The design and art of a courthouse communicates a great deal about the culture and values of the institution contained within it. Last month I had the incredible opportunity to visit the South African Constitutional Court in Johannesburg – an institution that is itself a potent symbol of the country’s attempts to move forward in the aftermath of the apartheid era.
The design of a place of justice cannot repair the harm to South African society that was brought about by apartheid, but it does serve as a symbol of restorative justice – and a deliberate attempt to make all South Africans feel more welcome in a government building. The design was chosen after a public competition, with the winning, young South African architects designing the building inspired by the concept of ‘justice under a tree’. This is reflected in the physical design of the building and pays homage to traditional dispute resolution processes used by the people of South Africa.
The website for the Court explains the way in which the architecture was very deliberately designed to be inclusive as well as symbolic:
The Constitutional Court’s new home was born of a remarkable and uniquely inclusive process – one that resulted in a public building like no other. This structure, South Africa’s first major post-apartheid government building, was designed to embody the openness and transparency called for by the Constitution itself.
The building is noted for its transparency and entrancing volumes. In contrast to most courts, it is welcoming rather than forbidding, filled with sparkle and warmth. It has no marble cladding or wood panelling, but has come to be admired for its graceful proportions. And the principal materials – timber, concrete, steel, glass and black slate – infuse the court with an African feel.
Below are some of my photos with captions describing the architectural and artistic elements of the Court:
I was particularly intrigued by the font. This was specially commissioned for the Court, and designed to be different from the traditional ‘official’ fonts used in government and legal documents. The photo on the left shows the name of the building in all the languages of South Africa.
For an interesting piece on Australian court design, and engaging principles of therapeutic and restorative justice, see this article by Professor Graham Brawn.