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

Since 1960, when the organisation of Swedish district courts was about to be restructured, court buildings and court-rooms have thoroughly transformed. The number of district courts have been reduced from 127 to 48 and both the court institution and its architectural settings become more anonymous – some would say less intimidating, others less imposing. Today, most of us will never enter a court and do not know where to find it unless on the internet.

Swedish district courthouses form an architecturally heterogenous group of buildings. Those recently erected constitute large, spatially complex and technology-driven systems of distribution and
circulation, the standards behind their design primarily relating to security. The oldest  courthouses appear as small and obsolete from a safety point of view and have been rebuilt in several stages. Nevertheless, they function as locally prominent, historic landmarks. According to governmental directives, court premises shall display a high level of transparency, be open and welcoming while also maintaining good security. A court building is thereby defined as complex and technically advanced with many requirements that must be fulfilled, not least concerning safety. The National Courts Administration, responsible for providing the courts with premises, lets the buildings from private real estate companies on the market. Swedish district courthouses thus seem to have gone from civic to semi-private spaces in the last five decades.

Though the court of law constitutes a fundamental institution of society, its socio-spatial conditions have been the object of limited research. The overall aim of this project is to define how the architectural and technological design of Swedish district courthouses relate to the everyday practice of law. The project addresses the spatial and material aspects of four specific and interconnected processes of transformation and the specific aims are to

1)define and explain the course of events that made it possible to radically decrease the number of courts and privatise the premises, 2) compare the architecture of historical and contemporary court buildings in terms of explicit objectives and spatial practice 3) determine the effects that the implementation of new, primarily digital, technology has had on court space and 4) understand how and why security entered the building programs and how it has affected the use, perception and layout of court space.

The project starts off in 1960, when the debate and investigations that preceded the judicial reform of 1971 and its spatial consequences began to take shape, and ends in present day architectural conditions and spatial practices. While 1960–2020 constitutes the chronological framing, the district court sets the spatio-judicial delimitation. The last delimitation concerns the Swedish setting. Although relating to a broad western society development that includes closing down of courts, digitisation and security focus, the project goal requires Swedish case studies. In accordance with the overall aim, Swedish district courthouses will function as both research means and the research end. They serve as illustrative cases through which the project will examine the relationship between architectural design and everyday practice. They also make up the research objective per se and will thereby clarify the implications of Swedish legal architecture and socio-judicial practices.

Funding: Swedish Research Council 2020-2023

Project leader: Eva Löfgren, senior lecturer and researcher, Department of Conservation, University of Gothenburg

Research group:
Lars-Eric Jönsson, professor in Ethnology, Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University
Mattias Kärrholm, professor in Architecture, Department of Architecture and Built Environment, Lund University
Jonathan Westin, reader, researcher and research coordinator at the Centre for Digital Humanities at the University of Gothenburg.

Page Manager: Emma Sjöberg|Last update: 12/12/2019

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