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Feature article

Judging Architecture

Shepparton Law Courts. Render by _Architectus, GHD Woodhead, and Guymer Bailey Architects

WORDS BY Rosemary Burne

Court buildings, as an architectural type, are quite remarkable and almost in a league of their own. The typology of the courthouse is a civic typology. They are traditionally silent and solemn buildings that form part of the urban fabric. They publically and stoically represent one of the pillars of our civil society – the authority of the law and the administration of justice. They also are part of the foundation of our system of government – the separation of powers and the three arms of government; parliament, executive and judicial.

For architects and designers, courts are a relatively rare modern building type. Unless you are in the legal profession or are a court employee it is a rare occasion that members of our profession, or of the public, would visit a court building. Court buildings are familiar places only in the event of misdeeds, misfortune, crime, civil disputes, complex legal disputes or constitutional challenges. But there is a lot to understand about court buildings – both traditional and contemporary – in how they function in a complex program, and how they are experienced and operate in the public realm as a social and cultural icon.

Traditional courthouses are generally well known landmarks; for example the handsome heritage-listed Supreme Court of Victoria building (completed 1884) located at the heart of the legal precinct of Melbourne, or the Bendigo Law Courts (completed 1896) located adjacent formal parklands in the heart of the town. Courts as a building type however, have been steadily evolving with notable complexes being constructed in the 1960s1, 70s, 80s, 90s2 and so on. Within our contemporary era, The High Court of Australia (Edwards Madigan Torzillo Briggs) is the most iconic and significant within Australia. Renowned as a Brutalist masterpiece, it was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects Canberra Medallion in 1980 and subsequently the Institute’s ACT 25 Year Award in 2007. The 2007 jury citation reads:

“The architectural design embodies the civic aspirations of the High Court of Australia. The external promenade, with a water course leading to the building forecourt and the high glass walls, conveys both monumentality and accessibility. The location of the courts within the grand volume of the public space, and connected by the ramp promenade, suggests an openness to the court functions. The ceremonial ramp within the building offers visitors and users an experience of the courts that places the public literally at the centre of the institution. The highly crafted quality of the building – from its bush-hammered concrete structure to the timberwork and Shepparton Law Courts. Render by _Architectus, GHD Woodhead, and Guymer Bailey Architects court joinery – works to convey the significance and importance of the courts. Commissioned and integrated artwork further adds to the public spaces. In its materiality the building is made to last, emphasising the permanent role of the court within the life of the nation.”

At a more modest scale, though still set in a government precinct and an historic cultural landscape, the Tasmanian Supreme Court Complex (Public Works Department under Peter Partridge), 1975 and 1980, is yet another refined, but differently mannered Brutalist court building.This building has recently achieved national architectural recognition and significance through being awarded the Australian Institute of Architects National Enduring Architecture Award in 2010. The jury citation reads:

“…This building is an exemplary, enduring piece of public architecture that makes a poised contribution to the city of Hobart. The plaza between the two court buildings opens up a diagonal landscape link between St David’s Park above, the adjacent Parliament Square and the Sullivans Cove waterfront. From Salamanca Place a slate base folds up like a piece of carved landscape and supports two sandstone-clad pavilions. This is a building that is indebted to classicism but carries the burden of a period of architecture much maligned for its material brutality. The use of materials here is super-direct and the detailing studious. Inside, the complex is judicially innovative through the planning of four courts in the round. The interior carries the gravity of the building’s function but is human in its detail and scale. The complex is in remarkably original order because of the skill with which it was designed. Here is a reminder that investment in public architecture has a lasting effect on the city.”

Many of the more recent court projects have achieved recognition as award winning buildings though perhaps without as much fanfare. In Victoria, for example, our architects have been involved with many significant and award winning projects internationally, interstate and locally. Internationally, the Manchester Civil Justice Centre (Denton Corker Marshall) is a highly decorated piece of work3. Interstate, there is the Queen Elizabeth ll Law Courts building (Architectus in association with Guymer Bailey Architects)4 and locally, the Victorian County Court (Daryl Jackson Architects, Lyons and SKM Architects, architects in association)5, the Commonwealth Law Courts (HASSELL)6, and the Children’s Court of Victoria, (Bates Smart)7. Other fine examples of new court buildings have appeared in towns from Warrnambool (Swaney Draper, 2005) to Ballarat (BSA/ SKM, 2000); though these buildings are not recipients of architecture awards.

My own introduction to court architecture and indeed courts, was as a jury member of the Interior Architecture category for the 2003 Australian Institute of Architects Victorian Architecture Awards. One of the shortlisted entries was the Victorian County Court.

The Victorian County Court had to compete against buildings that were a destination of choice with interior spaces that were colourful, comfortable, positive, and even celebratory. By comparison the main public space of a court building (known in the European courthouse as the salle de pas perdu – hall of lost footsteps) must be a restrained and dignified space; a space that is not architecturally colourful or noisy. The architectural gesture and memory of the space relies on ceremonial elements such as the main stair, dramatic natural lighting, meaningful artworks and the quality of the timber or other precious internal materials. The main public hall must work to dispel the tension created by the formality and gravitas of the courtroom as legal proceedings play out. The legal process is historically an adversarial process and, realistically, is not always on a level playing field.


Supreme Court of Tasmania

County Court Melbourne Photography _Trevor Mein

Contemporary court spaces demand a greater investment in design thinking to create calm environments. In the unfamiliar place of the court environment, the architecture must work to bring calm and dignity to a potentially troubling and disturbing experience. The principles of Evidence Based Design8 is readily applied to court environments to create healthy spaces that give priority to environmental amenity and quality. This includes integrating courtyards or parkland settings, scale manipulation to modulate between institutional presence and personal comfort, greater acoustic performance, intuitive and/or clear wayfinding and the integration and use of positive distractions. Importantly, in a court setting, spaces should also actively work to ensure wherever possible, that there is segregation between parties in conflict.

Court facilities continue to evolve and continue to be built. In Victoria the Broadmeadows Children’s Court (Lyons) has recently been completed and the Shepparton Law Courts (Architectus, GHD Woodhead and Guymer Bailey Architects) are due for completion in 2018. These are state of the art buildings designed and built in a rapidly and profoundly changing landscape, both legal and nonlegal.

Conceptually speaking, court buildings are frequently at the convergence of police stations and prisons. The growth and change of court buildings however, does not appear to keep pace with the change and growth of police stations and prisons. This is a potential conflict. Leaving aside police stations, prisons as an architectural typology arguably represent the underbelly of architecture – an anti-architecture – with reform achieved through deprivation and restraint.

A court building by contrast, can potentially provoke a much more positive response as these buildings represent both human rights and security in positive custodial terms. They represent security for our democratic model of government and they represent the notion of personal safety. Architecturally they are recognized and awarded when they are judged to make a contribution to the greater good of the city, the street and its citizens. Ultimately a building must perform at the human scale as a response to the human experience.


1. The ACT Supreme Court (Yuncken Freeman) 1963 is entered on the Register of the National Estate. The Court and the precinct is currently being upgraded and incorporated into a new ACT Law Courts building designed by Lyons and scheduled for completion in 2018.

2. Geelong Law Courts (Millar, Sainsbery, Mulcair) 1992 – and is currently a ‘postmodern’ time piece.

3. Manchester Civil Justice Centre (Denton Corker Marshall), Royal Institute of British Architects National Award for Architecture, 2008, Royal Institute of British Architects Sustainability Award, 2008, shortlisted for Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize, 2008

4. Queen Elizabeth ll Law Courts, (Architectus in association with Guymer Bailey Architects), Institute of Architects Awards (Queensland Chapter) – Public Architecture Award 2013, Institute of Architects Awards (Queensland Chapter) Art and Architecture Prize 2013

5. Victorian County Court (Daryl Jackson Architects, Lyons and SKM Architects, architects in association), Institute of Architects Awards (Victoria Chapter) – Interior Architecture Award, 2003

6. Commonwealth Law Courts (Hassell Architects), Institute of Architects Awards (Victoria Chapter) – Marion Mahoney Award for Interior Architecture, 1999, Institute of Architects Awards (Victoria Chapter) Commendation Award for Institutional New, 1999, Institute of Architects Awards (Victoria Chapter) Award of Merit for Urban Design, 2000

7. Children’s Court of Victoria, Institute of Architects Awards (Victoria Chapter) – Award of Merit 2000 (Bates Smart)

8. The concept of Evidence based Design developed in the health sector. EBD is the process of basing decisions about the built environment on credible research to achieve the best possible outcomes. It is an approach that gives importance to design features that impact patient health, well-being, mood, and safety, as well as staff stress and safety. The approach focuses on the relations between the quality and the features of the hospital environment and patient healing. Although much attention in healthcare is paid to clinical issues and to the medical care patients receive, more recently attention is also being paid to the physical space where patients stay. To quote one of the most prominent advocates of EBD: “We are now finally beginning to understand that health is something way more than the absence of disease. That health includes your emotions, it includes your social space around you, it includes your built space, your communities, your cities, your local space, your home, your environment.” Esther Sternberg, author of Healing Space : The Science of Place and Wellbeing