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Bar News - March 19, 2014

Opinion: Public Architecture: Reinforcing Culture and Attitudes


Courthouses all share the same purpose, but no two of them look alike. Older ones borrow from classical models, seeking to embody reason and intelligence in their very design. Newer ones tend to be cold and corporate, advertising the disinterestedness of the profession they embody. And those that date from the last mid-century often seem constructed to simply function well, in which goal there exists an appeal to decency and fair play.

The old Superior Court building in Manchester was one such courthouse. Its four main courtrooms were on the second floor. Each sat at the corner of a large square common area where lawyers and clients milled around freely. That common area was a busy and social place. Deals got struck there in full public view. There was bantering and bickering suited for a martketplace. And the staircase to that second floor was noteworthy, too. It had wide wood planks for bannisters and handsome metallic posts. It was a Danish Modern staircase. You don’t see those very often.

That building was also filled with asbestos, and the security people used to make us all stand outside in the freezing rain to enter through a single rickety weapons detector (though prosecutors, of course, were simply waved through). They eventually remodeled the whole thing, and the new version is brighter and quieter. I may be the only person around here who misses the old one. But I think of that building, its usefulness, its integrity, and its particular social grace, every time I have business at one of the many other courthouses in our state located in a shopping mall, or next to a parking lot, or in a cul-de-sac of its own.

Architecture matters. It does more than enrich our artistic consciousness, as if that alone was not enough to make it important (there is a sad and offensive belief in today’s world that only the wealthy care about things of beauty; a brand new thought in human history, calculated to excuse our present cultural failures, and belied by centuries of experience to the contrary). Architecture also directly communicates what its builders think is significant.

For another example, I can just barely remember the old Manchester District Courthouse, behind the municipal building in that city’s downtown. But my main memory is how they used to shackle the prisoners and lead them indoors in a long line, to all stand together while their cases were heard. The room got crowded. The effect was physical. For good or ill, it was a moment for community.

A new building and modern security concerns have altered that practice. Prisoners are now led into the courtroom one by one from a basement holding cell. And with that simple expedient, the design of a modern courthouse creates a new fact: Each prisoner now stands apart from the crowd. Each one can be ignored or scrutinized, from a safe and antiseptic distance. They are no longer like the rest of us. They can be chilled with cold while we stay warm.

Security is certainly one of today’s goals, but others are equally apparent. Take our two major government campuses in Concord, our two major centers of legal and bureaucratic activity. One is on Pleasant Street, on the grounds of the old state hospital, and the other is on Hazen Drive, where it stands amidst a maze of nameless looping roads.

The Pleasant Street campus is dominated by the ancient hospital itself: a handsome and impressive structure, stately and Victorian, solid brick. It speaks of a time when people were proud of their government. But today, that pride is hard to find. I attended a meeting there recently, on a blustery January day, and our conference room’s window was halfway open. It would have been cold inside, except the heat was on, too.

As for the Hazen Street complex: I get lost in its endless parking lots, I always seem to be speaking to people behind glass, and I am constantly struck by how completely the entire design manages to isolate hundreds of state workers from the ebb and flow of commerce on Main Street. Imagine what those workers could be doing for that city’s downtown, or for the downtowns of Manchester, Nashua, or Laconia; all those souls present on a daily basis, shopping, walking, partaking of city life. Instead, we’ve marooned them in an anonymous office park. That place expresses one of two things: either our government is something to be hidden away, or it’s nobody’s business at all.

My job brings me into constant contact with individuals who have, in one way or another, broken our state’s laws. And when they come to court, they see for themselves how our state actually feels about those laws. If their courthouse looks drab and drear, we can’t blame them for thinking the laws they have broken are also drab and drear. We’re telling them so. They soak it up. They leave such buildings less chastened by their experience, than confirmed in the cynicism that brought them there in the first place.

Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising. The author’s opinions are his own and do not represent the opinions of his employer, or the NH Bar Association.

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