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The people's court opens for business

The people's court opens for business
Warren and Mahoney's magnificent new Supreme Court in Wellington brings people to justice

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Photographs Paul McCredie

Wellington's new Supreme Court was designed to connect with the natural world—not a quality you'd ordinarily associate with the place where justice is meted out.

Costing around $80 million, the Warren and Mahoney-designed courthouse puts the grand, skylighted courtroom at its centre, with ancillary chambers, library and core administrative section arranged around the outer edge. It lies on the same axis and acts as an extension of the original 1879 Old High Court Building, which is now restored and contains office accommodation for judicial support and the restored No.1 courtroom. The pair creates an evenly sized, respectful twosome at the commercial end of Lambton Quay.

Designed in consultation with the judges and Ministry of Justice staff, the goal was to have a building that felt small and special rather than tall and commercial.

"They wanted a building that related to New Zealand," says project architect Bill Gregory. "One that complemented the existing architecture of the high court, that connected to the outdoors and was filled with light." Simultaneously, there were very specific spatial requirements in terms of security, private and public space, and the size of the courtroom itself.

The first floor chambers are clusters of spaces for judges and their support teams. The spaces all have good natural light and nearly identical dimensions. The area is also extensively fitted with built-in joinery for their many books and papers. 

The first floor chambers are clusters of spaces for judges and their support teams. The spaces all have good natural light and nearly identical dimensions. The area is also extensively fitted with built-in-joinery for their many books and papers. An exterior bronze screen with abstract, windblown tree designs adds both extra privacy and shade, but also refers to the Maori tradition of relating leadership and shelter with pohutakawa and rata trees. "We're aiming for a 100-year design life, so the bronze won't require any maintenance for a long time but will continue to darken and oxidise," says Gregory.

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The design of the courtroom panelling was influenced by the spiral diamond patterns of the kauri cone. The elliptical surface is clad with 2,294 panels of silver beech timber, generating smooth and articulated surfaces that produce the acoustic properties demanded by the brief. The room is skylighted so people inside the courtroom will have an external view, and a window in the wall opposite the judges' bench facing Lambton Quay allows bypassers to literally see justice being done.

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The first floor chambers are clusters of spaces for the judges and their support teams. Though the spaces all have good natural light and nearly identical dimensions, the layout, furniture and artwork are specific to each judge. The chambers are also extensively fitted with built-in joinery for their many books and papers

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The interior spaces and specifically the upper floor are heavily influenced by the library and need for book storage. The courthouse contains a total of 2.5 linear kilometres of shelving, and all walls of the upper circulation space are lined with bookshelves. The team chose a palette of natural materials (beech, concrete and bronze) that would age gracefully, acquiring a rich patina that both contrasts and relates to the dark timber and plastered brick used in the Old High Court Building next door

Story originally featured in July/August 2010 Idealog