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Title: Justice seen to be done

Pages: 49-55

                     

Author: Robert Waterhouse

Text: Justice seen to be done

Robert Waterhouse discusses Manchester's magistrates' courts, designed by Yorke Rosenberg Mardall in association with the city architect; photographs by Richard Einzig

Scratch its veneer of big city sophistication and Manchester proves to be a homely, rundown or squalid place depending on what mood you're in and where you find yourself. The same could be said for Birmingham or Leeds or, come to that, London itself. But Manchester is a case on its own: left high and dry at the end of the Ship Canal by the demise of the cotton industry, few people cared to ask the question whether Manchester was really necessary any more. The place, some two million people of whom only about a quarter lived within the city boundaries, was too well established for there to be any going back. Equally, with the end of cotton, coal and much heavy engineering there wasn't exactly a rash of investment in the lean years after the second world war. So Manchester mercifully has less than its quota of fifties buildings, and has had the opportunity to model its new self round a properly considered city plan, formulated in the mid-sixties. Under this plan the city centre is loosely divided into several areas, of which the civic area, dominated of course by Waterhouse's stately town hall, is to be linked in a series of walkways from Albert Square to Crown Square, Manchester's courtland. The purpose and logic behind the plan - in this part of it at least- has been defined by the completion of the new magistrates' courts.

They, or it- for the complex is a single building on its own podium - now form the south side of Crown Square, and indeed turn it into a square proper for the first time, giving a much needed boost to the modern image of the law formerly represented by the crown courts. These, built some ten years ago by the city architect's department, now appear shoddy and fussy. The architect's department has changed a great deal in a decade and is currently involved in one of the largest and most experimental rehousing programmes in Europe. Pressure of work on the department was a contributory reason for the decision to look outside and invite Yorke Rosenberg Mardall to take on the magistrates'

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Cutaway drawing exposes the two main court floors, the first mezzanine and the entrance floor. The actual elevation, previous page, shows how three double floors are flanked by six mezzanines

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Two court floor sit between offices and magistrates' rooms. Prisoners come down to courts from cells in the roof via "safe" lifts and entrances

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On the first mezzanine are public, staff and police cafés as well as windows for paying fines

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The building stands on a podium with car parks and a shopping arcade underneath; steps lead down to Crown Square. Prisoners are brought into a police and shared with adjacent crown courts. Two juvenile courts and the entrance concourse take up most of the floor space

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Main entrance to the former courts in Minshull St. complete with hanging noose contrasts with electric revolving door and rubber plant at Crown Square entrance

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Entrance concourse is wholly clad in travenine and is bare apart from central ushers desk. Public take lifts to main court floors but can climb stairs to the first mezzanine, overlooking the concourse, which has a café. White-tiled concrete structure of building projects beyond the interior Floor to ceiling windows are of Pittsburgh glass framed by bronzed anodised aluminium. On the terrace, 5ft concrete slabs rest above the prestressed beams of the understructure and are self-draining

courts. The finished job is ample evidence that the decision was an enlightened one.

By the time YRM were involved (October 1964) the clients had not finalised their brief but the working party, composed largely of the people who would officially use the building the clerk's department, police and probation officers - had already got its priorities sorted out. On the relatively small site to be provided by the city it wanted a compact building divided into four clearly defined but interactive sections: the courts themselves, 12 of them plus two juvenile courts, led up to and surrounded by public open space; administrative offices, with room for a new headquarters for the Manchester probation service; retiring and regrouping rooms for magistrates, lawyers and other dignitaries; and "safe" areas for introducing prisoners to the building, keeping them in detention for up to three days and distributing them to the courts.

Five further working party meetings with the architects resulted in general agreement on aims: it became increasingly clear to YRM that unless the building was to be a tower block it was logical to make the courts themselves the core. Then, since to give courts dignity and keep them from becoming oppressive ceilings would need to be fairly high, the two court floors became in effect double storey, twice the height of the administrative mezzanines on either side. By cunning use of the mezzanines, magistrates, prisoners and public would all have separate entrances to any court without need for ramps, tunnels or other weary theatrical standbys of former courts. Home Office regulations stipulate that prisoners kept overnight need daylight in their cells and an open air exercise yard, so prisoners were assigned the top storey. And as it became apparent that the courts were not going to open straight on the square, air conditioning was essential. The building's external form three main storeys flanked by six mezzanines on either side and topped by a side-windowless cell belt on which is placed the services plant- is a direct expression of its functions. YRM's very success lies in the confident way they have accentuated this by extending the white-tiled concrete superstructure beyond the interior, the extremes of which are crisply defined by floor to ceiling Pittsburgh glass, so from some angles a dark brown box appears to be hanging from a white square frame.

Anyone who had occasion to visit the old magistrates' courts in Minshull Street just behind Piccadilly and was subjected to their Dickensian charms will realise that designing a new complex wasn't like putting up another office block or even another university laboratory: it amounted to a redefinition of social practice, a statement about what is or isn't acceptable for one of our oldest customs - retribution to the wicked. By and large, magistrates' courts are not places visited by hardened or dangerous criminals, though circumstances could conspire to bring them through en route to higher places. In general, this kind of court is for the misguided, the unfortunate and - often -the innocent, charged by the police in their normal course of duty. It is also for settling civil disputes like divorces and licensing appeals and for dishing out statutory fines on what are called Section 1 offences- undefended speeding or parking charges. So the last thing wanted, if the law is to be thought at all sensitive to social change, is an Old Bailey atmosphere. YRM deliberately set out to provide courts in which a trial could become a dialogue, public waiting areas as elegant and comfortable as the best air terminal, and cells which interpreted Home Office specifications with minimum grimness.

That the first two aims have been achieved there is little doubt. The fully carpeted courts, with a comfortable Hille chair for everyone (including the accused) are not undignified but certainly lack the ability to make you feel guilty even though you're a simple spectator. For the courts trying criminal offences the dock still exists but the only thing to distinguish it from other desks is a low bronzed glass shield between the prisoner and the court. Prisoner and magistrate are so close, however, that they can almost hold a private conversation. So, depending on the magistrate's approach, there is at least a chance that proceedings will be conducted in a rational manner, without recourse to histrionics on one side or pomposity on the other. Interested public can come and go quietly.

This quietness is extended to the public concourses and waiting areas, and is remarkable when you think that the two main surfaces here are travertine marble and glass - both with reputations of being hard, Tatiesque finishes. In practice there is no echo in the corridors and very little noise carries over the gentle hiss of the air conditioning or the rhythmic thump of the electric powered revolving doors leading outside. The public address system is surprisingly precise and unhectoring. The lightly grained travertlne, an enormous order for floors and interior walls supplied by Walter W Jenkins & Co. obviously surprised the Queen when she opened the building this summer; she was seen to run her hand down it as she walked along perhaps wondering why they didn't have the same at the palace. In any case, it manages to be formal and resilient without being oppressive and marries well with the bronzed anodised aluminium window and door frames. Herman Miller seating, the kind that Charles Eames first designed for O' Hair Airport, is placed away from the courts and towards the window so people waiting to go in are encouraged to look out and forget for a moment their problems. Lecterns between the seats and the courts give the day's schedule. In each corner of the two main court floors are glass boxes

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Typical criminal court above has wall to wall carpeting, Hille chairs and light diffused by acoustic honeycomb. From the magistrates' bench a simple glass screen separates the dock. Juvenile court left, has no dock but heavy veneer panelling helps make if anything a more formal setting. Concourse areas, right, flanking the courts, are again travertine clad with Eames bench seating and lecterns bearing the day's proceedings

interview rooms for lawyers to talk with clients in privacy. On the mezzanine between the entrance concourse and the first court floor a cafeteria serves snacks throughout the day, and lunches.

Some people find the entrance concourse needlessly stark, relieved only by a central ushers' desk to which you have to go for information and directions; the signing system, of which more later, is hardly perfect. But, if one can generalise so soon after the building has opened, it seems likely that the courts and their surrounds will considerably humanise the processes they contain. In cells and prisoners' waiting areas the picture is very different. Already any fittings at all flimsy have been removed: for example, overflow pipes to urinals in the men's lavatories have disappeared - allegedly to prevent their use on police warders; the juvenile waiting rooms look as though they've been ransacked, with air vent grilles pulled from walls, locks and springs broken from doors, toilet rolls thrown down lavatory bowls and graffiti everywhere. Obviously the liberal gesture has been despoiled before appreciated; now the places look even more desolate than traditional dungeons.

Maintenance - or management, as the architects prefer to call it- is a similar though less spectacular problem throughout the public parts of the building. Travertine floors are cleaned quickly by machine, which is we reason why the material was used. But throughout the day people insist on dropping their cigarette ends and sweet papers around, quite regardless of ash trays and waste bins. In the situation, and until people have learnt better, there's only one thing to do - employ a man to go round and round with a brush and pan. In the United States, where there is more respect for buildings as buildings, no prestige set up is complete without its janitors who are given uniforms, status and career prospects. The small but cumulatively depressing abuses of the courts things like iced water dispensers being without cups or the covering up of the menu board in the cafeteria with a bit of tatty paper because it's the wrong time of day - can be cured, though vulnerable armrests on the Eames chairs have had to be reinforced with lock nuts. What is needed is a change of attitude on the part of both staff and public; but staff have to lead the way.

One particular difficulty has been that the building contract got well behind schedule because of an electricians' strike (in the end the city's direct works department was called in) and subsequently, instead of the planned three months' commissioning period before opening day, everyone was moved in the week of the official opening and the courts were immediately in business. So mistakes have been public - like below par air conditioning in courts during sultry July days. And signing is at best a mystery (there is very little of it), at

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Third floor probation officers' conference room provides stunning views of Manchester, looking across the proposed civic area to the town hall - which may eventually be linked with Crown Square by walkways

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Four pictures illustrate the ver separate but interrelated uses of the building. Public café, left, serves comforting tea all day. Magistrates can expect something a bit more elaborate, as their lounge, bottom left, shows. The have their own dining room, too, and separate entrances to the courts. Administration staff are packed fairly tightly into offices on the first and second floors, bottom right. They have not made matters better by converting the intended open plan into little areas surrounded by carrels. Prisoners are watched, top right, by closed circuit tv controlled from within the seventh floor penthouse cell block. Cameras guard corridors and exercise yards - not cells. Communal areas - like washrooms - are already battered and down at heel, but air conditioning helps remove traditional bad odours

worst a mess (bits of paper stuck to glass doors bear cryptic notes like "Collect property room 252"). If you want to get into either administrative section from the court areas you have to go through doors marked "Fire exit". The reasoning is that the public must be prevented from wandering where they are not wanted. I don't think these "Fire exits" would discourage anyone who really needed to find some private information in a clerical office: only more ushers or commissionaires can take care of that sort. The problem, again, is inadequate staffing.

Moving post-haste from Minshull Street has underlined another, and more serious, difficulty. Office space for the Clerk to the Justices' department was decided back in the mid sixties, along with the requirements of other departments. Nobody could have predicted then the subsequent increase in numbers of cases brought before the courts. A few examples will make the position very clear: In 1966 17017 warrants were issued: this figure more than doubled to 35007 in 1970. The number of adult prisoners increased from 17 4870 in 1966 to 26 079 in 1970. Fines imposed and received in 1966 were £186 861 and £142 039 respectively; the corresponding figures for 1970 were £303 345 and £202 444.

In this situation it is not surprising that Fines Enforcement Officers have been created to take a bit of the pressure off the police but they, of course, need their own offices. What these figures add up to is the distressing fact that the administrative space in the new courts is inadequate. This, together with bad management of the office furniture planned to go one way and installed or converted another way by retrograde staff - means that some old-timers are feeling sore about their new deal, particularly when they see the undeserving public walking round in such space and unaccustomed luxury.

Now this is not a flexible building. The architects emphasise that it had to be divided up to produce the required circulation patterns, and they in turn have finalised those divisions by making the double storey court floors a structural feature. Obviously for them there is no going back. So it looks as if there will have to be more room found for admin work in the proposed county courts (not yet on the drawing board) or that the probation officers, who occupy the best part of three mezzanine floors, will be sent off to alternative accommodation. Again, it is conceivable that part of the clerical work could be put out to a computer in the future. Perhaps the best and easiest compromise solution would be to move the probation officers, particularly as the more enlightened people in the probation service feel it is wrong for them to be too closely associated with the workings of the courts.

Considering the quality of finishes and the need for, special systems including closed circuit tv for the safe areas-the completed, furnished price of around œ3 millions or œ11 per sq ft is exceptionally reasonable, even when you remember that the site was free. Whether or not they dump their cigarette ends on floors. Mancunians have taken to the place with cheerfulness: a visit to the courts, even for those with relatives in the dock, is not an unpleasant experience (sensibly, there are lots of loos just by the court entrances). Manchester's peculiar geography - the north west side of town, where the courts are, becomes Salford only yards away- means that Crown Square is pretty inaccessible for the average bus-propelled visitor. No doubt, when the city plan is further developed and the banks of the Irwell become those of a river, not a sewer, Crown Square will be a more natural civic centre. YRM's contribution, ably interpreted by the main contractors. Fram Russell Construction Ltd. will have been to give the square focus and to issue the whole area west of Deansgate a challenge.

 

 

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