Trendspotting: The Glory and the Dream

Prior to the events of March 11, 2005, in Fulton County, Ga., I addressed in this space the remarkable changes that are occurring in America’s system of jurisprudence. A Kansas state court judge had reminded me that our current fascination with "boutique" courts would dissipate; tradition would prevail in our "temples of justice."

This piqued my interest. I was spending a lot of time trying to determine how many of what types of specialty courts would be appropriate. Another casual reminder of the changes in designing these "temples" was a holiday card from a longtime colleague, Walter Sobel, FAIA, whose handwritten note was a defiant reminder that human spirit always trumps age.

Then, during in the daily routine of meting out justice, our vulnerability was again punctuated by the sound of gunfire in Fulton County. The impact of the carnage will ripple through state houses for years to come as the elected occupants again rush to legislate behavior.

One of the most basic guarantees of our beloved Constitution is the right to "show up and pay attention" in our court-houses – regardless of color, creed, religious beliefs or checkbook balance. The American courthouse is one of the last places in our landscape where the penniless and the princes of industry can sit side-by-side on hard wooden benches and be seen as equals under the law.

One recent example of the "temple" and "legal emporium" is the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando, Fla., (HLM Design, 1998). Architects worked in the wake of a violent incident at the previous courthouse.

This is remarkable in concept and implementation. Statistically speaking, the majority of Americans never darken the magnometers of our courthouses, but for those whose employment, behavior or curiosity bring them to these icons of legal remedy, the right to feel and be safe is fundamental to maintaining the balance of the famous scales of Astraea.

A decade ago, at a symposium of the AIA Committee on Architecture for Justice, the terms "legal emporium" and "temple of justice" were coined to describe the emerging courthouse. Implicit in the terms was the right to be present and to expect decorum and dignity. Anyone who has recently observed criminal, domestic relations or juvenile court knows that a lot of people have chosen to be present, but without a great deal of decorum.

One of the most electrifying examples of combining the twin concepts of an emporium and a temple is the Orange County, Fla., courthouse in Orlando, designed by HLM Design. Yet this affirming example was realized only after the 1984 slayings of three court officers in the corridors of a decrepit and dangerous old courthouse.

In Orange County, the failure stemmed from screening that was pre-electronic. The failure in Fulton County was not in screening or design, but in policies and procedures. At the risk of drawing the ire of the NRA, gun-toting security officers are no more guarantees of public safety in courthouses than in jails.

I realize that the overpowered officer’s holster was empty at the time of the altercation that resulted in gun-locker keys being taken, but that doesn’t change the outcome that a gun in the courthouse killed three courthouse employees and provided the means of murdering yet another. Four days after the tragedy in Fulton County, I asked a veteran court security officer in Dade County how to better assure the safety of litigants, participants, and staff who have the right and obligation to be present. He said, "Lose the guns. Period."

With all the firepower expended and anticipated, wasn’t it ironic that the alleged murderer in Atlanta was eventually felled by the words of an "angel" rather than a 9mm handgun?

Violence erupts daily in the halls of justice, quite often in domestic relations courts. Designers battle the urge to yield to fortification requests from a bevy of vested interests. Such requests are understandable, but no more or less in need of legislated solutions than those of health care workers in the halls of healing, or cubicle dwellers in neo-modern office towers. Because fear in – and of – our society has become so prevalent, we now fortify like no previous society since Europe in the Dark Ages.

Walter Sobel understands as well as anyone the importance of the courthouse in offering the forgotten, as well as the famous, access to the same guarantee of fairness and personal safety. Through his decades of practice, he has altered the landscape for all who enter the portals of the temple as either litigants, laborers or loafers.

Walter Sobel, FAIA, was editor of the landmark book, The American Courthouse, which continues to resonate today.

For every building "type," champions emerge who have the talent to see beyond a solution to a movement, changing our perceptions, preferences and behavior. In correctional design, the name Sid Folse comes to mind. In the field of courthouse design, that would be Walter Sobel.

Long before the tragic events of March 11, architects and planners were conceiving ways of making security in courthouses as transparently effective as possible, short of making the dais a fortified control room. The design principles that are routine now were first promulgated in 1973 in The American Courthouse: Planning and Design for the Judicial Process, a joint publication of the American Bar Association and the AIA, edited by Walter Sobel (with Gery Witt). This was the first time the legal and design professions had examples that could nourish the dream of more responsive courthouses. (In 1993, Sobel would update his groundbreaking effort with Twenty Years of Courthouse Design Revisited: Supplement to The American Courthouse, edited with Daiva Peterson.)

As we chart our way through the turbulent challenges of further enhanced security measures, the specialization of the courts, and the impact of technology on design choices, the precedents established by Walter will remain a reliable beacon. A disciple of another Chicago legend, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter’s vision stretches back six decades and continues to view the American courthouse as one of our most important social symbols.

In his Intimations on Mortality, William Wordsworth asked, "Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?" Too often in the rush to manage such a diverse judicial system, the gleam is lost or value-engineered into oblivion.

While the judicial village re-examines security procedures and design concepts to assure that the American courthouse is safe, we also should recall Sobel’s softly spoken words. His work reinforces a belief that as long as we do not lose the ability to dream, we will sustain the image of our courthouses as the keystone of a just society.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C.

A virtual tour of the Orange County Courthouse is available online: