The Democratic Courthouse: A Modern History of Design, Due Process and Dignity by Linda Mulcahy and Emma Rowden (London: Routledge, 2019, 370 pp., £36.99)

AuthorMargaret Moran,Patrick Schmidt
Date01 June 2020
Published date01 June 2020
(London: Routledge, 2019, 370 pp., £36.99)
It isn’t difficult to call to mind and even admire the iconic associations of
a courthouse, whether that conjures up the architectural vocabulary of a
classical façade or the statue of a blinded Justice balancing her scales. Yet
howevermuch scholars have recognized the significance of cour t buildings in
general, too often our inquiries have set the horizons at the symbolic gestures
and perhaps the semiotics of courthouse vernacular. Indeed,though we may be
more aware of the power of people’s interactions with the built environment
than ever before, we too rarely make space for interdisciplinary scholarship
on the politics of architecture. Worse, often efforts to peel back the layers
of significance of courthouses either look like architectural history written
by non-historians or end up merely reducing buildings to simplistic texts of
symbolic expressions reflecting the ambitions of architects and clients.
Against this backdrop, the interdisciplinary partnership of Linda Mulcahy
and Emma Rowden makes a multi-layered contribution to our understanding
of court architecture, one that speaks simultaneously to architects, legal
practitioners, socio-legal scholars, and historians. To be sure, as the book
gathers momentum and concludes, Mulcahy and Rowden address most
directly the policy makers and bureaucrats who are positioned to bring
humane design principles, public participation, transparency, and legal
principles to the court estate. Yet, by mining 50 years of archival records,
The Democratic Courthouse: A Modern History of Design, Due Process and
Dignity also presents a compelling case study of wider, even comparative
interest: how choices and missed opportunities influence the design of new
court facilities, but even more how interests, institutions, and ideas construct
– socio-legally as well as architecturally – the contemporary judicial branch.
Mulcahy and Rowden build on their prior worksb utclearly move well beyond
them as they champion a more populist courthouse that brings dignity to the
witnesses, jurors, defendants, and other laity whose lives intersect with judges
and barristers. In this account, power hides around every corner; privilege
is laid bare in the layout of every courtroom. The beating heart of this
monograph exposes how a complex, hierarchical social order is manifested
in the courthouses of a democratic political system.
A book that has such ambitions, and accomplishes as much or more, likely
will be either long or dense. This volume leans towards the latter, and the
first chapter packs in as much as any. At the broadest level, Mulcahy and
Rowden offer a ‘geopolitics of court design’ that works to connect space and
time to legal phenomena. For that to happen, we must recognize the potential
for courthouse design to facilitate or undermine democratic practices. This
more expansionist theory of the trial forces attention to the underappreciated
dynamics of litigation, such as the roles of the press in producing transparency,
© 2020 The Author. Journal of Law and Society © 2020 Cardiff UniversityLaw School

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT