by Clair Colburn
Courthouses provide services for every demographic, making it imperative that their design cultivates an experience that feels inclusive to everyone and is not solely reflective of the designers and clients’ biases.
As humans, we are inherently biased. Layered onto this foundation are cultural, social and environmental influences that shape our perspectives and preferences. How can designers overcome this when designing spaces and places for diverse populations?
Although we try, implicit bias cannot be eliminated entirely. Understanding why this is true will help us design with a broader awareness so that we can actively counteract bias to the best of our ability.¹
In her book, Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez outlines how detrimental it can be to exclude key stakeholders from the decision making and beta testing processes.
Her examples highlight the importance of soliciting direct input from users rather than having designers layer their own interpretations onto the designs for buildings like courthouses that serve the public.
Obtaining a better understanding of how the public as a whole uses the courts and incorporating this feedback into the design process is an important first step. By interviewing courthouse patrons and gathering first-hand reports of the challenges people face while using courthouses, designers can better empathize with the struggles that many people face.
Architecture has the powerful capacity to represent institutions. To achieve equal access with a sense of belonging – conceptually and experientially – designers need to incorporate the public’s needs or they risk alienating them. Failure to engage the public can have lasting effects that spread well beyond the confines of a building as the public’s experience is inextricably linked to their overall impression of the courts.
Public policy also plays a significant role in accommodating a multitude of public needs. Many state courthouses offer numerous services that are available upon request within a reasonable timeframe. Ideally, these policies work in concert with the building to provide services that are economical in far reaching ways.
Additionally, recent national trends are broadening adjudication styles rather than using a one size fits all method.² The engagement of alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation, arbitration, negotiation and restorative justice require architectural responses that differ from traditional courtroom settings.
When policies are implemented to support diversity and the building is designed thoughtfully with a focus on inclusivity, the potential outcome is a system that feels supportive to everyone.
Architects, court clients and policy makers have a tremendous opportunity to affect long lasting, positive change by incorporating perspectives which may differ from their experiences; diversifying the decision-making body; empathizing with users’ experiences and lastly; building in flexibility for future modifications. As the courts evolve to reflect the public’s changing needs, their designs and policies have the potential to go beyond the status quo to advocate for the public as a whole, including marginalized and under-represented groups.
This article developed from a conference presentation with Clair Colburn, Anne Brockelman and Richard L’Heureux for ABX in Boston, Fall 2019.
¹Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald: Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People
²Danielle Sered: Until We Reckon
Clair Colburn, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is senior associate at Finegold Alexander Architects.