Sunday20 August 2017

Bang to rights: Denton Corker Marshall’s Manchester Civil Justice Centre

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Manchester’s new Civil Justice Centre has all the makings of an icon, but is its studied informality at odds with its serious purpose.

‘The largest British court building since the Royal Courts of Justice” is how John Rintoul of Denton Corker Marshall pitches his practice’s Manchester Civil Justice Centre to me. Thankfully, he has proved luckier than the architect of that building: George Edmund Street died at the age of 57 after the strain of the endeavour brought on a stroke.

It was an all too understandable outcome. Few building types represent a more fiendish challenge than the law court. In large part this is because the need to isolate the various parties involved in any trial necessitates a circulation system of extraordinary complexity. In the case of a criminal court, judge, jury and defendant each require their own designated approach to the court room. The Manchester building will only hear civil cases, making for a considerably simpler diagram, but as it accommodates up to 4,000 people at a time, and with 47 court rooms housed under one roof, the logistics of the thing are still mind-boggling.

The £110 million complex replaces a number of existing courts that were ranged around Greater Manchester. It sits beside the River Irwell and forms the focal point of Spinningfields — a new development of 20 mixed-use buildings being delivered by Allied London. The neighbouring offices — by the likes of Foster’s, Sheppard Robson and BDP — are massive, glassy, perfectly proficient and quite unencumbered by ideas. But the Civil Justice Centre isn’t the only court building here. The 1962 Crown Court sits alongside, and a new Magistrates’ Court has been added by Gensler, although perhaps the most merciful thing that can be said about the architect’s efforts is: “Five years and no parole!” It is fair to assume that a lot of the new office space will be taken by lawyers.

Building high

DCM won the commission in May 2002, following a competition which also involved Richard Rogers Partnership and Pringle Richards Sharratt. The winning scheme was distinguished by the innovative strategy of stacking the programme high. The other projects approximated the 10-storey height of the surrounding offices; the DCM design reaches 16. This enables an unusually direct journey from the front door to the individual courts: the only corridors here are those used by judges and administrative staff.

The move also, of course, has significant urban consequences. The Irwell forms Manchester’s boundary line, so the bridge that lies to the immediate west of the Civil Justice Centre represents one of the few points of connection with neighbouring Salford. With its unusual height, the building begins to engage with the iconographic potential of this gateway condition. Another advantage is that building high has made it possible to make a substantial part of the site a public square — a gesture that does a lot to consolidate its civic presence.

With a long and narrow north-south footprint, the Civil Justice Centre addresses Bridge Street to the north and extends deep into Spinningfields. The programme has been divided into four parallel strips, namely atrium, public circulation areas, court rooms and finally judges’ offices. This arrangement is broadly legible from the street. Each strip is distinguished by a change of material and also by set-backs in both plan and section. The sense is of a series of narrow slabs set side by side which might be slid in relation to one another. That implication of dynamism is consolidated by the building’s most demonstrative gesture — the cantilevering of the court rooms. Inescapably conjuring the image of drawers pulled from a filing cabinet, they project, at seemingly random lengths, from both of the building’s narrow ends.

John Rintoul explains that the court rooms come in a range of sizes, and that the loose configuration was conceived as a way of accommodating this variation. When, in the course of design development, the number was increased from 38 to 47, the change was accommodated without struggle.

There is a feeling that the built scheme actively contrives a sense of disorder


However, all this talk of pragmatism is clearly a little disingenuous. Certainly, it is not hard to imagine how these differently sized volumes might be stacked in an altogether more disciplined manner so that the section simply reduces from floor to floor. How might such a building compare to the one that has been built? It would surely be cheaper but also a good deal less dramatic — and given that this is a major public project, we shouldn’t begrudge it its flamboyance.

More problematic is the feeling that the built scheme actively contrives a sense of disorder. There is a fear of composition at play, or at least a fear of being seen to compose — the same impulse that has seen the barcode elevation emerge as the lingua franca of so much recent architecture. Here, the approach is perhaps more understandable. There was an obvious imperative that the building should look like something other than the neighbouring office blocks, and in this it doubtless succeeds. The architect also faced the challenge of rescuing a vast structure from an overbearingly authoritarian image. Here, too, I am persuaded.

My doubts focus on the fact that the building seeks its sense of egalitarianism in an informality that borders on aimlessness. That sensibility informs not just the random distribution of the court rooms but also the treatment of their elevations. Each cantilever has been given a double-skin construction, although the motivation for this is aesthetic rather than environmental. The outer skin is full-height glass, the inner a random array of coloured panels interspersed with more modestly scaled areas of glazing. The role of the graphic treatment — which DCM dubs “the Mondrian wall” — is to camouflage the presence of the internal windows so that our reading of the cantilevers is, above all, a volumetric one.

Pianola sheet music

On the east elevation, these elements disappear behind a screen of perforated, grey-painted steel that veils the judges’ offices. Here, too, a spirit of affected haphazardness holds sway. The windows are set back, so this layer nominally serves two functions: to shade the offices and to disguise a series of large air extract vents. An aperture has been cut into many of the panels, configured in one of half a dozen different formats. The loose distribution gives the screen the appearance of a vast roll of pianola sheet music, and suggests that the programme behind is one of great complexity. In fact, it is all 6m-deep office space or corridor.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is no visual intelligence at work in these decisions. DCM’s intentions are precisely stated and, even if they do sometimes run counter to programmatic sense, well delivered. However, this is a law court, a building used by people at moments of crisis in their lives. Ultimately, I find it hard to square the blithe whimsicality on display with the — whisper it — seriousness of that purpose.

Tellingly, the building’s more carnivalesque moments have little impact on its interior. That suggests something of the superficiality of the external handling but it is also testament to the lucidity of the arrangement established within.

The welcome decision to site the front door on the north elevation means that visitors access the building not through the corporate wonderland of the new development but directly off Bridge Street, a busy thoroughfare along which a number of other civic institutions are ranged. (Intriguingly, this decision necessitated a line of bollards outside the entrance as a means of deterring particularly courageous ram raiders.)

Zoning the plan in strips proves an efficient means of segrating judges from the public


Once through the security check we pass into the really lovely 12-storey-high glazed atrium which looks out onto the new public square. Again, the wall build-up is a double-skin construction but here it does serve an environmental purpose: louvers at the top of the cavity can be opened in summer and closed in winter to moderate the internal temperature. A full-height, stainless-steel-faced wall to our left contains the bank of lifts. Embarking at any of the upper levels, we walk onto a wide concourse. Each level is also equipped with a couple of large aluminium-faced boxes slung out over the atrium which contain meeting and waiting rooms. Their placement differs from floor to floor, and they are further distinguished by the colour of the cladding: some are powder-coated yellow, others are naturally anodised. Here, the free order seems absolutely valid, giving each of the essentially identical concourses a welcome particularity.

On the south elevation, the judges have their own entrance which leads to a basement car park from where they can access their designated lifts and stairs. The zoning of the plan in strips proves an efficient means of ensuring they remain segregated from the public in all parts of the building save for the court rooms.

These spaces prove to be pretty modest affairs — only two are scaled to accommodate juries — and DCM has not been responsible for the fit-out. Nonetheless, the attention that the practice has paid to their environmental performance is impressive. A line of meeting rooms runs between the concourse and the court rooms on each level with a floor to ceiling height 1.5m lower than the spaces to either side. The void above this zone is glazed in, providing the court rooms with a clerestory drawing daylight from the west. The cavity also serves as a means of naturally ventilating the court rooms with air drawn from louvers at either end of the west elevation. This is effective until the internal temperature reaches 24°C, at which point a supplementary air displacement system kicks in. Cooling is assisted by 100m-deep boreholes that supply water at 12°C from a natural aquifer.

Throughout the building, the quality of the detailing and workmanship is exemplary. That is particularly noteworthy because the Civic Justice Centre is one of the first buildings in the country to be procured under the much vaunted Smart PFI model. This meant that DCM developed its design to RIBA Stage D before the Court Service signed the development contract with Allied London.

Quality enshrined

As a result, much of the detailing of the cladding and the front-of-house interiors was enshrined in the employer’s requirements documentation from the outset.

The contrast with even the best of the projects delivered under what we should now presumably call Dumb PFI is pronounced. Bennetts Associates’ Brighton & Hove Library, for example, may have survived its procurement process relatively unscathed but only because its design was so elemental that it couldn’t readily be pared back further.

Impressively, there is nothing remotely parsimonious about the Civil Justice Centre. For better or worse, it looks like the building that the architect wanted to build.

Ceilings Armstrong, CarpetsInterface, Drywall British Gypsum, Doors Leaderflush, Door hardwareAllgood,Sanitaryware Duravit, Toilet partitions Amwell Systems

Project team

Architect Denton Corker Marshall, Structural/M&E engineer Mott MacDonald, Facade consultant Mott MacDonald, Landscape architect Hyland Edgar Driver, Acoustic consultant Sandy Brown Associates, Stone consultant Harrison Goldman, Main contractor Bovis Lend Lease


Readers' comments (2)

  • I applaud Ellis Woodman's review with its proper balance between design and construction, and intelligent analysis of both. Where he might be wrong, however, is in wishing that the artfully haphazard composition were more sober and heirarchical. A different reading of the building might see it as an accurate expression of the haphazard nature of contemporary civil law in Britain.

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  • great piece of archictereture and very great for the enviroment

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