The optics and architecture of power

Redesigning the judicial system

I was unsure of what to expect before starting Jury service. Full of apprehension and excitement, with only a superficial (cinematic) understanding of the process, I became part of the judicial mechanism. What I wasn’t ready for, was how fascinating and terrifying I’d find the spatial and performative design of the institution of law.

Geoff Manaugh observes that burglars have a spatial superpower; they are the ‘dark wizards’ of our cities. If this is the case, then the Crown Court is the mechanism to disrupt and strip them of this superpower. An architecture in a Foucauldian struggle to reassign power in a carefully crafted dance of people, spaces, histories and futures. A space and programme that is carefully crafted in order to ‘concretise’ an image of fairness; a materialisation, in bricks, mortar, oak panelling and cheap commercial furniture, aimed to facilitate (supposed) neutrality.

On entering the Crown Court, through the metal detectors, searches and instances of liquid consumption (sipping water bottles and coffee cups to demonstrate that they contain neither acid or explosive), we were herded upstairs through a private stairwell to the Jury Assembly. The room felt like a cheap, provincial airport waiting lounge with no destination; a room of such extreme blandness; a bureaucratic purgatorium where we were briefed; a temporal crossing where we waited and made decisions on a variety of cases and futures. This bland, architectural no-man’s land was my home for two weeks.

An anxious, representative sample, of citizens waited nervously to be assigned a case. Meanwhile, the jury incumbents sat behind us idling their time, chatting amongst themselves, settling down to the inevitable wait. We’d all been lifted from our normal lives, placing our schedules and routines on pause, whilst we had congregated to decide the future of a person we’d never met.

What became evident, was that we’d entered a strange institutional machine; an ancient apparatus built from rituals, rules, processes and customs that none of us fully understood. In the Crown Court, we became an integral, yet alien, cog in the machine of law. Our lack of knowledge and the strange a-temporality of the process revealed itself to be essential in the contemporary workings of justice. It was self-evident that the machine had been built by white-men-of-power and we’d been thrown into a pure instantiation of privilege and structural inequality. There was a palpable feeling that we were part of a ‘hyperobject’ that was built through hundreds of years of incremental change, accruing power ad infinitum. A complex object of conscious, yet uncontrolled socio-political design.

Programmatic politics

Courts have an architectural similarity to brothels and haunted houses, they are the Holmes Castle of ‘civilisation’. The County Court in Blackfriars has a strange layout; corridors, stairwells and rooms are positioned carefully to maintain certain power dynamics and manage the flow of bodies in space.

An example of this is how the Jury and the defendant are meant to be kept apart, through the programmatic structure of the building. In our case, the defendant (a rapist) wasn’t held in custody during the trail. As we entered the Court from a private stairwell and hidden antechamber he was visible to us held behind a glass wall. He stared with anxiety under the constant watch of a security guard as our slow procession to take our seats felt like a theatrical death march. This enforced separation between ‘actors’ failed entirely if you smoked cigarettes. When the Court was in recess; barristers, jury members, witnesses and defendants awkwardly bumped into each other outside the Court building. Eyes darted nervously as people shuffled past each other. A wholesale context collapse, accelerated by the uncloaking of the barristers, where wary citizens worried about breaking of courtroom convention.

The cinematic qualities of the courtroom combined with the programmatic politics of the architecture reminded me of two, interconnected forensic references; the first, Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence at the Photographers Gallery in 2015 and the second, Eyal Weizman’s 2007 ground breaking essay Walking Through Walls.

The first presented a distressing and compelling history of how photography played a role in documenting and presenting evidence throughout history. The exhibition highlighted the intentional ‘cinematic construction’ of Courtroom 600, the location of the Nuremberg Trails. It examined the role of image production, display and direction in the presentation of evidence. A documentary film, made by Hollywood’s John Ford & George Stevens, was the central piece of visual evidence for the trails. Much has been written about how visual ‘propaganda’ acted as a way to cement new legal precedents; it was an essential display of international justice though the careful stagecraft of the trails, ultimately turning the horror of the holocaust into a media spectacle to cement a new understanding of war crimes and their global implications.

The architectural design of Courtroom 600 was a significant moment in judicial evolution. Early drawings by Dan Kiley were recently unearthed at Harvard Design School showing that careful consideration was given to how the spatial dynamics of the courtroom would affect the trial and the public’s perception of justice. As Somos & Gostwych-Lewis, in their fascinating paper on A New Architecture of Justice, note;

Law cannot regulate for every eventuality and for evolving realities, and that flexibility and a mechanism for legal evolution are systemic necessities, are coeval with the idea of justice itself.

Much of my experience in Courtroom 7 in Blackfriars felt like a scene from TV or cinema. I’m not sure if this is because the majority of citizens only access the Judicial system through dramatic representations or if there is a considered ritualistic set of movements and scripts that separate us from ‘reality’. The ritualised stage craft felt like a series of ‘set pieces’, a performance without an audience, a movie set without a camera. It was the absence of the camera that confused (unlike in the Nuremberg trails; where the position of the camera acted as the main organising principle of the courtroom design) us in a time of camera ubiquity.

The second reference, Weizman’s essay Walking Through Walls, describes the Israeli Army’s tactic of ‘inverse geometry’. As Weizman explains;

The tactics of “walking-through-walls” involved a conception of the city as not just the site, but as the very medium of warfare — a flexible, almost liquid matter that is forever contingent and in flux.

This had a strange resonance with my jury duty experience, but in reverse; the courtroom was ‘the very medium’ of justice, but locked, frozen in state that felt unreal. In made me ask myself; Is it possible for the architecture and institution of justice (that sets out ‘to embody the normative principle of the impartiality of justice or equality in front of the law’), to evolve and adapt in a complex, networked, heterodox world?

Socio-political anachronisms and the materiality of banality

The temporal co-evolution of the social, spatial, technical, material and legal norms fascinated me after my jury experience. During my two-week period as a juror, I observed some shocking anachronisms on display through the objects and behaviours in the courtroom. The first, a small detail, was the materiality of the Judges wig.

My Judge, a black woman, wore the wig of an old, white man. Although she did it with dignity and style, there was a continual visual reminder of the racist heritage of our colonial past. As someone who is annually forced to dress up like a wizard from Hogwarts, I understand the historical weight of our institutional dress. As the UK’s judicial system was ‘exported’ around the globe, countries that suffered colonial rule have found ways to update and adapt to the 21st Century. Maybe it’s time for the UK to consider a redesign of their costumes for contemporary times. However, this was just the surface of a larger problem.

Sitting as a juror on a rape case, it was so obvious that men had designed the system. It wasn’t a specific thing, but the coalescence of a range of invisible factors; the brutal questioning of the survivor, the careless use of language, the elevated exposure of the witness stand, the combative cross examination of witnesses, the male insensitivities and accusations… in summary; it was everything. If there is a coevolution between social and political norms and our legal system, then we need to hand the redesign of the system over to women. Instead of questioning the voice and legitimacy of survivors of sexual violence, we should look to the systems that are deeply hostile and unfit for purpose when it comes to seeking justice.

Since finishing jury duty, I’ve had many conversations with people about my concerns about the system. The common question is; what do you think needs to be redesigned? What should we do differently? Sadly, I’ve not had the answers. In fact, I’m writing this to try and articulate some of the problems (questions) more clearly, because even those are shrouded in layers of socialised norms. The legal system, to those ‘outside’ of it, seems impossible to question, impossible to imagine differently. This is partly due to our lack of expertise, but this is also partly due to us not asking the right people, engaging with the ‘users’ that frequently fall victim to the ravages and violence of a system designed by people (men) who don’t understand (or believe) them. Beyond a clarification of what is wrong, what needs to change and how, we also need to ask who is going to look at the judicial system in a holistic manner? It’s easy to say that this is beyond the reach of a designer. But is it the work of a lawyer? When systems are so entrenched in their own history and complexity, who are the people who can bring around the whole-sale revamp and redesign?

The fragility of our failing institutions, the contemporary loss of faith in their solidity, may partly be due to their organisational paradigms being at odds with our networked selves. Our expectations of their organising principles sit at odds with the rest of the services and structures that have become common to our lives. The question that needs to be asked, is how these structures are redesigned for the 21st Century.

The materiality of boredom