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The Exploding Courthouse

The Exploding Courthouse
Deanna VanBuren - Sat Feb 18, 2012 @ 06:38PM
Comments: 7

A desire for the typical courthouse design today is to elevate, embody and express the “perceived” positive values associated with our justice process and its importance in sustaining our democracy. These desires have often been characterized by a monumentality that symbolizes authority, power, and wealth and is meant to command respect for the institution. However it is no secret that court processes are often accompanied by tension & antagonism. In addition they have a non-inclusive history with regard to disenfranchised people in this country.  The bulk and materiality of the courthouse along with these factors instead of commanding respect often just intimidate and exacerbate the negative perceptions of the courthouse amongst our multi-cultural society.

When we look at the reasons for these aesthetics we find that the increasing criminalization of our population, increased security measures and the need to have  public, secure, and restricted circulation paths ( which are a direct reflection of the punitive process itself) has caused the modern courthouse to explode in size. This increase in mass has meant that today the architecture of our traditional justice system is often completely unable to integrate with the fabric of the city since it does not fit on urban brown field sites and often cannot break down to a scale that relates to the community it is meant to serve.

In addition to its size, the materiality of the courthouse increases the feeling of monumentality.  Masonry has traditionally been used as a material for courthouses due to its fire retardant properties. It is still used today as it represents power, wealth and permanence. However this is often applied so liberally that it creates a monolithic mass. Today the modest monumentality that once was associated with the courthouse has become massive. Its impact is overwhelming.

“our court.. had to be…welcoming, warm, embracing, friendly, protective, accessible, humane, just, worthy of trust, reliable, open, participatory in nature, supportive, soft and yet serious, inclusive, people owned.”

-Janina Masojada on OMM’s design for the Constitutional Courts Building- Johannesburg, South Africa


These factors make it hard to envision the modern day courthouse as a place for restorative practices. So I would suggest that we begin to imagine a distinct and separate architecture that embodies the values of restorative processes. This new typology will most likely only require 1 public circulation route as the perpetrators must take responsibility for their crime and the professional cast of characters that needed restricting are no longer required.  For these same reasons security requirements are substantially less as all participants are there willingly in the spirit of resolution.  This new architecture is freed from the rigors of the court set and the antiquated views of what justice looks like.   The restorative justice center can be expressive in its materiality and form with many possibilities for reducing monumentality. Creating a less intimidating scale for restorative justice architecture is not only realistic but critical to the message this building must convey.


Constitutional Courts Building by Omm design workshop

Deanna VanBuren is the principal and founder of FOURM design studio in Oakland California.  

Her practice specializes in designing for alternatives to incarceration. She is currently on the national board of Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility.



Comments: 7


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