a just building, just a building, or a series of subjugations: a (preliminary) post-occupancy evaluation of the new Alice Springs Supreme Court & Commercial Centre
April 2017, Mparntwe (Alice Springs), Northern Territory, Australia
A (preliminary) post-occupancy evaluation
Post-occupancy evaluations — or POEs as they are typically known in architecture — are typically undertaken to investigate how a building is performing once occupied, to see what can be tweaked or adapted to better suit the users’ functions, and to inform better design outcomes for future projects of a comparable nature. Although all too rarely undertaken, they represent a neat juncture in the procurement of a new building — providing an opportunity to properly close off a circle that ideally started with a broad level of consultation with stakeholders from a building project’s inception.
This essay jumps the gun on the typical timing of such evaluations, in reviewing the new 22.5+ metre high Alice Springs Supreme Court & Commercial Centre (the ‘Supreme Court Building’) before it opens its doors in the first half of 2017. While not yet able to write about its interiors, the new building already warrants a post-occupancy evaluation of sorts, albeit through its own prominent occupancy of space in the Alice Springs central business district. This is also an ideal time to question the procurement of such buildings, ahead of the fanfare that invariably comes with the opening of any new civic building. The Northern Territory Government’s 20 year leasing agreement, plus options, with building developer 19 Parsons Street Pty Ltd represents a significant spend from the public purse for possibly the most important civic structure in the southern half of the Northern Territory.
There will be many opportunities for others to write on how the new building’s interiors rate once the building is occupied — positives and negatives will quickly become apparent, especially for those attending court proceedings in the two new Supreme Court rooms that form the plinth for the building’s upper storeys. Notably, in a series of articles and her recently published book ‘Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia’ (1), Alice Springs-based writer and journalist Kieran Finnane has already set the tone for ongoing, detailed consideration of the enactment of the law and its setting in the complex, cross-cultural context of Alice Springs.
This essay does not argue against the provision of new supreme court facilities. The demands on the existing Alice Springs Law Courts building are reflected in the now fulltime Supreme Court presence to the building, when originally a Supreme Court judge was visiting for only twenty or so weeks each year. Undoubtedly the development of the new Supreme Courts will alleviate many of the pressures and shortcomings of the existing Alice Springs Law Court Building that Kieran Finnane and others have detailed, separate of concerns about the construct of law itself.
— — —
Exceptional Development Permit EDP14/0026 (pre-amendment)
NORTHERN TERRITORY OF AUSTRALIA, Planning Act — section 41.
REASONS FOR DECISION IN RELATION TO PROPOSED EXCEPTIONAL DEVELOPMENT PERMIT
5. The building provides active frontage to Parsons Street and the side pedestrian laneway and will incorporate awnings to both frontages providing all weather protection for pedestrians.
6. The roof top design and screening of services and air-conditioning units provides a positive response to improving the views from Anzac Hill.
(signed Peter Glen Chandler — Minister for Lands, Planning and the Environment, 11/12/2014; in relation to Exceptional Development Permit EDP14/0026) (2, 3, 4)
In a recent Facebook post someone commented that the new Alice Springs Supreme Court & Commercial Centre looked good from on top of Atnelkentyarliweke (Anzac Hill). I had similar sentiments as I watched the sunrise with my young son and a handful of strangers from this high point that looks over the central business district of Mparntwe (Alice Springs). As far as roof plans go, the building’s white oval disc of a roof with unobtrusive services plant does a better job than the majority of buildings around it. The roof can almost appear to be suspended in space above the fully glazed exterior of the upper floors early in the morning. And from a review of drawings of an earlier, approved design for the same developer, the new building has considerably more élan than what may have preceded it.
As for ‘improving the views from Anzac Hill’, which was given as one of the six reasons why the then Minister for Planning granted an exceptional development permit… well, I don’t recall the two storey Commonwealth Bank of Australia bank chambers that were demolished for the Supreme Court building detracting from the view. From on high, with little exception, the natural landscape of Alice Springs dominates — the MacDonnell Ranges forming a walled backdrop to what one perceives as small, built objects that can almost be picked up between two fingers, such is their comparatively insignificant scale.
‘Revealing the Spirit of Parsons Street’
In 2011, with funding provided by the Northern Territory Labor Government, local photographer and naturalist Mike Gillam prepared a cultural brief document — ‘Revealing the Spirit of Parsons Street’ (5), the street on which the new Alice Springs Supreme Court & Commercial Centre (the ‘Supreme Court building’) is located. As Mike Gillam noted after receiving a prestigious international Green Dot Award for the work in 2012, the purpose of the brief was to provide an informing philosophy for designers, architects and artists who intend to work in this east-west road in Alice Springs CBD’s small orthogonal grid (6). A rare document in its commissioning, it proposed a considered, gentle approach to placemaking with a central focus ‘to create balance in the cultural order of the street’ (7).
Ever conscious of the ingrained, layered and often hidden stories of place, Mike Gillam provides a series of cues that have acted as something of an unintended muse to this essay. This is perhaps unsurprising given that a central aim of his brief is to ‘create a gentler egalitarian space where “parallel communities” are encouraged to interact and hopefully overcome their ignorance and distrust of one another […]’ (8).
— — —
Parsons Street is a relatively short road. Named in honour of J. Langdon Parsons, a former Baptist minister and SA Government minister charged with controlling the NT, it extends west for several hundred metres from the banks of the normally dry Todd River (Lhere Mparntwe, its Central Arrernte name) to the Stuart Highway — the major highway that bisects Australia and acts as the major arterial road from the south to Darwin, 1,500km to the north.
From the highway, where the street changes its name, the sightline continues a considerable distance to the west, ending at a prominent, razor sharp ridge to one of the small constellation of ranges surrounding Alice Springs.
From the periphery of the CBD, and the surrounding suburbs, the natural landscape takes more of a central role as you move about the town — Atnelkentyarliweke (Anzac Hill), Tharrarltneme (Annie Meyer Hill), Akeyulerre (Billy Goat Hill) and the walls of sandstone that are the MacDonnell Ranges, culminating in Alhekulyele (Mt Gillen), often loom large. The Arrernte names can inform a recalibration of ones place in this geography should you get to learn them.
In the CBD, sightlines are more axial, described by the buildings that come with settlement, with the landscape typically more concealed.
— — —
Retracing one’s steps back towards Lhere Mparntwe, the Kwekatye tree, a large ilwenpe (Eucalyptus camaldulensis: river red gum), stands towards the river end of Parsons Street. Legally protected as a sacred site and registered with the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, the tree is on the Aherre (Kangaroo), Arenge (Euro) and Kwekatye (Uninitiated Boys) Dreaming tracks, marking the place where the Kwekatye held a ceremony (9). It stands strongly in its location, something of an outlier from the sacred trees that grow adjacent to the Lhere Mparntwe’s course; other like trees near the Kwekatye tree are mostly long gone. The tree, older than European settlement, is now hosted by the CBD’s Cartesian grid with its streets memorialising settlers and other notables.
A recent urban revitalisation project for the vicinity of Parsons Street, informed by Mike Gillam’s brief, saw the Kwekatye tree better acknowledged, with neighbouring shade structures and non-Indigenous plantings weeded from the site to give the tree voice, its magnificent form occasionally captured in a reflection pond that lyrically holds water after a rainfall event until it evaporates, like the clay pans in the Ilparpa valley just to the south of Alice Springs.
Just west of the Kwekatye tree stands another mature river red gum, this one almost getting a hip and shoulder from the new Supreme Court building, as the building’s walls push to the limits of the site.
— — —
Affinity model diagrams and cultural complexes
Courts are complex buildings, moving people through space like few others. The affinity model diagrams in the ‘Courts Standard Design Brief’ (10) of the Western Australian Department of the Attorney-General, with their five circulation systems, map out the levels of security, separation and confluence to be afforded to the judiciary, vulnerable witnesses, people in custody and all others. The routes and destinations of all who enter a court building are strictly delineated to ensure appropriate separation of the protagonists, so that contamination of the judicial process is minimised and security maintained.
The defendant in custody moves from the sally port via a discrete route to a holding cell, before entering the court room’s dock via a further discrete path. Lifts, corridors, lobbies, room adjacencies… all mapped out. This extends as far as the movement in and out of the building, from which point the various paths get more squiggly and less controllable.
— — —
An analogy can be drawn, albeit in a more broad-scale way, with the cultural complex within which Aboriginal people still move in these parts — the temporary closure of roads during ‘business’; the MacDonnell Range acting as a boundary between language groups; places that one cannot go without transgressing cultural propriety; and at a more localised level, the cultural avoidance that happens by necessity between certain kin; and also between families and community members in conflict, seeded in but not necessarily bound to a fixed place.
The perceived openness of the central Australian landscape is culturally layered in a way not apparent to the newcomer, be it the original European explorers through these parts or more recent arrivals. Like the Kwetatye tree and its stories, one must move beyond the surface to get to the complex narratives and cultural formations that continue today, and that warrant both acknowledgement and consideration by society.
— — —
The Alice Springs justice precinct
This is a circuitous but appropriate way to get to a consideration of the Alice Springs Supreme Court & Commercial Centre, which will house the two court rooms and ancillary spaces of the new Supreme Court. These replace Court Room 1 to the existing Alice Springs Law Courts building as the principal courts for trials by jury.
The Alice Springs Supreme Court & Commercial Centre is the latest in a parade of government and justice buildings lining Parsons Street, all within a couple of hundred metres of the Kwekatye tree as one walks west: the original stone Stuart Town Gaol (1908); two contemporary police station buildings (one the recent repurposing of a major government department building); the brutalist off-form concrete and brick Alice Springs Law Courts Building (1980) where Supreme Court trials and other court proceedings are currently held; the Old Courthouse (1928, taking on court functions in 1936); and, the Residency (1928), the official home for the first Government Resident of the short-lived Central Australia administrative region, which also provided living quarters for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on their 1963 visit to Alice Springs, the year prior to the repeal of the Welfare Ordinance and the cessation of prohibited areas for Aboriginal people (11).
Opposite the current Law Courts Building, D.D. Smith Park acts as the principal public place in the immediate vicinity. Commonly known as the Courthouse Lawns, it is a popular place for Aboriginal people to congregate in small groups day-to-day, for the occasional community rally on justice issues, and from which to witness the comings and goings during court hearings and trials. Importantly, the lawns allow decompression, away from the intense recounts of harm and death, and away from the congestion of the Law Courts Building’s lobby which can almost give the psychological effect of being kettled, with its limited visual connection to outside.
— — —
Alice Springs Supreme Court & Commercial Centre (part 1): Procuring civic buildings in a cross-cultural context [or not]
Developed by 19 Parsons Street Pty Ltd, a company affiliated with the long-standing, reputable local construction group Sitzler Bros, the new Supreme Court building results from a 20 year leasing agreement, plus options, with the NT Government for Supreme Court facilities to its lower floors. In the context of Alice Springs it is a technically sophisticated building, using large-scale precast concrete elements, crowned by a fully glazed oval drum with a double-glazed, argon gas-filled curtain walling system to its upper storeys.
Yet while the then Chief Minister Adam Giles boasted of the ‘can do’ nature of his CLP government in his announcements regarding the project in 2014 (12, 13), the development of the new building and its procurement represent a critical lost opportunity by the Northern Territory Government to interrogate the place of court facilities in the cross-cultural environment of Alice Springs, and the means by which these should be procured.
The NT Government’s decision to procure the new Supreme Courts through a long term leasing arrangement with a private developer leaves one to wonder what difference in outcomes there may have been if the Government had been both developer and owner — even if it had to purchase land from third parties, or repurpose sites it already owned in order to be located close to existing court and police facilities. If there is a benefit to the Supreme Court building being within a one-block radius of the existing justice precinct, as proposed by the Request for Tender’s ‘Scope of Requirements’ (14), the previous Labor Territory Government certainly missed a golden opportunity in not purchasing the Commonwealth Bank chambers site at 14 Parsons Street when it was put on the market in the last ten years.
The commissioning of the new Supreme Courts represents a lost, once in a generation chance to properly unpack what is required to create just spaces in a Central Australian context, beyond the pure functions of the judicial process — the cultural reads of built form; allowance for cultural avoidance; the need for a range of ‘break out’ spaces — both the expansive salle des pas perdus form clearly missing in the existing Law Courts (a large central space, like a hall, where people can confer informally), but also the important external spaces where people can decompress; and the role of built form in reducing tension and anxiety, in a town where the daily court lists for both civil and criminal matters are disproportionately filled with proceedings enacted on behalf of and against Aboriginal people. These court lists all too often directly reflect the inter-generational disadvantage and dysfunction that are rife for many Aboriginal people in these parts: alcohol related crime, domestic violence, the placing of children in the care of the NT Government.
While new court buildings can be delivered successfully by government partnering with the private sector — the much lauded Manchester Civil Justice Centre (2007) in the UK designed by Australian practice Denton Corker Marshall is a case in point (15, 16) — there is nonetheless the need for a broad, preliminary consultation process steered by government and consultants to arrive at a suitable building that can reflect broader social ends. Probably no more so than where a western judicial system intersects with Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities.
— — —
The importance of undertaking consultation with Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal stakeholders is pivotal to the ultimate design outcome of a courts complex. Consultation with Aboriginal stakeholders ensures that there is active Aboriginal involvement and interpretation in the design process. Active involvement will have a positive impact upon all users of the facilities. (17)
(WA Department of the Attorney General — DOTAG, ‘Courts Standard Design Brief’, 2010)
The ‘Technical Brief’ (18) provided as part of the Alice Springs Supreme Court tender documents — borrowed from the WA Government’s ‘Courts Standard Design Brief’ (19)— ensured that the successful tenderer for the building should get the interior room functions right for a contemporary court setting. It is confounding that the NT Government’s tender documents make no reference to the WA Government’s detailed, seven page ‘Aboriginal Cultural Brief’ and the less detailed, one page ‘Multicultural or Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) Brief’ of the Design Brief (20), and that no equivalent culturally specific briefs were included.
Perhaps in the eyes of the reigning CLP Government a broader level of stakeholder consultation wasn’t required, Cabinet having already worked out the key elements of the building’s cultural transmission and how it should align with that government’s broad, ever-present ‘law and order’ focus?
— — —
Besides these missed opportunities, a proper interrogation of the design and development of the new Supreme Court building could also have informed the proposed remodelling of the existing Alice Springs Law Courts Building, and other justice environments (21) to be (re-)developed throughout the NT. The need for a discrete youth court, formulated around a therapeutic model, is cited by many as a key missing piece of infrastructure needed in Alice Springs to smooth the blunt instrument of the law, acting as a safety net to young people who transgress the law.
— — —
Elsewhere the DOTAG design brief states that:
Court buildings must be seen to be removed from and free of ordinary commercial and partisan pressure. A court building should be constructed as a single-purpose building, physically separate and distinct from other community institutions. It should be sited in a prominent position and surrounded by sufficient space to set it apart from day-to-day activities. (22)
This stipulation, while no longer strictly adhered to in WA, merits ongoing consideration in the construction of court facilities in the NT, especially those in which hearings and proceedings on criminal matters take place. This appears to be as much the case for the buildings temporarily repurposed for remote Aboriginal community bush court circuits as for court facilities in larger townships, culminating in the Supreme Courts in Darwin and Alice Springs. While since early 2016, the WA Supreme Court’s civil matters in Perth are heard in court facilities in a multi-storey office building in the Perth CBD, it is noteworthy that criminal matters continue to be held in single-purpose buildings.
Providing criminal court functions to a single-purpose building, with the physical separation that the DOTAG brief still assigns, not only affords court facilities the gravitas that they merit, but also ensures that the architecture is only answerable to the solemnity of one brief — that of people who are working within and/or making contact with the justice system. This allows the built form to properly provide a physical manifestation of the core values of our justice system. In a short piece on the Supreme Court building in January 2017, senior Alice Springs barrister Russell Goldflam notes these values as ‘independence, impartiality, transparency, accessibility and fairness’ (23), to which I would also add compassion. In the case of Aboriginal and CALD community members these values are perhaps all the more important — the justice system all too frequently represents a key point of contact between cultures that may otherwise just brush against each other lightly and intermittently.
In his speech ‘Values in Public Law’ at the James Spigelman Oration 2015, Chief Justice James Allsop of the Federal Court of Australia details the following, after considered general remarks, including on the nature of power relations between legislature, the judiciary and the broader Australian population:
… at least five values or groups of values can be posited. They are not meant to be crisp in definition. I would begin with a value or feature that may be seen as prosaic, but it is the product of other features, and is essential to any system of government or organisation of power: reasonable certainty, so power can be understood, known and exercised, and branches of government take responsibility for its exercise, in a workably efficient and fair way. Secondly: honesty and fidelity to the Constitution, and to the freedoms and free society that it assumes, reflecting the constant of a principle of legality. Thirdly: a rejection of unfairness, unreasonableness and arbitrariness. Fourthly: equality. Fifthly: humanity, and the dignity and autonomy of the individual, as the recognition of, and respect for, the reciprocal human context of the exercise of power and the necessary humanity of the process; in many contexts this translates as the recognition of mercy. These should not be seen as a list of separate conceptions. They all inter-relate. (24) [my bold emphasis reflects the Chief Justice’s text]
I find this fifth group of values particularly compelling as it relates to the design of the interior and exterior architecture of justice environments, and how these reflect the spatial strategies of power.
— — —
Properly handled, such a physical manifestation extends to surrounding external spaces, with the provision of appropriate gathering and waiting areas external to the building — safe places from which to survey the comings and goings of the court; to receive counsel; to regroup after the headiness of court proceedings; to enable groups in feuding relationships to avoid each other while waiting for court.
Both the NT Government’s own technical brief and the critical function of D.D. Smith Park opposite the existing Alice Springs Law Courts Building seem to have been forgotten in the design of the new Supreme Courts. The NT Government’s technical brief noted that the building entrance should provide: ‘Two places to wait outside the facility for small groups. At least one should cater for up to fifteen people for a short time. At least one such area should be under cover from adverse weather (wind, sun and rain)’ (25). The relatively narrow laneway to the western perimeter of the building serves as the principal entrance point for all tenancies, and as the principal external space for the Supreme Court. A long ribbon of planter bed wall, possibly providing a place to sit, was detailed in the Exceptional Development Permit drawings, albeit along a circulation space serving the town’s bustling post office as well as the Hartley Street carpark to the south-east — the CBD’s principal off street carpark. This appears to have been deleted from the construction program.
— — —
Alice Springs Supreme Court & Commercial Centre (part 2): Exceptional development permits and making hay
Up until February 2016, a three storey height restriction was in place for the Alice Springs CBD, reflecting a community-led desire to see the town’s existing amenity maintained, with the primacy of natural land forms and view corridors preserved.
Nonetheless, in 2011 the Labor Government Minister for Lands and Planning Gerry McCarthy approved the development of a five storey commercial office building for the 14 Parsons Street site by Sitzler. While the developer’s scheme proposed a six storey development, the exceptional development permit specified a height limit of five storeys informed by the Alice Springs Built Form Guidelines (2010) (26). It has been suggested that this set a reasonable benchmark for future development in the Alice Springs CBD, although such changes to height restrictions were not enacted through any amendments to the Planning Scheme at that time.
The NT Planning Commission’s draft Alice Springs CBD Built Form Guidelines (2014) document (27), published in November 2014, continued to illustrate a five storey height limit to this site, rising to eight storeys elsewhere in the CBD.
The existence of such guidelines ‘in limbo’, neither withdrawn nor enacted for a considerable duration of time, taints the planning and development approval process. The use by a Minister for Planning of his or her discretion to waive key, contested requirements of the Planning Scheme through the issue of exceptional development permits is always a problematic approach, quashing the due process that the broader community should expect.
Such was certainly the case with the exceptional development permit to allow the construction of the new Supreme Court building; perhaps more so given that the CLP Territory Government had a clear interest in seeing the development proceed. The Chief Minister’s media release (28) suggested that the project would proceed three months ahead of an exceptional development permit being granted . Although noted as being four storeys above ground, the new Supreme Court building’s profile largely surpasses the height of Sitzler’s six storey 2011 scheme. The long-term campaigning of many residents seeking to maintain the town’s amenity ground down by the perpetual push of politicians and developers to make hay while their sun shines, regardless of the considerable surplus commercial tenancy stock that continues to exist in the town.
None of this is to take away from the need for new court facilities. Russell Goldflam notes to his piece that ‘in 2004, newly installed Chief Justice BR Martin suggested to Attorney-General Toyne “a very large bulldozer” as the solution to the dilapidated and cramped conditions of the Alice Springs courthouse’ (29). Rather, it is to suggest that there are better ways for government to go about procuring such buildings, including when partnering with the private sector.
— — —
Alice Springs Supreme Court & Commercial Centre (part 3): Legitimation of the authority of the law
[The] ‘symbolic separation of the practices of law from the everyday, the sense of solidity and spatial intimidation, were seen in the nineteenth century as necessary to legitimate the authority of the law. The neo-classical style of the architecture works in a similar way — stone and symmetry reinforce the ideal of a timeless institution of law and order. Along with the wigs and gowns, the books and benches, architecture is a key trapping of judicial power.’ (30)
(Kim Dovey, 2010)
My interest in writing this piece lies particularly in the design of justice environments, and how they may enunciate the values of independence, impartiality, transparency, accessibility, fairness and compassion in a setting such as the cross-cultural context of Central Australia. This is to assume that these are all key elements to be embodied in the design of properly conceived court facilities in contemporary Australia, without eroding the legitimacy of the judiciary. And also that these would lead to the creation of ‘just’ spaces, rather than just masking the power of the law, acting instead as a superficial contrivance, especially for the more marginalised in our society. After all, court buildings are fundamentally infused with power at its most overt and nuanced.
Perhaps unexpectedly, much has been written on the relationship between architecture and the justice system, and one should expect that the design of any new court facilities within Australia should be informed by a detailed, critical review of this literature. Papers delivered at Justice Environment Conferences in Australia, work by the Western Sydney University’s Justice Research Group, the Australia/ New Zealand Court of the Future Network and a range of other academics across a broad field of disciplines, all provide much in the way of insights into the design of justice environments here in Australia and abroad. The September/ October 2009 edition of Architecture Australia, the professional journal of the Australian Institute of Architects, themed ‘The Courts and Justice Issue’, provide a comprehensive series of articles reflecting both on justice environment paradigms and built projects (31).
‘Open Court: Transparency and Legitimation in the Courthouse’, a chapter from University of Melbourne Professor Kim Dovey’s book Becoming Places: Urbanism/ Architecture/ Identity/ Power is particularly insightful for its reflections on the relationship between typology, materiality and spatial planning in the design of justice environments. While questioning the continued use of a neo-classical architecture style, with its utilisation of solidity and spatial intimidation to give it authority– the paradigm I suggest has been used for the Alice Springs Supreme Court building — Kim Dovey nonetheless notes the programmatic challenges faced in the design of contemporary court buildings:
The ideal of an open court paradoxically requires a good deal of security and closure. The deeper dilemma here lies in the quest for an architecture that can legitimate the ideals of democracy — of power as immanent in citizenship. This entails moving on from a reliance on traditional and transcendent ideals of justice dispensed from on high. But it also requires an avoidance of the bureaucratic non-place where justice is the mere administration of rules. The design of the truly open, accessible, enlightened, transparent, democratic and legitimate courthouse may have too many contradictions for architects to resolve. (32) (Kim Dovey, 2010)
Elsewhere he notes that there are a raft of questions needing to be resolved in undertaking court facility design:
[H]ow do these buildings work for their real clients, the hopeful recipients of justice? What are the effects on the perception of justice, equality, access and transparency for the general public? To what degree do they generate illusions of transparency, openness and access without the practice? How do they mediate the sense of injustice that these buildings must house when a case is lost, a child is removed, when the accused is sentenced? (33) (Kim Dovey, 2010)
A careful consideration of such questions must form the cornerstone of the design process for appropriate court facilities for a Central Australian context, especially given the high proportion of Aboriginal people who are the key parties to legal proceedings. In the case of the new Supreme Court building, this extends to deliberating on how the building will work for juveniles who are occasionally required to face trials in the Supreme Court due to the nature of their offences.
— — —
As noted earlier in this essay, Mike Gillam’s ‘Revealing the Spirit of Parsons Street’ cultural brief proposes a considered, gentler approach to building in the CBD. This could have been no better honoured than through the deliberated design of a new supreme court building, moving on from the use of architecture to symbolise the authority of the state.
Alas, the new Supreme Court building’s exterior muscularly annunciates the pillars of state, law and commerce. The prominent, chromed ‘Northern Territory Supreme Court’ signage to the crown of the building — repeated on both of the long western and eastern elevations of the building — viscerally combines with its height and mass to suggest both the state’s and judiciary’s authority over the community, rather than being of service to it. The upper storeys of the building (a fully glazed oval-shaped drum that stands well above other developments in town) work as something of a latter day panopticon, but with no bounding structure, the prison master’s tower surveying the CBD populace, even if simply intended for commercial tenancies to soak up the 360 degree views. This reading of the building is accentuated at ground level by the tall, solid, neo-classical podium of the lower storeys to the building which flank the building’s entrance.
A more well-thought-out architecture that responds to the questions and challenges that Kim Dovey poses is clearly missing in the building’s external design.
One need only contrast this with the Kalgoorlie Courthouse Complex completed in 2013 for Western Australia’s DOTAG, to see what might have been. A review of this project is particularly salient, given the similarities between the Alice Springs and Kalgoorlie contexts and the significant proportion of Aboriginal people accessing the courts in both towns.
While centred on the restoration and repurposing of two 19th century, colonial civic buildings — the heritage-protected limestone Wardens Court and Post Office building — the design of the Kalgoorlie complex reflects a considered human-centred approach to place, taking into account traditional culture and climate. This is perhaps no better illustrated than through the ‘provision of extensive external landscaped public waiting areas which run throughout the precinct and link both the outside and inside secure zones’ (34), which extends to a couple of discrete courtyards attached to courtroom holding cells for people in custody.
A 2009 article written by Philip Kirke, project architect for the Kalgoorlie complex, sums up what can be delivered through a thorough consultation and design process when given the opportunity. The following provides a small-scale, but clear example:
One of the Aboriginal lawyers of the Aboriginal Legal Service at Kalgoorlie approached us several times to ask that we design an outdoor space in a location that would permit the accused to have a cigarette shortly before appearing before the magistrate: “Clients are generally worried about going to jail and are stressed out and/or agro; in this state they can’t listen effectively when in court. So the ability to have a smoke is needed — can you allow a space near the court’s holding cell?
If we listen to what we are being told in such consultations, we start to find the answers to the challenge: How can architecture be compassionate? So we included two small landscaped courtyards, each attached to a holding cell immediately outside the magistrates’ courtrooms. These provide visual relief and a calming outlook, fresh air and the opportunity for a smoke just before appearing before the magistrate. (35) (Philip Kirke, 2009)
— — —
So a just building, just a building, or a series of subjugations? The commissioning CLP Government demonstrated great hubris in not staging a comprehensive consultation and design development process through which the most appropriate building could be delivered for this most important of civic structures — this is the one clearly apparent subjugation through the development of the new Supreme Court building.
While the fairness of trials will forever pivot off the performance of the judiciary, legal practitioners and other parties involved in court proceedings, it is nonetheless clear that the built environment has its own role to play in informing how one feels about ones contact with the judicial process, and the life-shaping judgements that it makes. We will have to wait to see whether the new Supreme Court building’s interiors can go some way to capturing the core values missed in the external built form and siting.
Separate to any of this, it is important that an ongoing community engagement program is implemented, as noted by one of the members to a panel discussion entitled ‘Just Spaces: the built environment, court processes and those who experience them’ hosted by the NT Women Lawyers Association in September 2016.
And otherwise? While this essay and future reflections on the new Alice Springs Supreme Court & Commercial Centre may have little bearing on this building’s performance, we can live in hope that the continued focus on the NT justice system, warts and all, will inform a broadening focus on the design of justice environments appropriate for the Territory and all the people of the region.
— — —
Thank you to friends and colleagues who contributed to my learnings in preparing this essay.
Note re author
David Havercroft has lived in Alice Springs since 2003, where he works with local architecture practice Tangentyere Design.
For six years up to February 2016 he worked as the Central Australian Policy Officer for NT Shelter — the Northern Territory’s peak NGO working on housing and homelessness issues.
— — —
1. Finnane, K 2016, Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland.
2. Northern Territory of Australia 2014a, ‘Reasons for Decision in Relation to Proposed Exceptional Development Permit’, in relation to Exceptional Development Permit EDP14/0026, signed by the Minister for Lands, Planning and the Environment 11 December 2014.
3. Northern Territory of Australia 2014b, Exceptional Development Permit EDP14/0026, signed 11/12/2014 by the Minister for Lands, Planning and the Environment Peter Chandler. This approved the use and development of ‘the land to Lots 08146 & 08147, Town of Alice Springs (14 Parsons Street, Alice Springs) for the purpose of a Supreme Court, offices and shop in a 4 storey building (to a height of 20 metres above ground level) plus one level of basement car parking’.
4. Northern Territory of Australia 2016, Variation of Exceptional Development Permit EDP14/0026A, signed 7/8/2016 by Minister for Lands and Planning David Tollner. This varies Condition 1 of the original EDP14/0026 for the purpose of changes to the site plan, floor plans and elevations.
5. Gillam, M 2011, Revealing the Spirit of Parsons Street: Extracts from Paper to the Northern Territory Government, retrieved 31 October 2016, <http://www.greendotawards.com/submit/upload/2007/large/3-403-11_Green_Dot_Awards_____Mike_Gillam.pdf>.
6. Finnane, K 2012, ‘‘Spirit of Parsons Street’ wins international award’, Alice Springs News Online, retrieved 31 October 2016, <http://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/2012/02/13/spirit-of-parsons-street-wins-international-award/>.
7. Gillam, M 2011, op. cit.
9. Signage board at Kwekatye tree (author and year not recorded). The board notes that it was provided through the National Estate Grants Programme for Greening Australia N.T.
10. Department of the Attorney General (DOTAG), Government of Western Australia 2010, Courts Standard Design Brief, Government of Western Australia, retrieved 31 October 2016, <http://www.courts.dotag.wa.gov.au/_files/courts_design_brief.pdf>.
11. Central Land Council, A colonial chronology of Alice Springs, Central Land Council, retrieved 31 October 2016, < http://www.clc.org.au/articles/info/312>.
12. Giles, A & Elferink, J 2014, New Supreme Courts for Alice Springs, NT Government media release, 31 January 2014, retrieved 11 April 2017, <http://newsroom.nt.gov.au/mediaRelease/8997>.
13. Giles, A 2014, Court construction set to begin this year, NT Government media release, 5 September 2014, retrieved 11 April 2017, <http://www.newsroom.nt.gov.au/mediaRelease/9892>.
14. Department of Corporate and Information Services (DCIS), Northern Territory Government 2014a, ‘Part B — Scope of Requirements’, Request for Tender: Lease — New Alice Springs Supreme Court for a Period of 240 Months, no. A14–0009, pp. 4.
15. Tombesi, P 2008, ‘Raising the Bar’, Architecture Australia, vol. 97, no. 1, retrieved 11 April, <http://architectureau.com/articles/raising-the-bar/>.
16. Denton, J 2009, ‘Courts in the UK’, Architecture Australia, vol. 98, no. 5, retrieved 11 April, <http://architectureau.com/articles/courts-in-the-uk/>.
17. DOTAG 2010, op. cit., pp. 42.
18. DCIS 2014b, ‘Technical Brief’, Request for Tender: Lease — New Alice Springs Supreme Court for a Period of 240 Months, no. A14–0009, pp. 4.
19. DOTAG 2010, op. cit.
20. Ibid, pp. 42–49.
21. I have used the term ‘justice environments’ to much of this essay as it is a more all-encompassing term than ‘court buildings’, reflecting the range of other physical settings in which the judiciary may preside — for example, temporarily repurposed local government buildings to remote communities for the NT’s bush court circuits.
22. DOTAG 2010, op. cit., pp. 17.
23. Goldflam, R 2017, ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’, article in ‘Balance’ Column, Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory, retrieved 10 April 2017, <http://clant.org.au/images/images/balance-column/Balance_1_2017.pdf>, pp. 2.
24. Allsop, James (Chief Justice) 2015, ‘Values in Public Law’, speech at the James Spigelman Oration 2015, Sydney, retrieved 10 April 2017 <http://www.fedcourt.gov.au/digital-law-library/judges-speeches/chief-justice-allsop/allsop-cj-20151027>, 20.
25. DCIS 2014b, op. cit., pp. 12
26. Northern Territory of Australia 2011, ‘Reasons for Decision in Relation to Proposed Exceptional Development Permit’, in Exceptional Development Permit EDP14/0026, signed by the Minister for Lands and Planning, 1 September 2011, pp. 5.
27. Northern Territory Planning Commission 2014, Alice Springs CBD Built Form Guidelines, November 2014, retrieved 29 March 2017 <https://planningcommission.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/408918/Draft-Built-Form-Guidelines-Alice-Springs-CBD_Nov-2014.PDF Guidelines>, pp. 7–8.
28. Giles, A 2014, op. cit.
29. Goldflam, R 2017, op. cit.
30. Dovey, K 2010, Becoming Places: Urbanism? Architecture/ Identity/ Power, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, UK, pp. 127.
31. Australian Institute of Architects 2009, ‘The courts and justice issue’, Architecture Australia, vol. 98, no. 5, pp. 39–101.
32. Dovey, K 2010, op. cit., pp. 138.
34. Johnson, N 2014, ‘Kalgoorlie Courthouse by Hassell Architects’, Architecture & Design, retrieved 29 March 2017 <http://www.architectureanddesign.com.au/news/kalgoorlie-courthouse-by-hassell-architects>.
35. Kirke, P 2009, ‘Kalgoorlie courts project’, Architecture Australia, vol. 98, no. 5, retrieved 29 March 2017 <http://architectureau.com/articles/kalgoorlie-courts-project/>.