A Theoretical Blueprint for the Next Evolution of Urban Courthouses

Courthouses are iconic. Steadfast, just, and timeless, courthouses are the only buildings from the three branches of government that are built specifically for the people and not just for the representatives of people. Their visual weight stands out from the crisp silver skyscrapers of today's downtown skylines. Occasionally the oldest representation of a town's origin, courthouses are a generational testament of historical significance.

The land beneath these buildings are multi-million-dollar plots of real estate. Specifically placed for accessibility and visibility, they are usually at the epicenter of a city and an easy reference point for visitors.

What if these courthouses became more of an everyday destination – a visually inviting, multipurpose building complete with ground floor gathering spaces both inside and out? This is what more public planners are asking themselves as they seek new ways to decrease visual isolation and become relevant after hours.


Decreasing Visual Isolation

Transparency and reconnection are two major concepts at play in the quest for a more participatory courthouse. For obvious security purposes, the street-level bases of courthouses are usually made up of dense walls – isolating internal affairs from the outside world. Citizens walking the streets of the city are never quite able to connect with the building, and those inside walk through secure windowless hallways.

Stone, brick, and concrete aren't the only way to ensure security, and today's justice architects need to be better prepared to offer comparable security measures with increased transparency. Glass walls can visually connect the streets to the courthouse interior, while planters and steps protect building from threats normally prevented by the steel parking ballards.

The landscape and architectural elements around the base need to start facilitating visual freedom and connectivity. Proper positioning of space, particularly along the perimeter, allows everything to work together. Such an evolution will allow outsiders to see inner circulation and insiders to visually participate in everything the streetscape has to offer. Interior circulation and waiting will be stretched across the front of the courthouse, completely engaging exterior lawns and allowing traditional buildings to be fully accessed by a single glance.


Becoming Relevant After Hours

People rarely have good reason to visit a courthouse after working hours, but consider how much more use such a prominent facility could have if more services were provided. Instead of a single purpose, multi-use space could increase building use by 36 hours a week if retail or dining services were offered just two hours before 9 a.m., two hours after 5 p.m., and eight hours on Saturday and Sunday. This discussion is accelerating as urban municipal codes pressure projects to incorporate mixed uses into high-rises, parking structures, and court facilities.

While practical in theory, we'll be the first to admit that it's very difficult to talk about multi-use courthouse space in a post-9/11 environment. Once a breach in the perimeter is introduced, everyone becomes a potential threat. However, as our designs integrate more and more buildings into a singular urban fabric, the burden for public facilities to become more participatory in city life will only increase.


Irreconcilable or Interconnected?

The age-old challenges that come with redefining public facilities continue to perplex innovative planners. Single point entrances for the public, inmates, and court professionals put transparency and security against one another.

But do these theories have to be irreconcilable? Just as we have recently evolved the integration of streetscape with security, it can't be long before the security of a courthouse interacts with downtown activity at the building's base.

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