Review Paolo Tombesi
Photography Tim Griffith, Daniel Hopkinson
I have long been convinced that the true function of large public buildings is to give governments the opportunity to prove their capacity to invest in the future. Institutional projects are ideally placed to function as effective innovation test beds within an industry – construction – otherwise known for its physiological resistance to change.
The reason is twofold. On the one hand, public structures are supposed to exist beyond short-term profit motives, private party interests, real estate transactions and market competition strategies. On the other, their promoting agencies have no interest in securing market advantages through innovation, and should rather be concerned with the broadest dissemination of the solutions developed. All this ought to put such buildings in a position to act as catalysts of change by pursuing the basic, non-proprietary innovation work unlikely to maximize return immediately and then to be undertaken by commercial entrepreneurs.
But using public buildings for industrial and environmental research is difficult. Whenever possible, public administrations are keen to portray themselves as guardians of fiscal efficiency, rather than patrons of unbridled (or simply intelligent) experimentation. The control of current expenditure is easier to convey than the future, but uncertain, value of the investment, particularly when the profile of the project draws public attention and threatens to become the object of political mileage. In their monumental connotation, public buildings are good as spatial tributes to ideal institutions, but risky as concrete reminders of actual ones.
This is why an experience like that of the new Manchester Civil Justice Centre – designed by Denton Corker Marshall as the result of a limited competition and recently completed in Spinningfields, an urban regeneration area along the River Irwell – is significant and should be considered carefully. Commissioned and programmed as the largest judicial complex built in the UK since the Royal Courts of Justice in London (1873–1882), the civil courts provide an example of how a single project supported by political will can set an important precedent for typological and technological change.
As with most Denton Corker Marshall buildings, the architectural image of the centre is produced by the arresting juxtaposition of simple abstract volumes: 34,000 square metres of courtrooms (47), consultation spaces (75), offices and support areas have been accommodated within a series of giant, Lego-like blocks dramatically stacked on top of one another along the north–south axis of the site for thirteen levels. To the west, these large glazed rectilinear volumes project off the line of a solid metal-clad spine wall containing vertical circulation and services; to the east, they are partially screened by a perforated steel plane. The main horizontal circulation through the public part of the building is attached to the vertical plate of the spine wall in the form of concourses serving each court level. These wide street decks are contained within a transparent full-height atrium, and are punctuated by meeting rooms and waiting areas suspended in the space.
In the architects’ words, the form and layout of the building are highly symbolic of its programme, which was conceived in layers. The vertical extrusion of the ground floor foyer encased by transparent glass represents the public domain; as such, it seeks to transmit a sense of expansiveness and connection to the community outside the building rather than one of enclosure and containment. By contrast, as the Civil Justice Centre’s reason for being, the working courts and offices should constitute the substantive, self-defining part of the complex. Hence, they occupy its core, achieving visibility and celebrating their presence through the sculptural artifice of the cantilever glass fingers. The judicial layer, housing the offices of the judges on the eastern side, holds the courts in place and provides support to the “veil” of plate-like steel panels that represents the exercise of the law in opposition to the openness of the public face of the atrium. The overall clarity of this element from afar combines, close-up, with an apparently intricate yet consistent responsiveness of its individual components to specific conditions. As with the legal system, laws are clear although not simple.
Simple or not, the urban image created by the new Civil Justice Centre is memorable. Its freestanding occupation of the site and search for abstraction enhance one’s perception of the volume of the Centre in a landscape of regularly fenestrated boxes. But, paradoxically, what makes the building stand out in this discussion is the successful degree of integration between rhetoric and use. The socio-sculptural narrative of the programme, a Denton Corker Marshall trademark, provides support to ambitiously innovative environmental design strategies that render the project unique in its combining of architectural semantics, passive control devices and operational patterns. The marriage of sculpture and technology generates a kind of new environmental sachlichkeit, expressed in a building that functions like a well-thought-out machine rather than trying to look like one.
In fact, the layered organization of the programme produces a vertical section that can make extensive (although undeclared) use of natural ventilation chimneys as a major component of a mixed mode strategy for the building. Natural light is also used extensively across the floor plate, entering its innermost areas through a clerestory system of light air ducts and light shelves. As a result, the courtroom spaces at the centre of the tribunal are programmatically buffered and environmentally open. Circulation paths are properly divided functionally, yet remain clear for every user group without becoming dark labyrinths; orientation does not constitute a problem; and the civic-ness of the judicial gatherings is not diminished by fluorescent lighting and airconditioning.
Out of all this comes a highly original building in features and deeds that, institution notwithstanding, is surprisingly urbane, relaxed and humane in its experiential unfolding, particularly when considering the strength of its otherwise heroic image. The cultivated integration of form and function bestows dignity to every part of the programme. Unlike what happens in many institutional or bureaucratic settings, here there are no fronts and backs, ceremonial and ancillary spaces. The materials, vintage Denton Corker Marshall, are rendered gentler by the careful modulation of the surfaces and the attention paid, even at this scale, to the use of the spaces rather than just the appearance of the building. The huge continuous glazed facade of the public side, for example, does little to celebrate corporate sleek; rather, it gives shape to alternative patterns of consumption within buildings, and, indirectly, monumentalizes architecture’s ability to move beyond conventions.
This is all worth noting in the context of Spinningfields, an office-led project-financing venture developed by Allied London Properties in partnership with the City of Manchester. Looking at Denton Corker Marshall’s Civil Justice Centre, PPPs acquire a benign, if not enticing, connotation as enablers of significant innovation and built architectural quality. Here, of course, the review enters a territory that is both delicate and bizarre, particularly in light of John Denton’s role as Government Architect of Victoria. Denton Corker Marshall contends that project financing worked well in this case due to the ideological support provided to the design by the client, Her Majesty’s Court Service, significantly named “project instigator” in the official press releases, which defined and stood behind the iconic and environmental aims of the project from the very outset. Explicitly supported in their design quest by the original brief, the architects were allowed to reach 80 percent completion of their documentation before letting the PPP contract, and this meant fixing the terms of the design in ways that removed uncertainty from the process and made it difficult to change it later on.
Yet it is curious to note how, within the precinct, the Civil Justice Centre is so far the only building that seems to have risen to the architectural occasion allegedly provided by the master plan and the PPP instrument. All the other structures designed for the area, some by very famous international offices, appear to conform to lesser intellectual ambitions and yield corresponding results. As one advertising brochure for a nearby office building recites, “The quality is to be found in the characteristically flawless detailing of the facade …”
I don’t know whether the 80 percent rule applied to every development; but this, in my opinion, suggests both the interest and the difficulty of generalizing on PPP procedures on the basis of projects such as the Civil Justice Centre. The law courts may have been the indirectly privileged child of a larger scale entente, intelligently negotiated by government, which concentrated financial feasibility on commercial structures while assigning other structures the task of producing the architectural capital required to generate civic pride, establish collective identity and advance the building industry by creating the opportunity for genuine applied research. While this takes nothing away from the remarkable work by Denton Corker Marshall, who read the context properly, it shows that public partners have an active cultural role to perform in this type of urban development. The integration of commercial and community interests cannot be played exclusively to the familiar tones of financial savings and risk management. It invites architectural discernment and requires the ability to distinguish between costs, investments and benefits.
Paolo Tombesi is associate professor of architecture at the University of Melbourne.
MANCHESTER CIVIL JUSTICE CENTRE, UNITED KINGDOM
Denton Corker Marshall.
Structural and services consultant
Gardiner and Theobald.
Bovis Lend Lease.
Allied London Properties.