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Legal expression.

Conceived as the focus of a new city quarter, Architecture Studio's law courts building in Caen is a bold reinterpretation of an institutional programme that combines the need for formality with a surprising sculptural presence.

Caen's new law courts, which opened last year, are a product of a wide-ranging review of the French justice system which was begun around ten years ago. A tangible result of the reorganisation has been an ambitious building programme. to construct new regional law courts in over 20 departments, using the well-established French system of architectural competitions to elicit appropriately bold, modern designs.

Architecture Studio won the competition for Caen with a typically gestural and slightly perplexing building that on casual inspection might be mistaken for that ubiquitous French type le mediatheque. However, its location in a new city quarter (being planned by Adrien Fainsilber), near Caen's institutional heart, locks it firmly into the world of civic propriety, despite its unorthodox appearance. Containing a court of appeal, an assize court and two smaller tribunal courts, together with offices and ancillary facilities, the six-storey building is organised around a rhomboidal plan. Clad in a mixture of sleek grey metal panels and dark glazing, it has an imposing, bunker-like presence, calculated to deflect curious scrutiny and perhaps induce a sense of unease in local malfeasants. The corners of the rhomboid are rounded off, creating slightly sinister bulges, through which are extruded the crisp, orthogonal volumes of the courtrooms, clad in varying combinations of stone, copper and timber. The contrast between the curved and angular geometries is further emphasised by theatrically oversailing brises soleils that run around each floor, like the slats of an oversized venetian blind.

The main entrance on the east corner is a modern abstraction of a traditional portico, its huge rectangular maw housing a monumental staircase. The staircase leads up to a public concourse at first floor level, where the scale and character of the building are fully revealed. Cells are located at ground level, with offices and courtrooms wrapped around the concourse. Five storeys high and flooded with natural light, the cool, luminous volume of the concourse makes a dignified forum for the day-to-day activities of the legal process.

The courtrooms are placed at each corner of the concourse, with the largest, the court of appeal, positioned on axis with the entrance. As with the exterior, the courtroom volumes extrude into the concourse and are differentiated by materials that extend the basic minimal palette of metal and glass. The court of appeal is clad in finely honed wood panels, with additional perforated screens set at angles over internal windows giving the three-storey volume a sculptural, almost cubist complexity. The assize court on the south corner is clad in vertical strips of burnished copper, while the volume housing the smaller tribunal courts is covered with a lightweight, blue metal mesh, like fine gauze.

Concentric rings of cellular offices run round the edge of the concourse with tiers of access walkways (replacing dull internal corridors) overlooking the dramatic central space. Courtrooms are elegantly proportioned with stone floors and handsome, simple wood fittings. Natural light from clerestory windows is diffused around curved ceilings, animating the spaces and making them as welcoming and civilised as courtrooms can be. Combining a bold architecture parlant with a sense of dignity and human scale, Caen's new courts aptly reflect the evolving place of law in modern France.
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Title Annotation:Architecture Studio's law courts building in Caen, France
Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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