• In the dock: the Square Mile’s new courthouse

    Eric Parry Architects is to design a new civil and criminal courthouse and police station in the City of London. Located on the south side of Fleet Street opposite the former Daily Telegraph building, it will open in 2025. Although handling the routine caseload expected of any court, the new complex is being promoted as specialising in financial and cyber crime and helping to keep the City a “secure place to conduct business”. Any courthouse is a uniquely challenging architectural job; how might the special requirements of creating one for the Square Mile be met?

    The complex (un-named as yet though ‘City of London Justice Centre’ suggests itself) will contain 18 courtrooms and replace the Mayor’s and City of London County Court at Guildhall Buildings, Basinghall Street and the City of London Magistrates’ Court in Queen Victoria Street, both historic structures. A footnote to a recent consultation document on wider court estate changes stated that the new building will contain “additional Crown Court capacity”. And there will also be a new City of London police station, presumably in addition to the City force’s current, 20th century, stations in Bishopsgate, Snow Hill and Wood Street.

    The conjunction is unusual. Courthouses in England & Wales are generally built to serve a single function – magistrates’, crown or county. The latter two were occasionally joined together as ‘combined courts’ in the 1980s and 90s since both types had long been administered by the Civil Service, but the commissioning, staffing and operation of magistrates’ courts remained independent of government – taking place under the auspices of local magistrates’ courts committees – until as recently as 2005. The creation of Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), a Civil Service agency, in that year ended this split and, along with subsequent moves need to cut costs, has seen more court buildings converted or designed from scratch to serve multiple case types. Co-locating a courthouse with a police station remains very rare, however, and this will be the first example in London since Lavender Hill Police Station and South Western Magistrates’ Court opened in 1963.

    In a range of ways, then, the new complex speaks to the very specialised nature of the City of London, and this will be reflected in its organisational structure. As with the Central Criminal Court (“the Old Bailey”) and the existing City magistrates’ court, the Corporation of London will own the freehold but HMCTS will run the building. The budget for the project is reported as being comparable to the Rolls Building on Fetter Lane, a new home for a arrange of commercial and other civil courts, which cost around £250-300m when completed in 2011. How that cost was split between the corporation and HMCTS is not known.

    HMCTS has been redefining the standards for future court building design but publication of an updated Courts and Tribunals Design Guide is well overdue. The current version is not available to the public either, although it used to be. Nothing has been released by either the client or Eric Parry Architects to indicate even their initial thinking.

    Nevertheless, we can make some informed guesses about the likely form of the building based on careful examination of the current legal landscape and its architecture. First, what will it contain?

    HMCTS’s ongoing digitisation of both criminal and civil jurisdictions means that thousands of cases and applications are now dealt with entirely online or via ‘hearings’ that actually take place in chambers with no parties present. The aim is for “more opportunities to settle disputes – and to progress cases – that do not depend on travelling and physically attending court”. But hearing rooms, office space (though not, perhaps, as much as before, since centralised Court and Tribunal Service Centres are starting to handle back-office tasks) and cells will still be needed for the courthouse element. They will be connected by the strictly segregated circulation routes for staff, judges, prisoners, witnesses – especially where vulnerable – and the public that are the unique feature of such a building.

    Compared to older premises much larger public entrance lobbies and waiting areas are now common. These also house far more facilities than was the case historically, such as cafés, accessible toilets, faith rooms and spaces for supportive agencies. An original and robust solution to the need for temporary information that dispenses with the usual accumulation of flyers, posters and impromptu notices tacked to a pinboard or imprisoned, fading, behind glass cases would be welcome. Public charging points for mobile devices might also be seen, and at a basic level many more power and data outlets will be needed throughout any new building.

    Information technology provision within courts has massively increased in recent years, again in public areas but also as an inherent part of the criminal justice process. Projecting this trend forward five years should see the City building equipped with display screens and other types of dynamic signage, wi-fi and 5G signals, cordless telephony for staff (already present to a degree) and video-link or conferencing systems closer to the kind of experience marketed by Cisco to private companies as ‘telepresence’. By the time the new building opens, the very cautious relaxation of the prohibition on filming inside courthouses that has seen UK Supreme Court proceedings and some Scottish deliberations televised may have continued to the point where at least minimal facilities for broadcast media might have to be anticipated. All of this, along with the recognition of past failures and the rapid obsolescence of technology, would prompt a plea for much-improved methods of accessing, maintaining, repairing and replacing such equipment, this last activity occurring much more frequently than in the past.

    Where courtrooms are encountered, wood panelling, the royal crest and raised or at least physically divided seating is still common but flexibility of use is now being recognised as key, such that a room can be used for a jury trial, magistrates’ sitting or a tribunal hearing with no or minimal adjustment. Furniture might thus be moveable, at least in part, and the vertical hierarchy reduced or adjusted.

    Unknown in the current estate, visual, aural and other enhancements to promote the wellbeing of staff, the judiciary and users is surely overdue in this most stress-inducing environment.

    Second, what might it look like? Speaking in July 2018, the Corporation’s Policy Chairman described the new complex as the City’s “second iconic courthouse after the Old Bailey” despite this being months before the architect had even been chosen. Away from press headlines, the actual result will be conditioned as much by the site as it will by the aesthetics of the designer or the particular requirements of a judicial building.

    That site is on a considerable slope and currently occupied by two office buildings that are typical of their type and era. To the north, 68-71 Fleet Street sits on the corner of Whitefriars Street and was bought by the Corporation in late 2018 specifically to enable this project. It is a Post-Modern block of 1986 by the Thomas Saunders Partnership that backs onto Hanging Sword Alley, which runs between Whitefriars Street and Salisbury Court to the east and is here a sizeable courtyard behind the other buildings on Fleet Street. Also overlooking it and stretching downhill to the south is the Modernist Fleetbank House, finished in 1975 and by C. Edmund Wilford & Sons. This is a large, roughly T-shaped block finished in glass and granite with a spine rising to a dozen or so storeys but arms that are much lower. These are also set back from the edge of the plot, which tapers to a point where a further, stepped passageway leads through the building and down to Primrose Hill (or, in the other direction, up into Salisbury Square, a quiet public space to the east that is linked to Hanging Sword Alley by walking under another wing of Fleetbank House).

    Since 68-71 Fleet Street and Fleetbank House do not actually touch and are divided on Whitefriars Street by other buildings that are not part of the scheme, it must be assumed that the majority of Hanging Sword Alley will be built over to form a contiguous plot albeit with public access retained by means of a tunnel through the new building. There are several recent precedents for this, in the immediate vicinity and elsewhere in the City, whilst Lutyens’ acclaimed former Reuters building on the other side of Salisbury Court shows the ease with which this task was accomplished almost a century ago in the hands of an exceptional architect.

    The southern passageway might also survive, although a more generous gesture here – and a fitting one for a civic building – would be to not rebuild the short ‘arm’ of Fleetbank House under which this alley passes at all, and instead landscape the connection between the Square and Primrose Hill. There is, again, a precedent in Foster + Partners’ work at 10 Gresham Street, where the new building was separated from its neighbour for the first time and a new alley created. These points aside, the overall massing across much of the plot is very likely to increase, subject to rights of light for neighbouring buildings and the St Paul’s Heights rules.

    Security will obviously be paramount, although this is to an extent at odds with the need for openness. The City’s experience of major terrorist bombs is, thankfully, a generation past, but more recent events in London and elsewhere have their effect on the design of buildings and even their surroundings.

    The relatively tight urban street grid of Fleet Street will probably preclude any narrowing of the two roads bordering the site (the better to keep vehicles away), although the Square Mile’s now-mature ‘Ring of Steel’ network of CCTV and associated physical restrictions to entry will form the first line of defence. Closer to, government advice is that “structurally enhanced bus shelters, lamp columns, benches or cycle racks” should be used to prevent a “penetrative (ramming) or close proximity (parked or encroachment)” attack. We can thus expect an unbroken line of bollards to be installed along the kerb line of Fleet Street at least, and the growth on the City’s streets of reinforced barriers disguised as planters may also continue.

    Underground car parks have been prohibited in courthouse design for several decades, although the City discourages all except bicycle parking in new developments in any event. A secure van dock where custody prisoners are received will certainly be needed; it is highly likely that this will be shared with the police station and located on Whitefriars Street, where the current loading bay for Fleetbank House can be found (the police station entrance could also fit here but might be more appropriate for Salisbury Square).

    Setting the main courthouse entrance back from the street a little would provide another useful ‘stand-off’ as well as some civic presence, especially if a corner entrance can be contrived. Inside, an atrium – a feature once synonymous with only commercial architecture – is now to be expected, with enough space before access to the building proper for the necessary security screening of visitors to take place. This is a common failing with even quite new city-centre magistrates’ courts, where large queues, inadequate, temporary facilities and the risk of ‘false negatives’ can often be encountered.

    Eric Parry’s practice has worked extensively in the City of London and the wider capital, with the new Hall for the Leathersellers Livery Company, 5 Aldermanbury Square on London Wall and 30 Finsbury Square (technically in Islington) notable in recent years. Forthcoming is 1 Undershaft, if built to become the second tallest building in London. Though lacking an obviously identifiable style, many of its buildings have featured a single material and a fairly simple envelope. Most are visually quiet though there are occasional moments of unexpected boldness, such as the polychromic cornice of One Eagle Place in Piccadilly or the Deconstructivist roofscape at 10 Fenchurch Avenue in the Square Mile.

    Even without this preference for reticence, the very nature of the job will probably preclude anything audacious. Whilst some of the country’s newer courthouses, such as the drum-shaped Cambridge Crown Court (Austin-Smith:Lord, 2004) or Manchester Civil Justice Centre (Denton Corker Marshall, 2007) with its ‘open drawer’ glass façade are striking, the majority are bland, awkward exercises in value engineering and mock-Classicising grandeur – in London Stratford Magistrates’ Court (Roughton & Partners, 1994) epitomises this problem. More useful as a possible pattern is the capital’s Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Marylebone Road (Hurd Rolland Partnership, 2011), which by chance compares well to the new City project by programme. Its successes and failures might also prove instructive.

    Also positioned on an urban corner site with sizable planning constraints to consider, it was, too, required to contain not only multiple hearing rooms and related facilities but also ancillary accommodation for other criminal justice purposes. The result is that its densely-packed bulk gives rise to sometimes clumsy back-of-house spaces and often complex circulation. The solidly elegant hearing rooms reflect increased public expectations in this area and the waiting areas are bright, but the restless main façade, for all its attempts at civic dignity, appears to strain at the seams.

    So it may be silence in court for now on Fleet Street, but in a few years’ time such a visible civic project as this is unlikely to require much deliberation before the verdict is pronounced.

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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.

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