law courts was when I took a field trip to the Manitoba Law Courts in middle school. While they have added an extension to the Law Courts building, the original portion of the building was designed in the Beaux-Arts style. The Law Courts facade is adorned with ionic columns and an elaborate cornice. It is constructed primarily out of Manitoba Tyndall stone. This specific stone is used in nearly every other building of importance (or buildings that wish to exude power) in Winnipeg, such as the Manitoba Legislative Building. Jeffery Dolovitch, a very close family friend of mine, is the VP of Sales and Marketing at Gillis Quarries Limited, an extremely prominent quarrier and fabricator of this Tyndall Stone in Manitoba. Jefferey and I have had many conversations about how the use of material can exude importance or contribute to the typology of governmental buildings. While the original part of the Manitoba Law Courts building is made of Tyndall stone, the recent add-on is made almost entirely of glass. Still, it has absolutely no feeling of transparency. The designers opted for bronze-tinted glass, making the exterior walls appear nearly black and unapproachable. I imagine the designers intended to drift away from the law-enforcement building typology, but in my opinion, this design decision reinforces institutional control and privacy.
The Vancouver Law Courts have the opposite effect. Nick Milkovich spoke in great detail about the design process, but two things primarily stood out to me from this visit. Firstly, Erickson’s team conceived the design out of a series of massing studies and an intense process of diagramming circulation patterns and seating arrangements. It was evident that every actor in this equation mattered to the designers. Every actor needed to be placed in the best possible position so that the jury, the judge, and the visitors could see and hear properly. Optimal transparency, flow, lighting, and space organization were carefully considered. Secondly and more importantly, I quickly noticed how transparent the building was after exiting the courtroom. Aside from the closed courtrooms, which require privacy, visitors can see from Nelson Street to the Vancouver Art Gallery while standing inside the building. At that moment, after exiting the courtroom remodelled after the former Vancouver Law Courts and standing in the middle of the building while still being able to see the VAG, I understood exactly how this building exemplifies west coast modernism. I recalled that Milkovich had briefly mentioned that this was one of Erickson’s intentions to make justice visible.
This idea of visible justice and expressing justice in architecture is discussed in Courthouse Architecture, Design and Social Justice (2021) by Duncanson and Henderson. I recommend reading Chapter 2: Architecture of Law Courts by the Honourable Michael Black (corner Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Australia). The Hon Michael Black provides valuable insights about an architectural statement of authority desired in the colonial era and how authority and importance were emphasized more than access, transparency, or equality. Interestingly, some of the earliest colonial courthouses did have plenty of natural light. The abundance of natural light later disappeared but re-emerged in contempt courtrooms such as seen in the Vancouver Law Courts. There seemed to be a couple of transparent and bright law courts projects popping up in the 1960s and 70s, during the time of the Vancouver Law Courts. I wonder if Erickson and Milkovich were inspired by any precedent projects or simply followed the principles of west coast modernism, leading them to create a masterpiece of justice exemplified.
Duncanson, Kirsty, and Emma Henderson. Courthouse Architecture, Design and Social Justice.
Taylor and Francis, Milton, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780429059858.