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Design and Image

Symbolism and functionality are both important in courthouse design. Societies have historically used architecture to express values and concepts about their place in the world. This is particularly evident in the organization and design of the courtroom.
  • The design should fit the site and the setting and be compatible with the surrounding context.
  • The design should address the programmatic requirements in a way that clearly responds to and promotes the intended uses.
  • Building circulation should be clearly defined and reflect a hierarchy of spaces.
  • The image conveyed should reflect a sense of the importance of the judicial process and the values of the judicial system.
  • The quality of space should be expressed consistently through form and mass at all levels of detail.
  • Building technology and systems should be integrated with the overall design.
  • Space and materials should be used efficiently so that the project is cost effective.
  • The design should have the flexibility to change with the changing needs of the courts.

In courtroom layout, the communication of social and judicial values should be given equal weight to the design’s functionality.

Be aware of the values imposed by style and fashion. Fashion reflects a passing fancy, and style provides a reference. But design excellence transcends both through the evaluation of the basic criteria of proportion, balance and rhythm of form, and the color and texture of materials, as well as the images and meaning they provoke.

The appearance and ambiance of the courtroom should be restrained and dignified. Finishes should express the solemnity of the proceedings, yet not be too dark and overbearing. A mixture of light and dark woods, along with fabric in the rear of the courtroom, is appropriate in many instances.

Allen County Courthouse, Fort Wayne, Indiana

Riverside County Courthouse, Riverside, California, circa 1910

The early American courthouse often was a dominant institution within the community. Architecturally, the Palladian influence can be seen in many courthouses: symmetry, order, and central location within the town square were all important. Classical Greek pediments were common, and the use of the rotundas and domes attempted to create a central place. The courthouse became not only a powerful place within the community but also a visual reference to people approaching the town, often dominating the town's skyline. The building became more than the hall of justice; it was the anchor of the commercial activities that brought people together. The most important days were the days in which the court was in session.

The ways in which design and image relate to both the objective and the subjective evaluation of a facility project must be understood for the project to be successful. Goals for the design and image of the courthouse should be developed by the architect, users, and owner. They should be stated at the beginning and evaluated throughout the development of the project and should address both the objective and subjective qualities of the facility.

Excellence from a judge's point of view will be different from that of an administrator, lawyer, defendant, or spectator, yet within this broad range of perceived excellence there are common factors. For a project to be successful, the needs and views of all participants must be considered and somehow accommodated.

The formal arrangement of the participants and furniture reflects society's view of the appropriate relationships between the defendant and judicial authority, or in a civil case, of the relationship between the parties. Historically, the American courthouse has achieved identity through its size, site, and specific architectural elements, such as columns, domes, clock towers, and grand entrances. This special identity has remained remarkably consistent in the United States since colonial times, regardless of architectural idiom.

More Planning Considerations:

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Design and Image
Needs of Persons
with Disabilities
and Circulation