Architectus director Mark Wilde is one of Australia’s foremost designers of courts and justice spaces. In this podcast edition of Talking Architecture and Design, he speaks with Architecture & Design about his passion for architecture and his interest in courthouse design.

What sparked your interest in court design?

“I was called for jury duty in a murder trial, and then spent five days in the courthouse listening to the evidence being presented where I was generally getting fascinated by the whole environment,” says Wilde.

“Following the courtroom deliberations, the jurors adjourned to the jury pool room where the atmosphere was very intense and left a lasting impression on me. This is where my passion for the field commenced,” he says.

On evolving courthouse design

“Previous generations of courts were fortresses with heavy walls and punched openings but in the last 10 years, the modern court building has taken another direction – one that is sensitive to, and supportive of all the occupants in the building,” says Wilde.

“A lot of these changes have come from the judges themselves,” he notes.

“For instance, adjacent to the King Street Courts in Sydney – a sandstone building with punched openings – is the high-rise refurbished glass building housing the Federal and State courts. There is an interesting difference in the design of these court buildings; the modern glass tower design is driven by concerns for transparency from the outside – it’s trying to send a message to the community that there’s nothing to hide inside. Within the ‘glass box’, other criteria also come into play such as security, acoustics and energy performance,” he says.

“People go to a court for a variety of reasons and it can be a stressful time for them. Features such as windows, natural light and views provide a great opportunity to calm people. This is a great driver for the glass tower option as opposed to the fortress, with the architect trying to materially affect the mood of the people inside the court building.”

 A court building needs to be a welcoming facility

“A courthouse is a public building where members of the public go – sometimes as a last resort, says Wilde, adding that, “The staff can perform better in a friendly building.”

“At a seminar a few years ago, I heard a keynote speaker at the conference evocatively describe her ‘ideal courtroom’. There were references to a summer’s day, a gently flowing breeze, and standing underneath the canopy of a large tree beside a river,” he says.

“This description stuck with me and allowed me to include some of these ‘qualities’ in my court designs.”

“So instead of small openings and a dark, dingy atmosphere, people coming to the court building can experience a bright, open and friendly environment,” says Wilde.

Are Indigenous motifs and other influences driving court design?

“Certainly, the Aboriginal motifs are a driver,” he says.

“The other comes back to transparency and the notion of these events happening in public. For example, if one were to go back a couple of hundred years in Europe, convicted criminals would be taken to the town square and publicly executed; one could argue that these processes happened with a greater degree of transparency in front of the public.”

“This isn’t the situation today except when the case involves celebrities or public figures who are regularly in the media. So, the journey from the kerb when the car door opens to the front door of the court building, and then navigating from the front door through security to the courtroom – these are some of the core drivers when designing court buildings,” he says.

Court building styles in different countries

“The new generation of courts built over the past 10 years in California is responding to issues such as transparency and a human-centric approach. However, courts built prior to this period are authoritarian in design,” says Wilde.

“In the Scandinavian region, court buildings in Denmark and Sweden are more egalitarian relative to the Australian and US courthouses – there are no symbols of authority in the building. The accused sits next to their lawyer at the bar table and not in the dock, and the floor is flat with the judge just one step up. There are facilities for video conferencing if security warrants it.”

“Closer to home, the design of court buildings varies according to the region and socio-demographic differences,” he says.

“For example, a court building in Alice Springs would be serving all types of trials. The design would also have local cultural influences. On the other hand, a Sydney court building is likely to be multi-storeyed because of high land value and non-availability of land in the city. The courthouse will also be specific to the type of trial.”

The verdict

“Access to justice is an important driver when designing court buildings,” says Wilde.

“The courthouse should ideally have access to public transport so anyone can get to the building easily. Additionally, anyone coming in from the street should be able to enter the court building on flat ground without steps or ramps,” he says.

Hear our full podcast with Mark Wilde here.