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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

Banner photo
Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Architectural crimes against humanity (4) - the BC Supreme Court

Vancouver is a beautiful city set against a backdrop of spectacular natural beauty; unfortunately it is also home to some of the world's most wretched architecture. Case in point: the British Columbia Supreme Court building, which sits like a massive gun turret on two entire city blocks bordered by Hornby, Howe, Nelson & Robson Streets. It is a textbook example of a style of modern architecture called Brutalism, which architects embraced from the 1960s to the 1980s in an episode of collective insanity.

This horrible structure replaced the previous courthouse on Robson Square which is now the home of the Vancouver Art Gallery. This beautiful neoclassical building was designed in 1905 by architect Francis Rattenbury, who was also responsible for the BC Legislature Building and the Empress Hotel, both in Victoria.

The new courthouse looms over its surroundings in a manner that can only be described as menacing. The top stories overhang the sidewalks like the fortified parapets of some dungeon or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. The grey concrete walls create a threatening atmosphere of gloom in the neighbourhood that isn't dispelled by the pathetic vegetation struggling to grow on various ledges and terraces.

The court complex consists of two buildings straddling Smithe Street which are connected by a pedestrian walkway, which makes the whole thing indistinguishable from a highway overpass.

When I look at this building, I'm reminded of George Orwell's description of the Ministry of Truth in his novel 1984:

The Ministry of Truth - Minitrue in Newspeak - was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred metres into the air.


The Ministry of Truth contained, it was said, three thousand rooms above ground level, and corresponding ramifications below. Scattered about London there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you sould see all four of them simultaneously. They were the homes of the four Ministries between which the entire apparatus of government was divided.

The Greco-Roman design of the old courthouse speaks in a vocabulary of tradition and democracy; the business of the law conducted here traced its lineage to ancient Athens and the Roman Republic. It was the public face of the legal system and reassured citizens that they lived in a democratic society where individual rights were protected by the rule of law. The new courthouse speaks in a vocabulary of totalitarianism - it is cold, ugly, dominant and oppressive. Here, the individual has no importance in the apparatus of the State.

It must be a frightening experience to be the subject of a legal proceding in this forbidding building. I can't imagine what it would be like to have to work in it every day.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

You didn't mention a huge part of the whole Robson Square Complex and the architect, Arthur Erickson. It's really an oasis in the middle of the city. It blends in with the present art gallery and the gardens above is best appreciated in it, than simply from the streets. I agree with a few of your other posts, but this building is one that you have to explore and experience through, under, and above (and not just from the sidewalk) to really appreciate.