Architecture. A room with a view to do justice

The Honourable Michael Kanne is a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The design of a courtroom must provide an environment which enables the proper discharge of the judge's responsibility. This can be simply defined as insuring the fair administration of equal justice.

The basic design principle is that a federal trial courtroom must be of sufficient size to provide a calm, well-ordered and neutral setting which accommodates the orderly presentation of evidence to the judge or jury and enables rational decision-making.

To understand federal courtroom design, and the design of any structure devoted to court facilities, it is essential to recognise that the judicial process is purposely adversarial and confrontational. Witnesses are confronted by lawyers. Lawyers are confronted by judges. And criminal defendants may be finally confronted by the consequences of their actions.

To put it plainly what takes place in federal courtrooms is regulated conflict designed to arrive at the truth.

Several years ago, following my presentation at a symposium on courthouse and courtroom design sponsored by Harvard University, the architecture critic for The Boston Globe took an unusual interpretation of what I had to say.

Michael Kenney said: “Much of what [the speakers] had to say about the design of courthouses and courtrooms was interesting, even fascinating.

“Some though was scary, including the imperial judiciary comments of federal appeals judge Michael Kanne. He spoke about the need for high ceilings in federal courtrooms to emphasise the majesty of the federal judge and lauded the elevated aura of pre-Vatican II Catholic Church design in which the public's role was that of silent witness.

“Several witnesses noted that Judge Kanne's predecessor, as head of a committee which produced design guidelines for federal courts, was assassinated. And, indeed, it often sounded as if the ideal site for a new federal courthouse would be an underground bunker connected to the real world by a bullet-proof monorail.”

This is an opportunity to set the record straight or, more accurately, to let the reader judge how “scary” my remarks were. The following is a summary of comments I made at the Harvard symposium about the factors which dictate or influence the unique architectural design of federal courthouses and courtrooms in the US.

The judicial philosophy which underlies court design requirements became a concern for those of us charged with developing design standards for the nation's federal courts.

In the past, we in the judiciary failed to use our collective experience either to express the philosophical principles that influence design or to translate our understanding of court design requirements into the information needed to guide design professionals.

Symbolism, of course, plays a significant role in judicial architecture. Yet there is a solid practical basis that underlies the symbolism and forges the rationale for the formality and scale of judicial design.

No matter how pleasing the design may be in terms of its architecture, a courtroom can seldom be an inviting place for those involuntarily brought into the legal system, be they litigants, witnesses or jurors.

In contrast to the various social attitudes which architects and design professionals are familiar with, judicial proceedings carried out in federal courtrooms are not meant to be egalitarian, informal or relaxed. Federal courtrooms are not places for consensus building, they are places for conflict resolution. One side must lose.

It is the nature of this controlled adversarial conduct that dictates many of the special demands of courtroom design. Without the control exercised by the presiding judge, there would be chaos in the courtroom. It is imperative that one impartial person be clearly and unequivocally in charge; this is the classic exemplification of the authoritarian role required of the federal trial judge.

The judge's pre-eminent physical position at trial – robed and on a raised bench in an imposing, high-ceilinged room, distanced from other participants – is a symbolically significant use of space and scale.

But underlying the symbolism are pragmatic considerations. These design features are visual clues which reinforce and enhance the ability of the judge to deal with the often emotional dramas played out in a federal trial court.

The vertical dimension and physical arrangement of the federal courtroom create a solemn and constraining atmosphere. This psychological element is a major factor helping the judge to control the activities of trial participants and spectators in the courtroom.

Equally important is that this architectural symbolism (along with ritualistic garb and procedure) presents judicial authority in a manner calculated to display the neutral detachment of the sovereign and sublimation of the individual personalities of its judges.

To demonstrate how the psychological impact of space and scale can be used to carry out institutional philosophy, we can look to a changing ecclesiastical model. The physical ordering of courtrooms in the federal system can be described as similar to the designs of traditional Roman Catholic churches (pre-Vatican II) – an orthodox authoritarian model in which the spectators are separated from the participants in the proceedings by a rail and the robed president is elevated.

In the post-Vatican II era, the Roman Catholic Church (particularly in the US) became somewhat more participatory and with that many of the traditional architectural features were eliminated. The rail has gone and the elevated altar has been modified.

Finally, for the purposes of security as well as minimising the chance of inappropriate contact, other special design requirements are necessary. These requirements are achieved using passageways and elevations which separate judges and juries from litigants and their supporters in the general public.

Architectural design, therefore, plays a critical role in supporting the judge's ability to provide an impartial trial through orderly conduct. Moreover, the atmosphere created by the design should cause those who enter to recognise that they are in a special place set apart from the typical human interplay which occurs in the course of everyday life. A place of stability where fairness and impartiality are the hallmark. I put it to you – is that so scary?

The Institute of United States Studies and the RIBA Architecture Centre are sponsoring a talk on the politics and aesthetics of courthouse design at 6pm on 16 October at the RIBA Architecture Centre, 66 Portland Place, London W1.

Mod con courtrooms

The new Federal Courthouse at Boston, Massachusetts (pictured above), will house the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts and the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Construction started this spring and the projected date for completion of the building is 1997.

The building will contain approximately 500,000 square feet (765,000 gross square feet) of occupiable space and will house approximately 1,200 people.

When completed, it will house 19 district courtrooms and seven magistrates courtrooms as well as two First Circuit Court of Appeals courtrooms.

The building will also house other court-related activities including the office of the First Circuit executive, the clerks of both the Appellate and District Courts, the First Circuit library, the US Attorney, the US Marshal, Probation Office, the Pre-trial Services Office, the Bureau of Prisons and the General Services Buildings Management and Federal Protective Services.

The shared facilities will include a cafeteria with secure juror and judicial officer lunch rooms, a US Marshal physical fitness area and a press room.

The lawyer 10 october 1991