An architect prognosticates on the law

An architect prognosticates on the law
The reader might well ask what an architect is doing prognosticating about law? In an effort to consider the shifts in legal practice, the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice asked an architect to describe how architecture is practised, how design decisions are made, and how one proceeds from client brief to physical design and construction.

Even the law profession, by its nature governed by rules of procedure and precedent, is subject to greater and more rapid change than at any other time in history, as is the case for every discipline and aspect of life. An example of such change in the administration of law is the greater proportion of disputes now settled by mediation rather than by court cases.

Rules of procedure are simply not enough to accommodate those changes. What is needed is a more fair, predictable, and efficient delivery of justice. More importantly, to elevate law to justice, a social dimension is an essential ingredient in the resolution of conflict or dispute.

In trying to find parallels between the legal and design processes, I mostly found contrasts: In law, precedents are taken in their particulars; in architecture, they are only taken for their principles.

While it is true that in law circumstances alter cases, in architecture that is a constant — context, construction technology and function, the quantifiable factors, are infinitely variable. Perhaps the closest parallel is in law, when it includes social and contextual factors, the dispensation of law can be elevated to justice. So in building, when including the more qualitative factors — a social dimension or the quality and character of place, or even symbolism — can mere building be elevated to architecture.

Friday afternoon project reviews are a tradition in my office. Everyone in the office is invited to the main meeting room, where beer and popcorn or cheese is served, and each week a current project in the office is presented. All are invited to comment. At such times, and when teaching, I ask the authors of design work to stand back and define what the objectives are: For whom is the building being designed? In the case of law courts, is it for the judges? Legal counsel? The parties in dispute? The accused in criminal cases? Their families? The jury or the public?

Most problems, particularly in architectural design, are resolved with the greatest satisfaction when inclusive in their consideration. In the case of the courts, if a wide array of factors is considered, are there rankings of consideration? If so, on what basis are such rankings made?

Too often, particularly in design, the aims or criteria are not articulated. Too often they are simply the predilection of the designer. The designer may well be talented, and indeed skillfully satisfy the implicit aims of the designer. These are usually the tectonic, or formal, aspects of architecture, i.e. an internal consistency has been achieved if the designer is a talented one.

In such instances I ask: What are the broader social goals? How is context being satisfied? Can the project be seen to satisfy ethical considerations? Is the technology in service to those aims, or merely those of flexing structural muscles? If such questions reveal that such factors have indeed been addressed, the design can be said to have at least attempted an external consistency — one of even greater satisfaction than a demonstration of plastic adeptness. Indeed, in the greatest works of art, technique and artistic intent are inseparable.

It is unreasonable to expect any architect to have knowledge of the needs and wants of every client and for every circumstance. These need to be elicited via a careful process of inquiry, of listening with an outer and inner ear.

The advertising industry’s device to achieve such insights is via focus groups. Polling is another, as every politician knows. And now Google and other Internet providers have an extraordinary means of elucidating personal preferences. Whatever the means, it is important to find out what lies behind user preferences, in order that new and better ways of satisfying requirements can be devised. In other words what is needed is an understanding of the issue, of clearly identifying aims rather than describing previous solutions: Architectural ideologues and amateur “designers” have a fundamental trait in common — they come with predetermined solutions in mind.

Once needs and wants are clearly identified — which might well include conflicting requirements — it is the job of the designer to then resolve such conflicts and design plans that satisfy stated aims.

Most significantly, with well-articulated aims, the criteria for judging designs can be used to test the success of design proposals. In this process it is best to provide as many options as possible, thereby enabling client and users to evaluate designs in respect to accepted goals. It is the absence of clearly stated and agreed-upon criteria that leads to conflict and design failure.

Those who have carriage of the administration of justice and who recognize the shifting ground in the dispensation of the law, understand the physical facilities to house such processes must have adaptability, universality, transformability, and responsiveness. This includes an architecture that symbolizes fairness, that is accessible, unintimidating, and instills a respect for the application of law that results in justice. By following the process in which the best designs are realized, such an outcome is surely possible.

Jack Diamond founded the internationally acclaimed Diamond Schmitt Architects in Toronto in 1975. His extensive body of work includes city halls and opera houses as well as the new buildings at law schools including Osgoode Hall, the University of British Columbia and Thompson Rivers University. Projects to open in 2013 include Bridgepoint Hospital in Toronto and the New Mariinsky Theatre opera house in St. Petersburg, Russia.

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