Friday, February 22, 2013

The Architecture of Justice

This week I spent three days on jury service. It is of aesthetic crimes, however, that I wish to speak. The court sits a horrendous glass-and-steel monstrosity (lower right) next to its sibling, the Family Court, a horrendous concrete monstrosity (lower left.)

These buildings replace or expand their Neo-classical predecessors built 1914 (left) and 1934 (right).

Each design is typical of its time. The 1914 building is a mix of traditional elements, hearkening back ultimately to Greece and Rome. The 1934 building is stark and intimidating with an authoritarian overtone, although it ultimately nods to the past with its friezes, columns, and symmetries. The 1977 version is a $30,000,000 concrete slab, and the 2006 is just as ugly but carries the pretension of improvement. The design of this new building, unfinished but opened over-budget and over-time in 2007, however, comes with a philosophy. Architect Rafael Viñoly,

What interested me was transforming the public’s perception that the building represented an institution that was seen as closed and in need of protection from the community. The [new] building speaks to the participatory and the democratic nature of the judicial system and its fundamental and constructive mission in our society. [1]
One might append, "So I made it glass," which apparently fulfills the above criteria. Never mind that you cannot at all see inside from the ground floor, or into any court rooms at all. Never mind either any question of scale or form

I always find it interesting when you can't find a flattering angle of a building, when there's no place from which its shape and purpose feel unified and wholly expressed. My local church is like this. Two sides stand flat brick walls, one a vast pointed protrusion, and the fourth a series of stained glass panels, obscured by trees, oblique to the entrance, tiny doors beneath vast, brown, steel, rectangular columns. There is not a single point, and I have sought it, from which the exterior is intelligible. The Bronx County Hall of Justice shares this fate.

Above the jury room, whose design owes more to the "War Room" of Dr. Strangelove than the town halls of Franklin or Jefferson, sits, well, this (right). On the arc is inscribed,

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
My take was that the chairs represent the jurors and the lone figure is the judge pulling the trigger of the crossbow of society, aiming at justice. Apparently, the lone figure is the accused and thus I have no idea what he's standing on. Also, the little doohickey beneath the lone figure reads "state" and "country," although I have no idea how its shape and placement fit in.

So why are the jurors on the bow? Does that imply some of them are further away from justice? Why is the accused so far away from justice? Aren't the jurors technically in the way, then, or are they leading him to justice? And what about the judge? What does the quote even mean?

To my understanding, the statement implies activity, motion towards justice, but individual acts can only occur at a finite time so mustn't they occur at a finite place on the arc? The only alternative is that the acts move along an arc, but if you're moving along an arc wouldn't you eventually hit justice and then start moving away from it again? Unless you stop at justice? Then why does that have to be an arc? Why is the piece titled Equilibrium? Does that mean there is an average of justice? How can there be an equilibrium if things tend one way? I give up.

Lastly, though, why didn't the artist give the figure of the accused some arms? I understand that he didn't want to portray any specific individual or group or gender, but everyone has arms. I mean, I guess some people don't, but some people don't have legs either. Hey, if you were sitting in that room for 13 hours you'd start thinking a few odd thoughts too.


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