The challenges of contemporary justice architecture

  • Publish On 21 May 2023
  • 9 minutes

Courthouses constitute a complex program, part of an architectural, symbolic and political history that has yet to be fully explored[1]. A historical perspective, combined with an analysis of its contemporary issues, can nevertheless help us understand and question the tensions inherent to its architectural form.

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.

Courthouse of Lyon

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.

Dirksen Federal Building de Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

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.

Tribunal de Paris, Renzo Piano

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.”

Tribunal de Bobigny

“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.

Tribunal d'Aix-en-Provence

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.


François Collet, Editorial Director at PCA-STREAM


[1] 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).

[2] Emmanuel Macron, speech on October 18, 2021, at the launch of the Estates General on Justice.




A hybrid space inaugurating modernity

Allen S. Weiss is a Distinguished teacher at New York University, landscape theorist, and a specialist of Le Nôtre. In his book Mirrors of Infinity, he analyses how the « Jardins à la française » resulted from the new aesthetic and ethical dimensions taken by geometry in the 17th century. The Champs-Élysées, the royal gardens of Versailles, and those Vaux-le-Vicomte have in common wide central perspectives, traced by new mathematical and optical tools, thus emphasizing the royal power. However, Weiss explains that the Champs-Élysées is distinguished from these two other works by their form as a hybrid space, an extension of the urban open to the rural : the Champs-Élysées introduce modernity in a city that is still fundamentally medieval.


Continuing the avenue living history

Professor in history of gardens and landscaping, Chiara Santini, recounts the significant history of the Champs-Élysées. They form an ambiguous space since their beginning: neither park nor boulevard, neither an urban landscape nor a rural one. Depicted as a domesticated nature by Le Nôtre, the Champs-Élysées mark the birth of a vision of the city as being open towards the countryside, seen as one of the models of Haussmann’s grandes percées. In the 18th century, the Champs became the recreational hub of Paris, thus an area of freedom for an aristocratic and bourgeois but also popular Parisian public (ou for the aristocratic and bourgeois classes, but also for the working one). It is because the Champs-Élysées was one of the first public promenades to be arranged in a « natural » environment, that Adolphe Alphand ended up choosing the Champs-Élysées gardens as testing grounds in the mid-19th century. The engineer invented a new form of garden, at the intersection between the classical garden and the picturesque garden: one of the prototypes of what was to be called the « modern garden », by featuring an irregular layout embedded in the axial grid of classical gardens. During the Second Empire, the Champs-Élysées turned into a reference for town planning, but was also transformed into a space for strolling and social representation and the staging of France’s horticultural knowledge and know-how, especially during the World Exhibitions. Chiara Santini invites us to consider the history of this unique palimpsest as « living »: a heritage to be protected with its quality as a dynamic, living space, opening it to the 21st century.


Histories and imagineries of climate change

Jean-Baptiste Fressoz is a historian of science, technology, and the environment. He contributed to popularizing the concept of the Anthropocene in France with his book The Shock of the Anthropocene, which he co-wrote with Christophe Bonneuil. With Les Révoltes du ciel [The Revolts of the Sky], co-written with Fabien Locher, he traces the history of our relations to climate change to put into perspective our contemporary vision of environmental issues.