Two district courts with different types of buildings. On the left Norrköping District Court and on the right Jönköping District Court.

Courthouse architecture explored in a new project

A new interdisciplinary project is looking at how the architecture of courts interacts with and influences the everyday administration of justice. The research group, led by Eva Löfgren from the Department of Conservation at the University of Gothenburg, has received SEK 6 million in research funding for the project.

“Now we can start studying how Swedish courthouses have changed over the past fifty years, and what impact this has had on the administration of justice. A lot has happened since the 1960s. The number of district courts has been halved, the premises have been privatised and doubled in size and a number of new technologies have been introduced,” says Löfgren.

Alongside Löfgren there are three researchers in the team: Jonathan Westin from the Centre for Digital Humanities at the University of Gothenburg, and Lars-Erik Jönsson, an ethnologist at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, and Mattias Kärrholm of the Department of Architecture and the Built Environment, both from Lund University. Each of them is responsible for one part of the project.

The researchers will study four different district courts through site observations, interviews and architectural analysis among other things. Lawyers and other people at the courts will be interviewed.

“We researchers come from different backgrounds and do different types of studies. Lars-Eric Jönsson, for example, will focus on the security issues, and Mattias Kärrholm and I will look in particular at the architecture and the place of the courthouses in the cities. Jonathan Westin will examine changes in technology at the district courts.”

When loudspeaker systems were introduced, it had an impact on courtroom design, for example. Today new digital technologies are used, for example many witnesses are examined by video link. The reason why this is done may be that the person who has been the victim of a crime (the complainant) may live far away and feel uneasy about facing the accused.

“The spatial conditions have changed quite dramatically. We want to find out what it means for most of the larger population centres to no longer have a court, and what the implications are of people no longer meeting face to face in the courtroom, no longer sitting in the same room.”

In the 1960s there were 130 courts known as häradsrätter (manorial courts each covering a county district), equivalent to the modern-day district courts (tingsrätter). The number decreased to 100 around 1970, and fell by half during the period 2005–2015. The vast majority of courts today are housed in buildings not owned by the State. The National Courts Administration rents premises on behalf of the district courts, and many older courthouses have been replaced by modern buildings in recent years. This has sometimes prompted debate at the local level.

“In the USA, Donald Trump has declared a wish to ‘make America’s federal buildings beautiful again’ with monumental, neoclassical architecture. Similar ideas have existed before now. The question of style is interesting where courts are concerned. There has long been a perception that courtrooms should be designed to command respect, that they should signal stability and perhaps some degree of conservatism. But how is this achieved? In this project, we examine the various ideas about court architecture that have been expressed over the years. We want to compare these ideas with how the buildings are used and experienced by the people who work in them.”

Threats and risks are today being discussed in many social forums. Security is a key concern in the judicial system. When the security discussion came up and how it has altered the buildings themselves is one of the questions the project will address.

“We want to find out when these questions came up so powerfully. Was there some reason for this? What were the arguments and who was the instigator? We aim to unravel the key events. Because only a small number of incidents have been reported from the district courts.” This may be, as a judge once said, because criminals don’t take knives with them to court.”

Eva Löfgren and her colleagues will conduct in-depth interviews with people who spend time in district courthouses for various reasons, not just court personnel.
“In brief, the aim is to understand how the architecture has changed and the implications this has for the everyday administration of justice,” says Löfgren.

Once new district courts have been built they are usually taken for granted. It can be difficult to imagine how else they could have been designed,” she feels.
“A courthouse has to serve many purposes. If the results of the project lead to a broader discussion on how court environments have changed and what we want them to look like today, then we will be satisfied.”

About the project Just Room? Architecture, Technologies and Spatial Practice of the District Law Court

Eva Löfgren, senior lecturer in conservation, and her fellow researchers, have received nearly SEK 6 million from the Swedish Research Council for the project Just Room? Architecture, Technologies and Spatial Practice of the District Law Court. The reference group includes researchers from the UK and a number of Swedish lawyers.