February 2008

Arts & Letters

Northern light

By Deyan Sudjic
Denton Corker Marshall’s Manchester Civil Justice Centre

The idea that courtrooms should have distinctive architecture has been remarkably persistent in almost every culture since at least the days of George Edmund Street's Gothic court complex in London. It is a way to celebrate the state, as Mussolini's architects did in Milan and Naples in the fascist period (though without putting much store in an independent judiciary). Le Corbusier acknowledged the central position of the law when he laid out the master plan for Chandigarh. More recently, the French court system has employed both Jean Nouvel and Richard Rogers, to reflect contemporary France. In the US, Richard Meier and Thom Mayne have designed substantial court buildings - a nod to the state's obligation to be a patron of the contemporary. In comparison to the museum-building mania of many nations, which provides a near-complete record of the architectural preoccupations of our times, contemporary law courts are less an architectural archetype. But they nevertheless constitute a recognisable and very significant strand of development.

The distinctiveness of the buildings' exterior need not take the form of a classical plinth, accessed by steps, with an entrance topped by a Doric portico, to ram home the point that justice is on a higher plane. (In Johannesburg, for example, the new Constitutional Court of South Africa, built on the site of an apartheid-era prison, celebrates the notion of accessibility and informality but architecturally is just as much a special place as the uncanny darkness of Jean Nouvel's court buildings in Nantes.) Less clear-cut is the treatment of courtrooms themselves. We may want to put ourselves in a special frame of mind about the building in which justice is seen to be done, but once inside we become squeamish about symbolising hierarchy at close quarters. Too many architectural tricks threaten to turn a judge into a priest celebrating a ritual, and we get uncomfortable. So much of the legal process now is carefully stage-managed to remove the intimidating aspects of justice for ordinary citizens, and courtroom interiors are expected to aid in the demystification of the system. Much of commercial law, meanwhile, is conducted more in the manner of an academic seminar than an out-take from 12 Angry Men.

Manchester's Civil Justice Centre is sensitive to these currents. It shoots up over the River Irwell like a fireworks display, soaring above Spinningfields. The main entrance takes the form of a dizzying cascade of gravity-defying glass boxes that dazzle and glitter above the banal relics of the 1960s and the survivals from the nineteenth century that define the area. They emerge like drawers from a filing cabinet, some pulled out further than others, effectively a kind of canopy over the main entrance. Inside, you are ushered into a slender space that appears to leave you weightless, ready to ascend to the courts and consultation rooms above. But the courts themselves are comfortable and entirely unthreatening.

The Civil Justice Centre, an ant hill of 45 courtrooms stacked one above the other, is the product of Britain's continuing guilt - also present in media, culture, finance and transport - about over-centralisation. As London's dominance grows steadily, every so often a national organisation is summarily dispatched to a new out-of-London headquarters, a phenomenon which most employees regard as little better than convict transportation. The British Council was moved to Manchester; the BBC keeps promising to ship jobs to neighbouring Salford. An overstretched legal system opted for a new justice complex in the city to ease the pressure of overcrowding elsewhere, and to allow civil cases to be heard in a modern setting.

The sheer scale of the centre is a reminder of the production line that the law has become. But the image of the building completely undercuts any sense that this is a place of bureaucratic routine. The profile is as slender as a sheet of paper, presenting a blade-thin narrow end, in which the main entrance is located, while its two long elevations have the character of giant flat screens. And yet, the building does have depth. Once inside, you discover an atrium that rises the whole height of the building and that entirely lives up to the dramatic quality of the exterior. And in the way its elements are brought together, there is the precision of jewellery that characterises much of the work of the Australian firm Denton Corker Marshall.

The court complex, like its location, was the product of a fashionable preoccupation: private-sector finance for public-sector projects. In all, it's a combination of civic pride, urban ambition and pragmatism which reflects contemporary Manchester. It is the work of an architectural practice that has its roots on the other side of the world, in Melbourne - a city which, unlike Manchester, has a striking clarity, with its grid structure, its defining river and harbour, and its abundance of civic landmarks. Denton Corker Marshall have brought this sense of precision and clarity with them. Its not that they have built an Australian building, but rather that they have built something that has a freshness which seems both familiar and exotic in the British context.

This readiness to import architecture is a specifically Mancunian characteristic. Despite many handsome individual buildings, the city does not possess the architectural legacy of Glasgow, Barcelona or Chicago, cities which saw distinctive architectural schools appear as they went through their most explosive periods of growth. Manchester is Britain's second city, but that never stopped it from wanting to dress up as if it were its first (which meant building its own - somewhat stunted, it must be confessed - skyscrapers). It was the place where Rolls met Royce. It was where the Hallé orchestra was established. It was where Britain's radical-newspaper tradition was born; the Guardian used to be known as the Manchester Guardian before it transferred south.

And that transfer just about sums it up. The second half of the twentieth century was not kind to Manchester. From a proud independence of spirit, it declined into a defensive provincialism as its mills closed and its home-grown industries dwindled. Yet Manchester has a convincing claim to being called the world's first industrial city, and maybe even the first modern metropolis. For a time, its population doubled and redoubled with every succeeding generation, a forerunner of Shanghai or Mumbai.

Manchester's revival as a post-industrial city began with a subterranean eruption of music and drug culture, encapsulated in the Hacienda nightclub in its 1980s heyday. Urban renewal then followed a well-worn pattern. Investment in culture brought a new concert hall and a new convention centre. The city developed a gay village, built trams and (somewhat self-consciously) invented a loft district. It acquired a Calatrava bridge; and in its twin city of Salford, Daniel Libeskind built the Imperial War Museum's northern outpost, and James Stirling lived just long enough to contribute some initial sketches to the concert-hall complex of his partner, Michael Wilford. Manchester sprouted a new crop of glass towers, and even a central square landscaped by Tadao Ando.

The impossibly narrow cross-section of the Civil Justice Centre, the latest symbol of Manchester's renewal, has a glass wall attached to one side that provides the monumental quality necessary for so important an institution. It is an elongated hot dog of a building, with slender sticks of accommodation held within a wrapper, a perforated metal façade that plays off the transparency of the glass boxes which project beyond it. It's a structure that has the precision and sculptural approach to space of Denton Corker Marshall's other work. It has elements that reflect previous projects; the stately quality of the long façade has an echo of the Melbourne Museum, though here, the entrance is in the narrow end wall. Above all, it demonstrates the clarity with which Denton Corker Marshall approach a plan and a section.

Perhaps the sharpest tension in contemporary architecture is between the specific and the universal. As architecture has become a global process, architects have tried ever harder to recapture some sense of the particular. They build their careers on being able to work anywhere, bringing to any situation their signature, which they make universally applicable, even though they realise it is not their universality but their specificity that made them desirable in the first place. Denton Corker Marshall's Australian embassy in Beijing is often described as the first example of an authentic piece of modern architecture to be built in China since Mao declared the People's Republic. The Manchester court building exists in a very different context, not least because it was a construction brigade of the People's Liberation Army who built the embassy, painfully slowly, rather than a private contractor. And there have been other structures in and around Manchester built in recent years that demonstrate architectural ambition.

Yet this building is in the centre of the city, and it offers not a provincial reflection of a distant metropolitan original but a sophisticated, confident model for what a contemporary and urbane public institution can be. It has surprised Manchester - it is, the city's movers and shakers tell you, the best new building in the city. And they are right to say that. It does a lot of difficult things all at the same time, and makes it look effortless. It's a delicately crafted structure with an unmistakeable profile, and it presses us to think about the nature of courtrooms and civic landmarks.

Deyan Sudjic

Deyan Sudjic is a critic, curator and a former director of the Venice Architecture Biennale. His most recent book, Stalin’s Architect, was shortlisted for the Pushkin House Book Prize.

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