Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Building the future of justice

The Criminal Courts of Justice building is a ‘once-in-a-century’ investment. So, did the architects get it right, asks FRANK McDONALD Environment Correspondent

VERY FEW new buildings have been bathed in such publicity as the Criminal Courts of Justice. Night after night, we witnessed Michael Lillis doing the “perp walk” as he left the complex and members of the bereaved Cawley family showing solidarity with each other after another long day in Court 19.

What’s been missing so far is any acknowledgement of its architecture, despite this being one of the most significant buildings commissioned by this State – on a par with the original terminal at Dublin Airport or the Busáras. It must be judged not merely by how it functions, but by how it reflects us as a people.

In line with Celtic Tiger thinking, it was conceived by the Courts Service as a public-private partnership (PPP) project in 2004. Instead of an open architectural competition, there was a contest among consortiums, each of which had its own architect, and this was won by Amber International and contractors PJ Hegarty.

Acting for them were Henry J Lyons (HJL) architects, whose scheme pipped those of McCullough Mulvin and Dublin Spire architect Ian Ritchie when the final call was made in May 2006. And architectural quality would have been just one of the criteria used in adjudicating on the rival proposals.

Described by the Courts Service as a “once-in-a-century investment”, the Criminal Courts of Justice is actually the largest courts project undertaken in Ireland since the Four Courts was completed by James Gandon more than two centuries ago. It will be managed for a fee by the Amber consortium for 25 years, after which the State will own it.

More than half of the roughly 400,000 criminal cases dealt with annually by the Irish courts are heard in Dublin. For years, the existing judicial facilities in and around the Four Courts – including the Bridewell and the Special Criminal Court in Green Street – struggled to cope with this level of traffic. The need for a new courts complex was very real.

Circular in form, the building rises 10 storeys over basement on a site that once served as the Garda car pound at the junction of Parkgate Street and Infirmary Road. It contains 22 courtrooms – 16 of which are jury courts – 450-plus rooms altogether, a total of 25,000 sq m (269,100 sq ft) of purpose-built space.

Designing it was challenging, because of the need to provide separate circulation routes for judges, jurors, prisoners and members of the public, while also directing natural light to every courtroom. But HJL director Peter McGovern and his design team managed to pull it off with ingenuity.

They also had to provide jury retiring, assembly and dining rooms; a public cafe, accommodation for the judiciary, the Courts Service and the DPP, a new Law Library for more than 100 barristers and space for the Law Society, an Garda Síochána, the Prison Service, charitable bodies and the media as well as cells for prisoners – all on a 2.4-acre site.

Placing such a large building in an area where the general height is three storeys was a “contextual challenge”, the architect says, adding that it appears much larger from a distance than it seems up close. Had it been a “big square box”, like the new Ashling Hotel, it would have been “much more aggressive” – viewed from any angle.

WHEN THE CONCRETE structure was going up, it called to mind a medieval donjon guarding the entrance to Phoenix Park. As McGovern notes, the circle has a long-standing importance in Irish architecture, dating back to prehistoric times, and “can be traced through history as an important device in the making of place”, both at home and abroad.

He believes the circular form of the new courts complex “gives equal weight to both city and park and creates a new, more definitive threshold” between them. Although set back from the direct spatial influence of the Liffey, it also continues the tradition of placing important public buildings either on or within sight of the river frontage.

The main external feature of the building, apart from its shape, is a triple-skin facade. Saw-toothed glass panels reflect the double-height volumes of the courtrooms as well as reducing the apparent height of the building. But the anodised bronze perforated screens behind the glazing look solid from the outside, making it seem superfluous.

McGovern insists that the facade was “born out of the same rigorous attention to functionality as the building layout. The leaning or canting forward of the glass panels assists in its acoustic performance – not unlike sound recording studios where the booth is separated from the music room by two sheets of glass at different angles to each other.” He also points out that the aluminium screen performs a number of functions, including glare control. “The ‘veil’ harmonises and unifies the elevation, making a singular impression and disguising the various window opening sizes behind it. It also acts a security screen, preventing views into the courts and other rooms beyond it.” Inside, beyond the security scanners, is a vast circular atrium, eight storeys high, with solid balconies fronting wide corridors outside the courtrooms on three levels. It is, of course, inspired by the Round Hall of the Four Courts, but four times larger. A seven-storey window looks out towards Phoenix Park – intended to reinforce a sense of place.

From the upper levels, unfortunately, a surface carpark hoves into view; it would have been much better if the large window had framed trees in the park and a glimpse of Gandon’s Infirmary, now the Department of Defence. Glass bridges in front of the lifts (also glazed, in an exposed shaft) have unnerved some vertigo-prone barristers.

One of the two media rooms is windowless. “It’s horrible, and I can’t imagine any other user group working in those conditions,” says Irish Times journalist Kathy Sheridan, who spent nearly a month covering the Lillis trial. McGovern says the media were consulted, but this is disputed by newspaper management. Some improvements are now promised.

Sheridan also complains that the main stairs is difficult to find, at least for the uninitiated. But the architect points out that it’s located directly opposite the double-cantilevered staircase that rises from the Jura limestone floor of the atrium. This staircase, clad in black-stained ash, is a structural tour de force; engineers DBFL made it stand up.

During the Lillis trial, so many people wanted seats in Court 19 that there was unseemly “January Sales” congestion at the door every morning. “This was inevitable with all the media hype,” McGovern says. “But there is a court overflow room from which the proceedings in ‘sensational cases’ can be viewed by video link.” The 22 courtrooms, arranged in vertical stacks with segregated circulation routes between them, are calm, light-filled spaces with much use of walnut to convey an air of dignity.

An L-shaped screen at each custodial entrance was designed to prevent drugs being passed to prisoners by relatives or friends.

The judges, some of whom insisted on red carpets for courts rather than blue (the architects’ choice), have their own rooms on the top floor, with access to a small roof terrace planted with silver birch and pampas grass. Their lounge area has air of a gentlemen’s club. There are superb views from this level over the city, including the dome of the Four Courts.

THE “LEGAL TRIANGLE” it formed with the King’s Inn’s on Constitution Hill and the Law Society in Blackhall Place has now been broken by the new courts complex – although it is conveniently located to the Luas line at Heuston. The Courts Service and everyone involved in this €120 million project, particularly the architects, are entitled to feel chuffed. And now that the criminal courts have all relocated to Parkgate Street, the Courts Service must surely consider reopening the front door of the Four Courts, giving everyone direct access to its Round Hall once again.

Architecture by numbers

THE NEW Criminal Courts of Justice has 11 floors and contains more than 450 rooms, including 22 courts, on a site of almost 2.5 acres.

In the 18th century, the site was part of James Gandon’s Royal Military Infirmary, now occupied by the Department of Defence.

The circular building has a diameter of 75m, and its Great Hall measures some 40m, which is twice as wide as the Four Courts’ Round Hall.

About 25,000 cb m of concrete went into its construction and the bulding has 12,000 sq m of glazing.

Completed in 31 months, the building has 250 flights of stairs and 27 lifts, including several reserved for judges and jurors.

Frank McDonald
Irish Times


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