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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Architecture of Justice: Ideology in Stone?

I'm almost recovered from the physical consequences of a quick Thanksgiving weekend trip to Lincolnshire, England, where I attended a conference on the Architecture of Justice organized by Professor Nicholas Temple of Lincoln University, School of Architecture, and and Professor Renee Tobe of the University of East London, School of Architecture and the Visual Arts.  Having dinner in the priory of Lincoln Cathedral (a stunning medieval construction, the third largest in the UK) and standing in the positively panoptic chapel of the 19th century Victorian prison that still stands in the middle of a fortress and castle (itself begun by the Conqueror, two years afte the Battle of Hastings) would have made the jetlag worth it.  However the intellectual rewards of breaking outside my usual discourse silos were even greater.  I have attended conferences or given talks in the UK many times over the past few years without once breaking out of the silos of criminology and law (I still learn a great deal being outside the US).  With some four keynotes and some eighteen parallel sessions, there was more than I can hope to summarize in several posts.  One theme that was emerged again and again was the relationship between built structures of justice, especially courts, and the spatial relationships of cruelty and oppression that at times the architecture of justice seems intended to "cover up," and at other times to "exorcise."

One very clearly ideological exercise from the 19th century was documented in the photos presented by Jonathan Charley, of the University of Strathclyde, in his brilliant  historical and archtectural tour of the sites of oppression and justice, "Violent Stone: The City of Dialectical Justice."   Cities like Birmingham in England, and Brussels in Belgium in the 19th century, constructed grandiouse edificies of justice to house their central trial courts, right at the moment they were enjoying the most rapid enrichment from their highly specific exploitation of the slave trade and King Leopold's own version of slavery/genocide in the Congo respectively. 

Whether or not one stands with E. P. Thompson, to recognize the dialectical potential for the law to ultimately temper the exploitation of the powerful, it is hard not to recognize the bald  effort at legitimation involved in buildings like the Palais de Justice. 

On the otherhand, what about the recent efforts to build new courthouses that represent the aspiration to transparency of contemporary English courts with sweeping atriums of glass like the brand new Manchester Civil Justice Centre (whose principal architect, Stephen Quinlan, presented a plenary address)?  Or perhaps, most intriguingly of all, the new Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, South Africa, built directly across from a fortress prison where victims of Apartheid were incarcerated and sometimes executed on a hill at the margins of the city?

Posted by Jonathan Simon on December 1, 2009 at 11:42 AM in Jonathan Simon, Law and Politics | Permalink

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