Courthouses as a Singular Architectural Space
A courthouse is a place that is both taboo and brimming with life, immutable and affected by societal changes. It is a place separate from the city, yet also a space for meeting and sharing. It is a building that is both physical and symbolic, with an expressive dimension alternating between representations of power, messages of authority, and a desire to welcome and reassure. Courthouses aren't ordinary places and their architecture is therefore never neutral. Justice is embodied there, as the abstraction of the law takes on the form of architectural spaces and objects, symbolically and physically expressing a vision of justice in society.
From Ancient Symbolism to Archetype
After the immemorial times when justice was meted out outdoors, the Roman forum, and the first tribunals of medieval cities, spaces of justice formalized into a distinct architectural object in the eighteenth century—the “palace of justice.” It inherited traditional symbols, especially around the figure of Themis, the goddess of justice, and her various attributes—scales (representing balance, harmony, and order), a sword (for punishment), a blindfold (for impartiality), and a bare knee (representing mercy and humanity).
With the end of the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, the idea of a republican palace of justice brought about the form of the neoclassical tribunal, which is characterized by a certain monumentality and strong architectural homogeneity. A great wave of construction took place in France over the course of the nineteenth century, as the various political regimes, both monarchical and republican, adhered to the same desire to make a statement about a centrality of power through the use of archetypes.
The Neoclassical “Palace of Justice”
Following a seemingly immutable architectural sequence, a palace of justice boasts a grand entrance with a flight of steps leading to a colonnaded peristyle topped by a triangular pediment looming over a heavy door fitted on a massive, and often blind, wall. The door opens into an austere, cavernous hall known as the “hall of lost steps.” The main courtroom is located along its axis, its wooden paneling reminiscent of the hedged enclosures of yore, while natural lighting, often zenithal, bestows upon it a solemnity tinged with mystery… It is a communicative architecture that also presents itself as a narrative through a decorum of statues and allegorical paintings.
Modernity and Loss of Identity
In the twentieth century, there was a general trend towards the disappearance of these neoclassical archetypes and courts became similar to more prosaic workspaces. This trend was reinforced by a desire for functionalism in the service of a justice made more progressive and accessible. The principles of architectural modernism of the early twentieth century took on a variety of designs in modern courthouses, particularly in the United States. The aim was to signify innovation rather than authority, to embody progress and transparency through the use of new materials, while favoring clean lines and clear, flat surfaces. The pursuit of functionalism was reflected in a significant increase in the proportion of office spaces and the rejection of ornamental decorative elements, as exemplified by Mies van der Rohe’s Dirksen United States Courthouse in Chicago, a thirty-story glass skyscraper that is remarkable in its architecture, yet somewhat indistinguishable from adjacent administrative buildings.
The Progressive Vision Behind “Socio-Judicial Cities”
These modernist courthouses are rare in France, where few new palaces of justice were built during the first half of the twentieth century. A much more profound transformation took place in the 1970s, however, influenced by progressive philosophies that favored the creation of “socio-judicial cities” rather than the traditional palaces of justice. The monumental nature of palaces was by then seen as accentuating the repressive dimension of justice. Instead of columns and pediments as a symbol unfaltering power, judicial cities thus prioritized transparency and accessibility, aiming to humanize judicial buildings by blurring the boundaries between litigants and magistrates. The focus was on asserting the public service dimensions and social mission of the judicial system rather than its omnipotence. The period of high-tech architecture further emphasized symbolic transparency through the use of glass, resulting in abstract and bureaucratic buildings that aimed to evoke a sense of public service, though they were ultimately rejected as cold and lacking grandeur.
A Desire for Symbolic Reinforcement
The rejection of the trivialization of courthouses and the fear of too much likeness with office buildings, coupled with the increasing judicialization of society, which undermines its exceptional symbolic weight, are compelling the judicial institution to envision a new evolution in courthouse design, shifting towards modern spaces that achieve optimal performance while possessing a contemporary monumentality that restores the sense and sacred dimension of the “time of justice.”
This return to the model of the palace towards the very end of the twentieth century signals a desire to reinstate a visible, comprehensible, and shareable authority to the judicial system. Beyond neoclassical verticality and the horizontal model of the judicial city, the institution demands that architects combine openness with monumentality, to find a balance between solemnity and the humanization of the penal institution. This ambivalence of the intentions of the judiciary, between nostalgia for monumentality and a desire for a more humane practice, results in a great formal variety. This reflects the greater level of freedom given to architects—though these are symptomatically more often than not “starchitects” such as Portzamparc, Nouvel, Rogers, Piano, and Koolhaas, which is also a way of placing the onus for finding the right functional and symbolic balance on their creativity.
Finding a New Balance
This generation of buildings culminated and winded up in France with the Tribunal of Paris (TGI) and further consideration is warranted. Indeed, architectural repetition had protected judicial authority from the vagaries of political change and imbued it with a sense of permanence, while the age-old locations and classical styles, rooted in tradition, bestowed legitimacy. Starchitects tried their hand at architectural gestures that could restore symbolic grandeur to the courthouse, reinterpreting and reimagining its traditional symbols with varying degrees of finesse. However, today’s challenge seems to lie in lending the courthouse new legitimacy based aligning their architecture with contemporary challenges, thus producing buildings that are adapted to the parallel developments of the judicial institution and society at large.
Crisis in the Judicial System
The design of a new courthouse cannot ignore the fact that the French judicial institution is undergoing a profound crisis, which reflects long-standing issues that have remained unaddressed, including a chronic lack of human and material resources. This shortage partially explains the slow pace of judicial proceedings, which brings discredit to the institution and creates a disconnect between the system and citizens. Significant is the fact that in 2016, the situation at the Bobigny Court—France’s second largest in terms of caseloads—prompted a group of magistrates, lawyers, and officials to launch a “plea” to the government, urging them not to let the second-largest court in France “founder.”
The “Estates General” of Justice
The President of the French Republic reacted by convening the “Estates General” of Justice in late 2021, with a view to “close the gap between the judicial system and the people in whose name it operates. ” A citizen consultation explored the place of justice and how it operates, feeding into a committee chaired by Jean-Marc Sauvé, which that translated these inputs into takeaways and recommendations. The ambition was to analyze the state of the material conditions of the judicial system and examine the sense of disconnect between citizens and the institution, stemming from the observation that there was a lack of understanding of the expectations of litigants.
“We no longer want a justice system that doesn’t listen and that times everything.”
The launch of the Estates General of Justice coincided with the shockwave caused by an opinion piece published in Le Monde in November 2021. Signed by 3,000 magistrates, it condemned the prevailing “managerial” approach to justice and the ever-widening gap between the desire to deliver quality justice and the reality of the court system. Its authors spoke up against the pressure to act quickly and focus on numbers, describing a judicial system that has become “abusive” for both litigants and the judicial staff due to the little time left for analysis and decision-making after unbearable delays—this dissonance contributing to a “loss of meaning” and “distress” among many magistrates, both young and experienced.
Justice’s Changing Role in Society
Beyond the tensions regarding its human and material resources, the place and role of justice in society are influenced by underlying global developments, including the judicialization of social relationships, the general shift towards digitalization, and the now-universal awareness of the ecological crisis, which increases public expectations concerning environmental justice. Justice is becoming more horizontal, which in turn is leading to an increasing emphasis on negotiated procedures. Justice is also becoming more collective, with the emergence of class actions, as well as more inclusive, with a shift towards giving more attention and recognition to new voices and victims. There is a trend towards “restorative” justice, bringing into existence a space for dialogue between victims and perpetrators through the trial. The extreme case of terrorist trials highlights the broader emergence of a focus on reparations, where the goal is not only to punish the guilty but also to create a space for listening and empowering victims to speak up, with a formative role in establishing collective memory and repair social cohesion.
Finding Architectural Responses to Symbolic and Practical Tensions
Beyond simply acknowledging the crisis at hand, what lessons can we draw from these developments for the design of a new form of courthouse? How can we reconcile the paradoxes of judicial architecture and get courthouses to embody a modern notion of justice? Given the direct association between the material conditions of the justice system and how it is experienced and perceived, three lines of action emerge—the assertion of a “toned-down” monumentality, the embodiment of justice as care, and the pursuit of exemplarity.
A Toned-Down Monumentality
The courthouse must uphold the sanctity of the place and secure the proceedings taking place within it. Its architecture should be conducive to ritual, though not refrain from adapting to society. Striking a balance between the representation of power (its coercive capacity) and the expression of transparency (which lessens this symbolic charge) is key, avoiding both excessive theatricality, which would overwhelm the litigants, and the drift towards banalization. Developing a balanced monumentality helps counteract symbolic banality and restores the sanctity of the judicial process. It achieves this through deliberate sobriety, with sparing but carefully chosen symbolic elements. This effort contributes to legitimizing the judiciary system in a society undergoing profound changes, fostering acceptance rather than confrontation.
Embodying Justice as Care
The necessary solemnity of the judicial process is spatially in confrontation with the requirement to improve how litigants are received, as well as their comfort levels. Openings, an accessible reception, good signage, proper lighting, and pleasant, soothing halls and gardens must contribute to improving the healing process for victims. The courthouse should be more aesthetically pleasing, pleasant, and practical, with a focus on care and attention both to the judicial staff and litigants. An embodiment of justice as care, it must symbolize, on an architectural scale, a paradigm shift in our relationship with the world and others.
Exemplary Buildings for Exemplary Justice
Imagining a contemporary courthouse involves designing an exemplary building with a comprehensive, life-cycle approach to its environmental impact, from conception to use. Such a courthouse would also focus on providing optimal working conditions through efficient, functional, and adaptable spaces, integrating digital tools without letting digitization lead to a sense of unfairness. It would also give a central place to the well-being of judicial staff and take on an exemplary approach to financial management, making the best use of public funds in choosing sustainable materials, features, and layouts.
Beyond a historical connection to nature, and particularly to trees, under which justice was ofter delivered, courthouse space experiences tension between a “vegetal” dimension (of living organisms and ecosystems to be protected) and a “mineral” one (stone being the natural material of monumentality). The unanimous awareness of a profound ecological crisis, which increases citizen expectations concerning environmental justice, requires the architectural language of the courthouse to combine both approaches in order to seek new legitimacy by ensuring it is aligned with key contemporary challenges. The environmental exemplarity of the building thus becomes the main symbol of judicial exemplarity.
Editorial Director at PCA-STREAM
 See, however, Marie Bels, Les grands projets de la justice française. Stratégies et réalisations architecturales du ministère de la Justice (1991-2001) [The Major Projects of French Justice. Architectural Constructions and Strategies of the Ministry of Justice (1991–2001)] (Marne-la-Vallée: Université Paris-Est, 2013), PhD thesis in architecture; Christine Mengin, “Deux siècles d’architecture judiciaire aux États-Unis et en France” [Two Centuries of Judicial Architecture in the United States and in France], in Histoire de la Justice [History of Justice] 2011/1(21); Étienne Madranges, Les palais de justice de France [Palaces of Justice in France] (Paris: Lexis Nexis, 2011).
 Emmanuel Macron, speech on October 18, 2021, at the launch of the Estates General on Justice.