• Court short?

    Eighteen months ago the Corporation of London chose Eric Parry Architects for its new courthouse and police building, then due to open in 2025; I analysed the proposals as they then stood and made some predictions. Last Wednesday the Corporation opened public consultation on an indicative masterplan for the scheme, which it refers to as the Fleet Street Estate project although just nine days earlier development partner and end user HM Courts and Tribunal Service announced that the complex would be called the City of London Law Courts – a name which does not appear anywhere in the Corporation’s material. It’s a small point of divergence but one which signals larger contradictions…

    My main predictions have proved correct. The courthouse will indeed front Fleet Street, the police building will be entered from Whitefriars Street, a single van dock will be used by both (they will share “a security controlled basement, building servicing and core to create efficiencies through the build process and in the day-to-day running”) and the southern portion of the site below Salisbury Square will be landscaped. True, I was wrong to assume that Hanging Sword Alley to the north west would be built over to form a contiguous plot, albeit with public access maintained via a passageway, but only because it has now been confirmed that the courthouse and police station will be massed as two separate structures with the alley developed as an east-west route. Only one of the City’s existing police stations, Bishopsgate, will remain in use alongside the new building, and I still prefer ‘Justice Centre’ as a name (as indeed did HMCTS recently in Leamington, and its Scottish equivalent in Inverness).

    The real news is the revelation that a third major component has been added to the scheme – a commercial block, to be placed at the south end of the site. Primarily housing offices, its ground floor uses “could include” shops, cafés and bars, though the actual tenants “will be carefully curated so as not to impact the integrity, safety or security of the new CoLP headquarters or court facilities.” Money would appear to be the reason for this significant change, as “The project will be funded by the City of London Corporation in part by the disposal of the existing court and police facilities, and in part by the provision of [the] new commercial space”.

    The consultation material confirms the site as comprising the entire triangle of land bounded by Fleet Street, Salisbury Court and Salisbury Square, Primrose Hill and Whitefriars Street; a re-reading of an HMCTS intranet post from February 2019 makes it clear that the Corporation’s purchase of 68-71 Fleet Street that year was the final part of the Fleet Street portion rather than – as I understood at the time – the only part. As far as the buildings within it are concerned, my assumption is that all will be demolished and in preparation five-year certificates of immunity preventing ‘listing’ for architectural interest took effect for every one of them the same day the consultation opened. The sole exception – though it is still pictured in the consultation’s 'History' section alongside some of the other buildings – is the already Grade II-listed 2-7 Salisbury Court (in practice, numbers 2-3 and 5) of 1878; an application for listed building consent would be required to demolish it.

    In seeking to justify the loss of these buildings, the consultation uses misleading language in places. Two passages summarise the current site as being “quite closed off with no real connections through, with blank walls and no quality public space”, and say that it features “blank walled office buildings creating a dark environment”, “physical barriers” and “no opportunity to walk through or appreciate the location and surroundings.” Fleetbank House, it claims, “dominates and creates a barrier from St Bride’s Church and Salisbury Square, making it difficult to walk through or appreciate the location and surroundings” and “There is a lack of active frontages facing onto Hanging Sword Alley”.

    Those descriptions, along with that of the site as “impermeable with a large 1970s office block cutting off pedestrian movement” in the accompanying press release, are either plain wrong or disingenuous.

    As I mentioned in my earlier post, the entire triangle is emphatically permeable, with Hanging Sword Alley – actually a large courtyard for most of its length – entering from the west and then turning south, Hood Court cutting through the Fleet Street building line to join it and a set of steps linking Salisbury Square to and from Primrose Hill. All of these pass through or under the buildings, interweaving paths and architecture in line with the City’s well-known tradition. Similarly, Hanging Sword Alley is typical of most of the Square Mile’s other alleys so would not be expected to have public doorways or windows along it. This kind of phrasing, whilst sadly endemic in property development, is disappointing to find in such a prestige scheme, especially when used by the party that will be approving it.

    Nevertheless we are promised that the process of realigning Hanging Sword Alley will be responsible for “revealing magnificent views of the St Bride’s Church spire“ emerging above Lutyens’ superb Reuters building to the east of Salisbury Court, although it will be interesting to see whether the drawing of this – one of only two illustrations showing the new buildings included in the consultation pack – will match the formal verified view imagery required for a planning application. Salisbury Square will be remodelled as “a new public green”, and there will be an “opportunity to create” (note the caution) roof terraces on all three buildings.

    There are official design standards for each of these: the Court and Tribunal Design Guide (finally published by HMCTS a few months after my earlier post), the Police Building Design Guide from the Home Office and the Best Practice Guides of the British Council for Offices. These represent the latest client thinking, but of course the project is moving forward at a remarkable time, post-Brexit and during a pandemic. The consultation admits as much, yet mentions Covid-19 only in the context of a lack of face-to-face consultation in this round and a generalised need to ensure that “the UK invests in its future” in the wake of the virus. Both feel like last-minute insertions and neither addresses the wider questions the situation raises.

    Whether the rationale for a commercial block still holds at a time when physical retail and consolidated office space are at the very least being reconsidered must surely be one of those, not least given the near-ten-year timeline of the project when conception is considered. The other might be why a large courthouse is needed at all. Since March HMCTS has rapidly accelerated its use of remote technologies in the civil and criminal jurisdictions, both of which will be accommodated at Fleet Street. Digital adjudications – some might call them ‘decisions’ when shorn of the elaborate formality that normally surrounds them – are made outside of a courtroom environment, exist only in the electronic realm and have even been conducted with the magistrate and legal advisor in their own homes recently. There have also been more court sessions where parties join in sound and vision instead of in person. Overall, the organisation is taking “urgent steps to increase the capacity of our existing systems, to introduce new capabilities, and to provide guidance to our staff on organising telephone and video-enabled hearings”. This is despite concerns expressed by some over the effectiveness of such solutions when considered for judicial outcome (as opposed to simple efficiency) and others wondering if the right problem has been identified in the first place.

    It is also worth noting that the additional Crown Court capacity planned for the new court in 2019 is not mentioned in the new material and the design guide itself is explicit on provision for significant video link use, with even small rooms normally used only for brief periods to be designed to “enable advocates to use the booths in the future to attend hearings virtually”. Thus with HMCTS showing every sign of widening the range of cases heard by these new routes, continuing the closure of courthouses and opening back-office service centres in more economic parts of the country, in five years’ time a large, specialised building in one of Europe’s most expensive cities may not seem as sensible an investment as it does today. In the meantime, perhaps robust cyber security should be added to the specification as well as physical resilience, and it is surely not being flip to suggest this should extend to the architect and contractors given Building Information Modelling (BIM), a live, digital 3D model for the planning, design, construction and operation of buildings, is mandatory for public projects in the UK.

    What, then, of the architecture? EPA has not designed comparable criminal justice buildings before, though it has extensive experience in the commercial and wider public sector. Building outlines shown in the ‘Emerging masterplan’ slide do though appear to be of the future scheme. The courthouse is a rectangle paralleling Fleet Street, symmetrical about an atrium whose southern wall includes a wide bay of some kind. The plans of neither the police nor office buildings, though, can be determined in any detail beyond broad block shapes. Internally there will be little room for flair within the tight prescriptions of the site and the design guides, in the courthouse especially. The principal architectural decision there, responsible for shaping the entire building, is how to orientate the sandwich of public area/courtrooms/private area. Several standard layouts exist, the choice often driven by the size and shape of the site and the maximum permissible height. Though represented diagrammatically in the guide, along with the associated flows necessary for the segregation of parties, cross sections that bring these together to indicate actual design options have been redacted from the document.

    There is an architectural dilemma involved when determining the appearance of a courthouse – and, for that matter, a police station: transparency versus solidity. The Corporation terms the Law Courts a “new civic hub”, and it is the most important public project in the City since the Guildhall Art Gallery opened twenty years ago right next to the seat of government for that body (it is a shame that the current magistrates’ court site further along could not have been utilised for this project, effectively completing the quadrangle around Guildhall Yard). There, stone was used, as it had been for centuries. After 1945 architects from the Gilbert Scott dynasty worked to ensure this and brought a consistency of style within that family’s distinctive interpretation of Modernism when designing for the Corporation over two generations. At Fleet Street, though, we are told that the materials used “will provide each of the three buildings a sense of their own identity, taking inspiration from the surrounding streets and the wider city”.

    That EPA has been selected makes sense in this regard; the practice deploys a sometimes surprising variety of finishes in its work, from load-bearing stone to glazed ceramic to steel. The consultation shows this with two photographs of completed EPA buildings and mentions “expressed weathered steel and a variety of stone façades” as the materials to be employed at Fleet Street. That first sketch seems to agree. On the left stands the rear of the courthouse, with what from this angle seems to be a full-height bay window containing a spiral staircase (and perhaps with an openwork top) that is flanked by boxed-out oriels; both features might be assumed to be of stone. To the right is the side of the police building, the façade here seemingly of unclad steel. The other sketch, looking west along Fleet Street, gives a few more clues. It shows a courthouse that follows the massing, set-backs and cornice lines of Reuters and whose elevational treatment appears to include two double-height upper storeys, almost certainly those housing the court rooms.

    New criminal justice buildings around the world are offered up in the pack as examples of what is happening elsewhere, though once again the material is somewhat inconsistent. All of the buildings shown feature extensive glazing despite the points referred to above, and Singapore, which practises capital and corporal punishment, is included but the United States, which builds many new courthouses, is not.

    So, the City of London Law Courts is not an open and shut case. There is a long way to go. The current consultation period will be followed by another, each informing discussions with planners and clients before a formal application is lodged this winter. If the process that yielded Westminster Magistrates’ Court is any guide, this is likely to be iterative and difficult and will invariably involve compromises. As someone with a foot in more than one camp and experience of that building, I only hope more of those are headed off early or at least acknowledged before business begins at Fleet Street, this now intended for 2026.

    Find the consultation materials and response portal here.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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