Courthouses Should Be Beautiful

[Eds. Note: We’re pleased to be able to share this piece by John Ehrett, who joins us as a guest author]

Most government buildings are pathologically ugly.

By “government buildings,” I don’t mean iconic structures like the Lincoln Memorial or the White House. I mean the garden-variety government buildings that sit in medium- to large-sized cities across the nation, blighting perfectly good patches of real estate. These buildings are too often stark, monochrome, inhuman boxes from which any trace of humanity or character has been ruthlessly excised. (My current haunt, the Earle Cabell Federal Building in downtown Dallas, was described by urban critic William Whyte as “the single worst downtown building in the country.”)

Perhaps this functionalist banality is forgivable in certain contexts. For instance, the Earle Cabell Building houses branches of offices as diverse as the Internal Revenue Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Merit Systems Protection Board, and so on. And let’s be honest: no one expects prettiness from passport offices. (The IRS likely has the artistic sense of a dimwitted Niffler, though that’s beside the point.)

But courthouses should be different.

When I was clerking on the Ninth Circuit, we would hear cases in two separate locations: the Richard H. Chambers Courthouse in Los Angeles, and the James R. Browning Courthouse in San Francisco. Visually, these two couldn’t be more different. The Los Angeles building is a hotel-turned-hospital-turned-courthouse, dominated by stucco and other Spanish architectural influences, overlooking the Arroyo Seco River. By contrast, the San Francisco courthouse is a former post office crafted in grand federal style, a labyrinth of marble columns and cavernous halls in the heart of downtown. But both courthouses are beautiful in their own distinctive way.

This beauty matters on a fundamental level, given just how extensively aesthetic and philosophical considerations overlap in this domain. Specifically, courthouses built in classical style—or drawing on other longstanding architectural traditions—offer an imposing and tangible counterpoint to narrow theories of legal positivism.

Conceived as a rejoinder to older theories of natural law, positivism teaches that law is purely a creation of human will, devoid of any intrinsic moral authority. The notion that legal systems are socially constructed isn’t objectionable in itself; such systems plainly are. However, as Arthur Leff so ably pointed out in 1979, legal positivism is frequently a prelude to denying the intelligibility of any moral reasoning at all—that is, denying that laws can ever be evaluated in light of an objective ethical standard, or written to conform more closely to such a standard. And law untethered from a concept of morality (however flimsy) is nothing more than majoritarian coercion.

This coercion is embodied in the hulking concrete horrors of Brutalist architecture, a style “consciously intended as a social and political statement” about the raw truths of power. Just look at this monstrosity of a courthouse in Raleigh, North Carolina, which harshly announces the oppressive authority of the state to compel compliance. Liberty and moral elevation are out; unquestioning obedience is in. If this sterility is the “progress” foreseen by modernist architects like Adolf Loos, who famously pronounced that “[t]he evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects,” the future is bleak indeed.

But beautiful courthouses, like those in Los Angeles and San Francisco, defy this theory. They instead reflect an essential (and true) principle: just as their physical shapes and ornaments and fittings derive from a tradition that precedes any single person, so too does the moral legitimation of law derive from something beyond human beings’ will to power. And that something beyond is something we can grasp towards in both our architecture and our law, even if we can never attain or understand it completely.

Even the most hardened utilitarian skeptic, bent on claiming that all moral reasoning is fiction, must at least concede that this is a fiction useful to the administration of justice and perceptions of legitimacy. Society functions better when people believe they ought to follow the law, so why not build structures that cultivate those beliefs? (Ronald Dworkin, the philosopher of law who grounded law’s legitimation in its “integrity” within a given community, would perhaps agree: it would seem that an internally cohesive “built environment of the justice system” implicitly reinforces trust in the fabric of legal principles.) Even without any metaphysical baggage of “natural law” attached, the case for beautiful courthouses succeeds.

In a secularizing age, few institutions bear more symbolic weight than courts. And symbols, upon which all our social structures rely, necessarily evoke a sense of indebtedness to realities beyond the immediate. We do not exist apart from tradition, but are products of it. Distinctive judicial motifs like the Constitution, the flag, and the gavel remind us that we exist within a complex web of obligations and responsibilities that precede us and that will persist after us.

Is it too much to ask that our courthouses do the same?

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