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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

My Principles for Great Law School Architecture

Part 3 of a series: Architecture
& Law Schools

[1] [2] [3]

If someone said they wanted to see "a picture of [a certain] law school," it would be clear that they would be talking about seeing a picture of the campus, that is, the school's architectural embodiment.

The essence of a law school might be its students and/or faculty, but when a person sees a law school in the mind's eye, that person sees architecture. The law and the courts generally attempt to respect substance over form. That's a lofty pursuit. But architecture is an issue no law school can look past. As most Civ Pro profs admonish their students, procedure is substance. There is a similar truth about an institution's physical infrastructure: Architecture is substance.

So what should that substance be?

4128657193_c6b54992ec_mI am going to offer my answer to that question. First, let me offer a reality check: I have no training in architecture. My only bona fides are an enthusiastic interest in the subject, especially when it comes to law schools, and the fact that I've made a point of observing law school architecture whenever possible. I've visited 37 law school campuses so far, and I've photographed many of them. So here's what I think I've learned:

Law schools borrow from two distinct traditions: legal and academic. In many ways, a law school should feel like other academic buildings. But it should also show a particular genetic relatedness to the architecture of legal institutions, such as courts and legislatures. There are beautiful and inspiring campuses that have been crammed into tight urban spaces, and there are beautiful and inspiring campuses that sprawl among an assortment of repurposed buildings. Regardless of what form they take, however, the best law schools, architecturally speaking, seem to draw something worthy from both law and academe.

There are many principles to good architecture. I'm not qualified to list them. But I do have three important architectural principles that I think are particular to law schools.

The architecture should reflect aspirations of professionalism in the law. A student's chair in an undergraduate classroom is a place to absorb knowledge. But a student's seat in a law school classroom is a place to do work. That's why law students get a real desk instead of just a lift-up-flip-down writing surface. A law school classroom seat is also a place from which to speak and be seen. Much of what works for the layout of a legislative chamber tends to work for a law school classroom – concentric rings of desks that rise in elevation as they move further from the center. That setup is sensible because a law school is more a place for debate than it is a place for receiving answers. On the other hand, no classroom should be nearly as self-invested in pomp and circumstance as the usual legislative chamber. Humility is good. Beyond the classrooms, a law school needs a courtroom. The courtroom should unapologetically have the trappings of judicial authority – flags, a bench elevated off the floor, a seal behind the bench, and so on. There's no need for humility in the courtroom – if a law school's courtroom outshines the hearing chamber at 1 First Street, NE, then more power to it. The remainder of the law school should reflect a professional vibe as well. It's okay for the hallways to look slightly more law-firm-esque than other academic buildings.

The architecture should embrace the occupation of learning. Lockers, though alien to a courthouse, should have a prominent place in a law school. (See some great law-school locker shots here and here.) The library, ideally, should have a conspicuous interface with the rest of the law school. Whether the law school is in one building or several, there should be lots of nooks and crannies everywhere for curling up with a book. In this and other ways, a law school should aim to distinguish itself from the icy feel of a courthouse. Acoustically, the blast of white noise from an espresso-machine frother should drown out echoey clacks of heels on marble.

The architecture should compel interaction. Hallways and common areas should cause students to converge, faculty to converge, and students and faculty to converge on one another. The transit paths and lounge areas for students should join in such a way that students are made to see and engage one another. The same goes for faculty. I particularly love the faculty offices at my school, the University of North Dakota, because they are arranged around wide-open common areas that facilitate random conversations. Ideally, a law school will be designed to have a least one point where students and faculty are made to cross paths in an place that encourages loitering. This incubation of impromptu discussions should not only be reflected in the school's spatial extent, but also in its lighting and acoustics. This goal of fostering interaction is the opposite of the ideal for a courthouse, which is to isolate jurors from attorneys and to keep everyone away from the judges.

A few of the law schools that I've visited that seem to embody these principles, in varying degrees (and where I've had a good deal of time to walk around), are Seattle U., Seton Hall, the University of Washington, Stetson, Dayton, the University of Wisconsin. That's not an exclusive list, of course.

The photo above is of the James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on June 30, 2010 at 08:49 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Posted by: NFL Jersey | Jul 8, 2010 2:46:54 AM

Eric, I've really enjoyed these posts. Thanks. Have you visited Notre Dame's new law building (and renovated old one) yet? Outstanding, I think (but I'm biased!). I'd welcome your impressions.

Posted by: Rick Garnettt | Jul 2, 2010 11:21:58 AM

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