Creating a viable modern space

Supreme Court of the United Kingdom

Conserving history while modernising 

Civic & Cultural

 

 

The Brief

The challenge for the conservation architects, Feilden & Mawson, was how to give this building another hundred-year life expectancy and turn it into a viable modern space.

One of the main differences between an appellate and a criminal court is the collegiate nature of the legal debate - the trials are not adversarial, revolving on interpretations of the law rather than the presentation and disputation of evidence. This makes a huge difference to the relationship between the justices and the advocates. How this is handled ultimately comes down to the design of the furniture.

Our involvement came as a result of designing the prize-winning library for the Supreme Court in Edinburgh five years earlier.

The furniture scope included three courtrooms, a library, and the justices’ private rooms. Court 1 is the most impressive of the new courts; all the carvings, stained glass and decorative metal-work has been retained, revived and restored but modern desks and shelving have been designed to accommodate up to nine justices. Court 2 is the only completely modern court, seating up to five justices. Court 3 also seats up to five justices, and will be predominantly used for hearing cases submitted to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council from the Commonwealth.

Developing the modern court style

The court furniture was developed with designer Tomoko Azumi. We opted for a visually austere approach for the ‘working’ furniture to stand in contrast to the elaborately decorated historic building. Challenges lay in increasing access for both the public and the press, as well as enabling the intellectual exchange to flow between the various protagonists without compromising the importance of eye-contact and audibility.

Even in a digital age, (and the integration of ICT was another major concern), the importance of oratorical performance in legal communication is still alive and well. Although imposing, the rooms are not large, especially when wheel-chair turning circles are taken into account, and part of the brief was to greatly increase the capacity for both public and press.

Materials were chosen that would take knocks well and patinate gracefully. American black walnut was chosen for the library and Courts 1 & 3 to harmonise with the existing joinery. European oak was chosen for the modern Court 2.

An earlier courtroom, which carried the most impressive decoration in the walls and panelling, once led down to the grim, vaulted prisoners’ cells; it has now been converted into the heart of the building, the library. The floor was removed to create a triple-height space with a spectacular view of the original fan-vaulted ceiling.

Great care was taken to preserve all the original architectural features; the library shelving (housing 35000 volumes) has been constructed without backs to allow the carved panelling to be seen through the bookcases. Indeed, the design of the bookcases has been one of the most challenging aspects of the project in terms of achieving a modern look with a genuine sympathy for the original interior, and even integrating the sprinkler system into the lighting, something the M and E engineers thought could never be achieved.

American black walnut, unstained, was chosen for its warm colour and its admirable capacity for mellowing. The mid-height shelving around the central void has been panelled in walnut, with carved lettering by Richard Kindersley presenting uplifting legal epigrams in a truly artistic way.

Reception

"This is undoubtedly now the most impressive space in the building. The Queen certainly told me she thought so when she officially opened the building on Friday 16 October, 2009." Luke Hughes 

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