Trendspotting Nov/Dec 2007 – Sustaining Family Values


Perhaps we have allowed the phrase ‘family values’ to be taken hostage by single interest groups for too long. For more than a decade this phrase has served as some strange form of a litmus test to anoint political candidates as worthy of public service, enact all types of legislation on who can be united with whom, and determine which household is more appropriate to rear a child.

As a pluralistic society, we need to debate how we can manage different interpretations and applications of family values without becoming discriminatory or capricious. Architecture is a means to that end.

The Academy of Architecture for Justice held the 6th International Conference on Courthouse Design in Brooklyn this year literally surrounded by newly renovated or recently constructed courthouses. The conference theme was “sustainable excellence,” as noble a topic as one might find in a city that represents the best of the American dream. Through more than 20 sessions, ideas and examples of new courthouse design reinforced the important role of the AAJ in framing design solutions for courthouses that embody our value system.

No better example of the intersection of social values and design can be found than in the courthouses dedicated to family law. The administration of justice among family members has become so complex that the fastest growing division within most jurisdictions is family law.

The name family court has been attached to virtually any aspect of the judicial system that addresses the legal needs of the family, from domestic relations to dependency to delinquency to guardianship and beyond. One of the difficulties of sustaining family values in a legal context can be found in the definition of the dimension of family.

The 13-story juvenile courthouse in Miami-Dade County is located at the northern end of an urban greenway.
The acceptance of an aim to sustain family values through family-friendly courthouse design cannot be drawn into a values clarification debate but, rather, to accept that the architect’s role is to interpret the evidence of requirements and provide the type of environment that best addresses the needs of families in conflict.

Participants at the very first International Conference on Courthouse Design in Williamsburg, Va., coined the phrases “temples of justice” and “legal emporia” as definitions of the modern courthouse. The family court is an excellent representation of these descriptions.

The panel at the AIA conference that I had the privilege of chairing focused on case studies of two courthouses dedicated to the adjudication of family conflicts. The design solutions resulted from the requirements of the community, legal, social and functional goals of the two jurisdictions.

Without straying too far from the essence of this article, one of the enduring fascinations that I have with America is that while local communities can, and do, administer justice within the context of their individual culture, the constitutional guarantees that were framed 230 years ago exist to sustain a consistency of legal rights regardless of local biases. This, as is all too apparent from the evening news, does not exist in most parts of the planet earth.

But, back to the examples of sustaining family values through family-friendly courthouses. The two case studies served unintentionally to illustrate the definitional differences of a family courthouse. In the Sacramento County, Calif., example, the award-winning new courthouse is dedicated to juveniles that are only involved in the criminal justice aspect of family law, while the Miami-Dade County, Fla., case study includes juvenile delinquency, dependency and unified family law.

Designers aimed to capture a serious and solemn environment at the Sacramento County Juvenile Courthouse.
The name family court is often applied to any component of the judicial system that addresses the legal needs of the family, but in fact, has been codified through legislation in many states to include and unify the resolution of conflict across all components of the judicial system where a child is involved.

In both instances, the outcome was driven by the translation of values to design concepts by using analytically based evidence to predict the particular needs of the juveniles and families of the communities that the courthouses would serve.

The evidence ranged from identifying at-risk children to dropout rates to filings and petitions by litigation type. Using the evidence of need, the scope of both projects was quantified through the spatial and functional program, which was passed to the architects as the values-driven basis for testing design concepts within the local community context.

Both projects avoided the cookie-cutter approach of transferring another jurisdiction’s success into the culture of Sacramento or Miami . This K-Mart approach to architecture was avoided through a commitment to sustaining the values of the constituency groups (child-focused; family-friendly; community-based) reflected in functionally efficient and environmentally relevant designs.

Sacramento County

With the Sacramento County Juvenile Courthouse, the court’s philosophical approach, expressed through the leadership of Judge Kenneth Peterson, was to alter an existing informality driven by a poor arrangement of spaces in the existing courthouse.

This informality resulted in a casual view of the importance of juvenile delinquency proceedings. Thus, a goal for the new juvenile delinquency courthouse was to create an environment that reflected the seriousness and solemnity of matters in juvenile court. Another goal was to use the new courthouse to strengthen the physical connection to existing on-site juvenile support functions such as probation services, detention and a visitors’ center.

Correctional News columnist Stephen Carter (left) mingles with fellow architects.
The DLR Group elected to orient the entrance of the new courthouse toward the side of the campus that includes the other juvenile support structures and away from the adjacent public roadway. In doing so, the emphasis is on the importance of the families using the complex and not the passing motorist that have no functional or emotional connection to the life-altering decisions occurring daily within the courthouse.

The linear south-facing façade uses a rhythmic vertical pattern along the public street to stress a sense of civitas to a motoring public but interrupts the linearity of the north-facing façade with changes in scale and pattern to emphasize the community side of the juvenile complex. A new formality to the campus is provided through a landscaped connection between the existing probation building and the new juvenile courthouse.

Miami-Dade County

Twenty-five hundred miles southeast of Sacramento, Miami-Dade County sought to replace a juvenile courthouse that is one of the most diverse of any in the United States, where the requirement for translation of more that 50 dialects and languages is a daily occurrence.

Similar to Sacramento, Miami-Dade includes the juvenile delinquency division, but also includes dependency and unified family court functions.

Under the guardianship of Judge Cynthia Lederman, the Miami-Dade juvenile court became a children’s courthouse in far more than name only. The philosophical intent of the children’s courthouse was to reduce harm to the community, victim, and litigant by creating a courthouse in a decidedly urban setting that was distinguished by an integrated approach to resolving the legal needs of children through the involvement of child advocacy partners and the community.

Downtown Miami is emerging as a major urban center that is home to a culturally diverse population. While this diversity contributes to significant economic and social vitality, the ethnic diversity has also brought challenges for families in crisis. The downtown site selected is intended to be accessible for a broad cross section of the population by public transportation and interstate travel.

The solution developed by architectural firm HOK places the 13-story courthouse at the northern end of an important urban greenway that links the cultural and government centers with the children’s courthouse. Using a combination of canopy landscaping combined with public art objects, the focus on the importance of children begins outside the courthouse and continues into the entrance and to the courtroom floors. The importance of family and the attention to the physical and emotional scale of children is reflected throughout the building through a south facing “confetti” wall of multi-colored glass at heights that permit views of the skyline by children of all sizes.

Inside the courtrooms, flexibility has been proposed for accommodating the variety of proceeding types through layouts that can be altered as required. Each courtroom floor has a combination of four flexible courtrooms, a mediation room, separate rooms for families to meet privately with advocates or attorneys, and waiting areas of multi-colored glazing.

To support the commitment to an integrated legal and social solution to a family’s needs, space for more than 10 child advocacy organizations is included in the building and easily accessible from the litigation floors. On the top two floors where the judicial chambers are located, spaces for case managers are also included so that communication between judges and case managers can easily foster appropriate resolutions.

Respecting and sustaining family values requires a great deal more than a well-conceived building. However, in both of these case studies the architects have demonstrated the role that evidence-based design can play in sustaining family values. Both projects illustrate the importance of function and form in a setting that is uniquely children oriented. Both examples combine the dual requirements that a modern courthouse serve as both a legal emporia and a temple of justice.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C. and a Correctional News columnist.

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