Historicist makeover

A comic-opera stage-set: Britain’s new Supreme Court is in a funny old building. That’s the way we do things.

Suppose you were French president Nicholas Sarkozy, and you had invented an important new top tier in your legal system. You need a building to house your über-judges in. Well, you know what would happen. Prime site, international architecture competition, thousands of entries, and the end result a glittering weirdly-shaped edifice that appears on television a lot. And in Britain? Oh, we just do up an old court building we’ve got handy and bung ‘em in there. Job done.

This happens to be true. We do now have a new independent top tier to our legal system. It is called the Supreme Court, and it consists of the 12 existing Law Lords and their back-up staff, who have been extracted from Parliament and set free. This was a pet project of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer. On October 1, the Queen will open their new building. Which, this being Britain, is an old building that has cost some £59m to do up. You have to admire this dogged dedication to invisible spending.

Remember Middlesex? It was a small county that had the misfortune to have London in it. Eventually London took over completely and Middlesex disappeared, chunk by chunk. But on its way out it made one last stand. Just before the First World War, Middlesex built a grand ceremonial building on Parliament Square, close to Westminster Abbey. The Middlesex Guildhall was the main courts building for the county, even though by then it wasn’t in its own territory at all, but the separately-administered County of London. This, then, was a monument to a dying shire, and they did it proud. It’s big, it has a tall tower, outside it’s Gothic Revival meets Art Nouveau in Portland stone, inside it is quasi-medieval, and you will have no image of it in your minds. Its doom was to be always overlooked because of its more illustrious neighbours.

So naturally, that’s where they have put the Supreme Court. The Ministry of Justice briefly considered other sites – even a new building, I’m told – but the Middlesex Guildhall was close to Parliament and besides, the Law Lords stay members of the House of Lords even if they will no longer operate from there. It happened that the building thus chosen was still very busy as Crown Courts, but they were expensively turfed out and exiled to Snaresbrook, way out east. Incidentally, we taxpayers will be paying off the mortgage on this conversion job for the next 30 years, so it will end up costing much more. But let’s not get obsessed with money. Public buildings always end up eye-wateringly expensive. Is it any good?

I’d never been into this building before and I like it. True, the new bits aren’t as good as the old bits. True also, some of the old bits are hideously ugly. This was, after all, originally designed by an Edwardian firm of commercial architects, Gibson and Skipwith, as a bit of a Gilbert and Sullivan stage set. Only sets of antlers are missing. They ladled on the baronial references to the point of parody. Political parody, actually. One real stone carving is of then-Chancellor of the Exchequer (soon to be Prime Minister) David Lloyd George, brandishing a big bag of money and a Government contract. He was embroiled in a sleaze scandal at the time.

The historical touches are a veneer. Beneath the stonework – like Tower Bridge, another historicist stage-set – it’s a steel-framed building. One of the courtrooms, now the central library of the Supreme Court, has an amazing stone-vaulted ceiling. Except that it was done in plaster made to look like stone. Well, so what? It all hangs together wonderfully. The whole point of buildings like this was to imbue people with awe and terror over the might and seeming antiquity of The Law.

Needless to say, there was a conservation backlash over the building’s new role as Supreme Court. Fears that the Middlesex Guildhall – which is a building listed as historically and architecturally important, though not at the highest grade – might be wrecked by the new function led campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage to mount a judicial review of the planning decision. It lost, but the upshot was that today’s architects had to tread on eggshells, watched like hawks by English Heritage.

The original design involved arch-modernist Norman Foster – or rather, his design partner Spencer de Grey – alongside reliable conservation architects Feilden and Mawson. Then Foster’s stepped aside. There was little for them here. Finally, in a convoluted piece of accounts-balancing, the job was given to a design-build contractor, Kier, which leased the building, paid a large chunk of the capital costs, and then leased it back to the Ministry of Justice. Kier brought in another conservation architect, GHK. This is the Byzantine way with public projects these days. But in the event GHK and Feilden and Mawson worked well together and delivered the goods on time.

Some unfortunate alterations of the 1960s and 1980s have been removed, much restoration has been done inside and out and yes, some fairly hefty alterations too – not least punching down through what was the ground floor to make a triple-height library at the heart of the building. This works – it’s a noble space, with that astonishing carved-stone-effect ceiling. Of the three courtrooms remaining, one was rescued from earlier alterations and is done out in modern style, while the other two remain in their Savoy Opera pomp. There’s a largely tasteful art programme, mostly consisting of words and motifs etched into glass screens, but also a new circular coat of arms that looks like a decorated dinner plate. And an inescapable, alarmingly garish carpet designed by Sir Peter “Sergeant Pepper” Blake. There are two sets of curved stone benches outside, incised with verses by Andrew Motion. These double as security devices to stop vehicles driving at the building.

The main problem is that the Edwardian idea of a court is not the way the Law Lords work. They sit together in a group (the more serious the case, the more of them there are) and the appellants bring along a crowd of advisors. There is no jury, no dock, no Bench, but lots of computer screens and shelves of reference documents and TV cameras – proceedings will be recorded and televised on occasion. The layout adopted is as if both sides were sitting round an invisible oval boardroom table. Adapting the interiors to this way of working has meant changing the original built-in furniture and fittings a fair bit, though some has been adapted and re-used.

You and I will also be able to go there – there’s an exhibition gallery in what was the cell area in the basement, plus a public café sternly overlooked by a bust of Edward VII. And what will we think, when we go? I find it – carpet aside – inoffensive. It lacks a vital spark, a touch of flair. Maybe the alterations aren’t radical enough. More could have been made of the juxtaposition of old and new. Somehow the Supreme Court still feels like an interloper rather than the incumbent, as if it was camping out in this undeniably camp space. And for all that money, of course, they could have had a brand-new building somewhere. But that’s not the British way, is it?

Words and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, 20 September 2009.


The Supreme Court on Parliament Square opens to the public on October 5. www.supremecourt.gov.uk
Feilden and Mawson, architects: http://www.feildenandmawson.com
GHK architects: http://www.ghkint.com/architects
Kier Group, developers and contractors: http://www.kier.co.uk

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