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Transparency or intimidation?


Cite as: (2003) 77(3) LIJ, p.23

Architecture and Urban Design Professor Kim Dovey examines whether the design of Melbourne’s three newest court buildings contributes to the delivery of justice.

Entering the Victorian Supreme Court building from William Street remains one of the best architectural experiences in the city. One enters this stone bastion of the law through a long sequence of spatial thresholds – steps, doorways, vestibules, corridors and lobbies – to negotiate a deep, dark and labyrinthine interior “city”.

While I imagine the legal mind becomes at home here, to the citizen it remains an intriguing and intimidating experience.

The courtrooms are deep within this spatial sequence, separated from light and view, with judgment dispensed from behind a high bench. This symbolic separation of the practices of law from the everyday, the sense of solidity and spatial intimidation were seen in the 19th century as necessary to legitimate the authority of the law.

The neo-classical style of the architecture works in a similar way – stone and symmetry reinforce the ideal of a timeless institution of law and order. Along with the wigs and gowns, the books and benches, architecture is one of the trappings of judicial power.

The recent completion of three new court buildings in Melbourne’s legal district gives an opportunity to assess how such ideals might have changed. Each of these buildings was designed with a deliberate intent to move on from the neo-classical idea of the court as a place of hierarchy and intimidation.

Here we see attempts to translate certain judicial ideals such as access, transparency, light and equality into architecture. But what happens when these ideals come into tension with the need to maintain security and a sense of institutional order and authority? How can architects pursue ideals of natural light, view and equality of access yet also provide segregated access and egress for judges, prisoners, juries and the public?

How is the architect to avoid closing off the courtroom within some “spaghetti junction” of corridors and lift wells? If courthouse design is to avoid architecture of intimidation and hierarchy, what happens to the implicit acceptance of authority on which the courts rely? To what degree should architecture instil respect for the law?

And if courts are to be transparent, what is to be revealed?


The Commonwealth Law Courts building, by Hassell Architects, is centred on a long and tall atrium space that floods with sunlight and takes advantage of the wonderful view of Flagstaff Gardens. This is perhaps the finest new interior space in the city and it operates to mediate the flow of public life from the street through the atrium and balconies to the more intimate lobbies and then courtrooms.

The ideals of access and transparency have been translated into visual access to and from the street and parkland, and the flow of life to the courts, many of which are on the ground floor. The major courtrooms have windows onto the park and a broad doorway that can be opened to blur the boundary between the courtroom and the lobby. The sense of the courtroom being linked to the landscape and to everyday life is a significant achievement of the building.

In other courtrooms windows provide views across the judicial corridor. As judges walk past, the high-tech glass switches from transparent to translucent, triggered by movement detectors in the corridor so that the view is periodically replaced by a translucent caped figure. In the sense that the court is a theatre, this is a glimpse into the traditionally opaque backstage, the deeper zone from where judgment comes.

The ideal of transparency has also been addressed in the skin of the building where an intricately composed curtain wall plays with the tension between opacity and transparency.

Extracts from the Australian Constitution are etched onto the glass walls of the building, identifying the architecture and the Constitution as frameworks within which the law is practised. Given the Constitution’s contentious wording, it is perhaps fortunate it is etched in glass rather than stone.

While its facades are well composed, the urban presence of the building is less innovative than the interior. Senior judges’ chambers have personal balconies which project high over La Trobe Street – heroic formal gestures which almost mock such authority.

The forecourt, which the building embraces, is something of a lost opportunity, lacerated by the railway station entry and the security entrance for the law courts. While one cannot entirely blame the architects for this (the railway station produced a highly constrained site), a better public vision could have produced a lively and sunny open space where the vision of mixing the law with everyday life could have been given a real civic presence.


The County Court building by Daryl Jackson Associates and Lyons Architects is a fine building, conceived and formed as three buildings which form two narrow atria running north to south between them, echoing the urban structure of Melbourne’s laneways.

The building is contained within a 16-metre urban envelope on William Street in order to preserve views to the Supreme Court dome. The plan and wall forms are slightly cranked, tilted and folded to add a creative edge to the institutional image of both street facades and interiors.

The architectural language here is loosely “deconstructive” – a philosophy aimed at destabilising fixed meanings that link architecture to institutional authority – but here it is an aesthetic style rather than any comment on the philosophy of law.

The building creates a small public entry plaza to the south where the entry portico operates as a gesture towards the Supreme Court which also frames the place of entry as an important site for the televised drama of entry and exit.

The entry experience, however, diminishes once inside where the security tunnel consumes the street foyer. Only after mounting the escalator to the main hall does one encounter the best interior space in the building. This is a space that mixes the wood-panelled intimacy of traditional court buildings with natural light from the slit of the atrium.

The separation from the street gives the hall a sense of intimacy and seclusion which has its counterpoint in a fine glass artwork, “Quality of Mercy” by Colin Lanceley. Here the figure of justice is no longer female but is represented as transparent, fluid, fragmented, fragile, liberated – as a “gentle rain” which one hopes penetrates to these depths.

The courtrooms are largely modern recreations of the traditional courtroom where inclined walls and coved ceilings generate an almost cave-like sense of both seclusion (reinforced by soundlocks) and theatre (especially the ceremonial court). Here the requirements for up to five categories of segregated access are much more severe than in other courts.

The strategy of dividing the building into three with “laneway” atria pays off in the capacity to generate at least borrowed natural light, if not outlook, in the vast majority of courtrooms. However, this ideal of bringing a sense of vision to the processes of justice does not extend to many of the jury rooms.

The worst aspect of this building is the ground floor of the William Street frontage where a long blank wall covers a large holding area for jurors. A security-controlled building is difficult to deal with in urban design terms but there was clearly a case here to program a row of shops along the sidewalk and pressure from the City of Melbourne to do so.

The resistance to it is based in the desire to preserve the institutional image of the courts. The unfortunate result is an institution of the law that appears somewhat fortress-like from William Street.


The Children’s Court on Little Lonsdale Street by Bates Smart Architects is another building driven by the desire for openness, light and transparency.

The design also responds to a perception that the informal conference-like environment of the former temporary Children’s Court had left the public confused about the authority of the Court and had exposed magistrates to risk.

The building provides an elegant formal frontage to the street in the modern classicism of a broad-eaved, glass-walled pavilion. This glass foyer becomes an accessible extension of the street flanked by open courtyards at each end, which operate as relief spaces.

Entry to the courts is via open stairways within this foyer, which lead to long lobbies that maintain the view onto the street.

This is an extremely legible building that maintains a strong sense of accessibility and transparency from the street to the lobbies. The relationship of the foyer with the courtyards (one of which has adjacent childcare) is well designed, recognising how stressful courts can be and the importance of the recuperative effects of gardens and fresh air.

The entry foyer, however, is compromised by security issues, exacerbated by the strict segregation of the Court into the Criminal Division and the Family Division (child protection). This separation occurs immediately one enters the foyer and is directed to entirely separate lobbies. This is a quite appropriate separation of children at risk from those charged with criminal offences. However, the result is to compromise the building architecturally and functionally.

The elegant double height foyer is sliced into three by glass walls and even without the full security screen it becomes a place for processing people rather than a social space.

The symmetrical plan of the building provides the divisions with identical lobby space servicing a series of courtrooms. The elongated double-height lobbies are well designed and lit from high windows; they are lined with fine abstract landscape paintings by Bruno Leti and intersected with obscure glass bridges for judicial access.

The two lobbies, while almost identical in design, are socially quite different. The Family Division lobby is much busier and is a frequent site of trauma. It is difficult to imagine how architecture might be expected to relieve the effects of the removal of a child from a parent, or how it could do so any better than this one does. The courtrooms are designed in a relatively traditional manner but with natural light and outlook in most of them.

This is a building which operates in institutional terms to reify a singular authority and an ideal about justice for children, yet its dual role in punishing and protecting children leaves the architecture torn with an inner contradiction.

The division of jurisdictions between adults and children leaves a further division (between good and bad children) to be managed at the programmatic level by the architects.

There seems no easy way to address this other than to say that such jurisdictions can be rethought and reconstructed in a way that places less pressure on architects to resolve them. And at a broader scale, this building was constructed with two-thirds of the budget (per square metre) of the adult courts, raising questions about how evenly justice is distributed by age group.


All these buildings in their own ways are fine additions to Melbourne’s legal district and interesting attempts to grapple with the complexities and contradictions of the architecture of justice.

They are successful in different ways and face different challenges in forging new relations with the street and in bringing greater light, transparency and access to court proceedings. Some courts appear to be more reliant than others on the role of architecture to legitimate the authority of the law.

Through all this design innovation the constellation of courtroom practices, the various spatial roles and levels centred on the controlling gaze of the judge, remains essentially unquestioned.

Experiences in the Family and Children’s Courts would seem to have affirmed the notion that the courtroom is not a conference of equal parties and to allow any such illusion to take root is dangerous.

I have one further critique with regard to all three buildings. In each of these buildings there are sharp divisions between the judiciary and the larger numbers of support staff. Many of the latter occupy windowless environments that may well be unhealthy for those who are forced to inhabit them for lengthy periods.

While we live in a society where unhealthy environments are regularly assigned on the basis of social hierarchy, is it appropriate that such values prevail in our centres of justice?

This is most accentuated in the Children’s Court where the psychological assessment centre is housed in an almost windowless environment where such assessments could be distorted. These are programmatic issues that can surely be fixed by a broader sense of environmental and social justice.

Finally, a question that could use more research: how do these buildings work for their real clients, the hopeful recipients of justice?

What are the effects on the perception of justice, equality, access and transparency for the general public? To what degree do they generate illusions of transparency, openness and access without the practice? How do they mediate the sense of injustice that these buildings must house when a case is lost, a child is removed, when the accused is sentenced?

The light-filled atrium of the Family Court provides a wonderful sense of relief from the enclosed courtrooms. Leaning on the glass balustrade, gazing down to the marble floor and out towards Flagstaff Gardens is the kind of architectural experience that late Modernism, at its best, is all about – the sense of modern justice being administered with flair.

However, outside the Children’s Court there is often a small group of teenagers, waiting for court cases, leaving occasional traces of graffiti on the black columns. Does the architecture mediate their perceptions of the justice they receive? Can the architecture make any difference to these perceptions, or to their chances of graduating to the County Court?

KIM DOVEY is Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Melbourne. He has a PhD from UC Berkeley and has been engaged for many years in research on social issues in architecture and urban design. His most recent book is Framing Places, 1999, Routledge.


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