Of Sentences and Men. The judicial institution in the Phocaean context.


In France, the social balance seems to be weakened. In a climate of global reference loss, the increasing distancing of power and population has contributed to the disintegration of the solidarity sense. At the same time the crisis has contributed to accentuate precariousness and inequality, becoming an argument in favor of politics austerity, whose decisions are taken away from the people, sometimes even against population. The idea of a social project has vanished, politics just maintain a system orchestrated by economy. Faced with the established order, a desire to make itself by people unpredictable was apparent.

In this context, the judicial institution, as the foundation of democracy, is also put into question. For a long time assimilated to the good and considered as an ideal for Man, justice has now become an element structuring our societies. This renunciation of total liberty for the benefit of a collective harmony passed through the assurance of knowing all equals to the law. However, the emergence of an impunity feeling and a two-tier justice, contributes to a crisis of  justice confidence. The  justice defectiveness appears also on its form: despite the architectural attempts to improve the transparency, the judicial system isn’t legible by the average. The understanding of its arcanes remains the insiders privilege and the application of law tends to replace the equality to the law by the knowledge of the law.

Questioning the courthouse, in its form as in its function, seems necessary to reinforce the society values and the link between justice and citizenship. Justice has to become the absolute again, the marker out of time which it has always been, accepting at the same time its fallibility. It is time for the palace to become an hotel, to open itself to its population, to become intelligible. Let the justice come to the people, and inscribe in its territory and its specificities. The environment of this reinterrogated justice, is major in the research of a new symbolism. Marseille appears as a city, where justice has too often failed face to crime and political patronage to the point of altering its image and development. Re-rooting Justice in this territory where it has been weakened seems therefore paramount in order to allow a population divested of it to reclaim justice. The legitimacy of a new courthouse then passes precisely through its distinction to the old, through its opening and integration of citizenship spaces, whose assistance, debate and information are the common foundation.


What prompted the project?

Since the beginning of our studies, the project has always appeared to us as place to explore the reality and its possibilities, a space-time questioning the social meaning of space, and the conditions of its production.
For our end of studies’ project, we wanted to explore a wider context than architecture, by treating of a societal theme. Justice, because it is a foundation of our democracies, and that is has an impact on every citizen, appeared to us as obvious. Furthermore, its dysfunction is highlighted everyday.

What informed the choice of Marseille as project site? What type of research was developed before defining this city?

Marseille, in a sort of collective image has long been marked by its sulphureous aura, like Naples in Italy. It represented a territory marked by both crime and by political and police corruption. While in France, many cities had been equipped with new courthouses in the early 2000s, aiming to change the Justice’s image, surprisingly Marseille kept its former palace, inappropriate to current issues.

What other case studies both in terms of courthouse and or other typologies did you look to for reference and inspiration?

Our attachment to space’s symbolism led us to observe the different forms attributed to justice, in order to understand its evolution. From the Napoleonic palace of the 18th century, marking a justice representing the social order, to the more current versions of Jean Nouvel or Richard Rogers, questioning justice’s transparency, justice’s space interpretation goes with a social context. However, our references are more to be found with Aldo Van Eyck, with his ambition to question the link between form and use, or among others Barozzi Veiga with space’s quality willingness.

What defined the programmatic distribution? How does this aim to redefine the role and power of the courthouse?

Two main justice issues quickly appeared to us. On the one hand, a feeling of an inequitable ending up in a feeling of elites’ impunity, related to the sentence disparity, on the other hand, justice’s non intelligibility, by its codification. First of all, we decided to create one and only place, instead of the different buildings functioning separately, aiming to create a single image for a kind of collective physical image of justice. Secondly, we found useful to create a place where to learn about and debate of justice.

How did you come about the actual design of the architecture? What role did the drawing as medium play in the process?

The exercise of a State architecture tells something of the relationship between a government and its citizens, so we were looking for “meaning” and “absoluteness” in the drawing. Marking the territory by its presence, the courthouse seeks to reinstate justice as an absolute in this territory, but also recalls the authority of a State institution on our lives. At the same time, the desire for a phenomenological experience of justice as a way to create a link to it has led us to work on the space distribution, while questioning its intelligibility.

Where do you envision the future of this typology?

By choosing the courthouse rather than the prison, while in France the prison situation is critical because of its conditions, its overpopulation and the difficulty of social reintegration afterwards, we wanted to emphasize that the changes in the judicial system go through a global questioning and not only by the prison prism. If we wanted this typology to get opened to the people, and make of justice a social project, we are aware that our answer could be the instrument of power in place, or even could be totalitarian.

What is the relationship between architecture and context?

We both wanted to impregnate the project with its territory as much as we wanted the territory to be marked by the project. It seemed necessary to us to locate this new justice place at the heart of the old Marseille’s renewal, in order to counter the current gentrification and public space privatization. However, at the same time, it seemed important to take sides on a Mediterranean architectural heritage, by reinterpreting a monumental architecture made of masses and scarce openings, like the Chateau d’If or the Fort Saint-Jean, standing within the city center.

What influenced the language of representation, what role does the monochromatic palette hold?

Our fascination with monochromatic is linked to a desire for a representation without artifice, where only the expressiveness of space matters. Many graphic languages exist, each carrying a singular imaginary – ours is made of absoluteness and singular spaces. We are particularly marked by the imagery of E2A, Pezo Von Ellrichshausen or Bast.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

Beyond the “tool” question, because each architect has its own creative process, the organization and the structure of an agency seems to us related to the project’s success and the architectural ambitions’ maintenance. To face the system, getting one’s own inner structure is necessary.