Courthouses are one of the most complex of building typologies to plan, yet their functions demand simplicity. Back in the 1930s, American courthouses were few and tended to be fortress-like structures. In 1991, a court facilities masterplan for New York City was introduced after decades during which its courthouses had become dilapidated. A few years later, the Federal Government launched a design excellence programme supporting 155 new federal courthouses throughout the United States, some of which were designed by a nationally known architect collaborating with a local firm familiar with the terrain. Suddenly, it seemed, the civic image of the law was being reinvented. The new construction programme in New York City included courthouses in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, as well as an extensive refurbishment programme.
Architect Perkins Eastman’s 32-storey Brooklyn Supreme and Family Courthouse from 2001, a consolidation of different court types, each with its own lobby, and housing twelve city agencies, is a benchmark of the contemporary American courthouse. Its blast-resistant structure and glazing and durable terrazzo floors have a user-friendly design, and business tenants occupy the top five floors.
Richard Meier designed the United States Courthouse and Federal Building at Central Islip, Long Island, completed in 2000 and the second largest of its type in the country. A linear arrangement of twenty-three cherry-panelled courtrooms links with a round building that houses the entrance lobby. With its white enamel façade panels, an open and light glazed façade, and panoramic views of the Atlantic, the building looks like a jaunty ocean liner.
In 2007, Rafael Viñoly’s Bronx County Hall of Justice has opened in the Bronx, a New York borough north of Manhattan including a number of sober courthouses and penitentiaries. Commissioned in 1994, its construction was underway during 9/11, which led to a tightening of security at all public buildings by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, affecting aspects of its design. Like Meier, Viñoly expresses the ideal of the judicial system’s openness and transparency through a translucent, accordion-fold, street-facing curtain wall. It expresses the structure and lets daylight deep into the building while screening private circulation corridors and reducing heat and glare. Horizontal stripes of mullions and triangular-shaped glass panels cast shadows, affording a representation of the building’s inner life. This open, blast-resistant symbol of justice becomes more visible at night and successfully plays off against the foreboding air of its neighbour, a brutalist limestone-clad courthouse from the late 1970s. Another rare feature of the courthouse is the way it provides civic amenity space. Viñoly had already built a smaller housing court in the area, but this time had a two-block site to conjure with. By massing the L-shaped building along commercial streets, a space was created at the rear for a public courtyard. This lessens the impact of the Hall of Justice on low-rise residential and academic properties to the north and can be accessed by the public via an open-air pedestrian passage through the building’s ground floor or from the surrounding streets. Visitors look out onto this space from public circulation corridors located behind the building’s glazed curtain wall.
Situated in the courtyard inside a drum-shaped mass is the jury assembly room, accessed from the column-free entrance lobby of the higher, L-shaped building. A canopy-style ceiling featuring big skylights in typical Viñoly fashion, from which a large work of public art in wood is suspended, permits plenty of daylight to flood the space. Offices of external agencies dealing with probation occupy one side of the lobby, facing the drum. Viñoly achieved clarity in orientation regarding public versus private spaces by layering zones of public access for visitors and clients and providing privately accessed elevators for staff, discreet judges’ circulation, and overall simplicity in design. Forty-seven court rooms - approximately ten per floor - dominate the building’s floor plan, which includes quadrants of judges’ chambers with secure points of entry and exit. Ceiling heights of 5 metres create generously proportioned spaces that each have clerestory windows and custom-designed beech furniture for the judge, sixteen jurors, and sixty spectators. In the seven grand jury rooms, jurors can view evidence at their desks on flat screens, while Viñoly’s detailing evokes modest stylistic associations with courtrooms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The atmosphere of the rooms is appropriately formal yet not cold.
Along with state-of-the-art AV and computer technology, the building is a model of twenty-first century court typologies for its energy conservation. The fearsome fortresses of the past had very little natural daylight. Here, there is a mix of daylight and energy-efficient lighting across public and private realms, with insulated glass and HVAC systems featuring displacement ventilation. The architecture mitigates the often stressful impact of court activities on the visiting community, which includes staff, jurors, relatives and friends of defendants, and the defendants themselves, who are detained and transported securely in the building during case proceedings. The brief was subjected to considerable discussion over the long period of realisation, the number of courtrooms was reduced by a third, and the client injected a few changes that compromise the impact of the design in a minor way. Gridding occasionally appears on the glazed roof lights in courtrooms. Offices now have diffused glazing to screen them from the street, but the opaqueness successfully addresses the critical balance between preventing views in and allowing occupant views to the outside.
Courthouses are fascinating in achieving their balance of security needs and a community ethos. With urban sites hard to find, if the trend is to consolidate judicial buildings, architects need to master a complex planning exercise. At Bronx’s latest, Viñoly has effected a mature reconciliation of building and context, security and openness, one which will stand the test of time and changing political realities.