COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

“Put the most important space in the most public space”: Lessons from South Africa’s Constitutional Court

Megan MacIver
Jun 19, 2011
Dec 14, 2017

Toward an Architecture of Place

Justice Albie Sachs

The Constitutional Court of South Africa is a new kind of court house: one that has become an inclusive public space and civic center.  Built within a paradigm of place with the leadership of Justice Albie Sachs and enriched by the contributions of local artists, the court honors the site’s and the nation's history and integrates the building into the neighborhood’s present.  It balances the needs of security and transparency and shows that courts can and should be town squares: public places of learning and exchange.

South Africa's Constitutional Court photo by fromagie via Flickr

Openness, Transparency, and Healing Through Post-Apartheid Courthouse Design: What can we learn from South Africa’s Constitutional Court?

This spring in Dayton, Ohio, PPS collaborated with local partners to host a forum with Albie Sachs and Dayton civic leaders and judges to envision Dayton Courthouses as civic spaces and learn about openness, transparency, and healing through post-Apartheid courthouse design.  

The forum was made possible with support from GSA’s Public Building Service, GSA’s Good Neighbor Program and the Jack W. and Sally D. Eichelberger Foundation, through a grant to the Dayton Bar Association.

Dayton was eager to learn from Albie Sachs, a founding Justice of the Constitutional Court, who played a critical role in ensuring that healing, hope and the values of constitutional democracy were expressed by both the architecture, art, and activities of the new Constitutional Court building.

Justice Albie Sachs Extraordinary Life and Role in Building the New Court

Justice Albie Sachs and PPS Board Chair Dr. Minnie Fells Johnson in Dayton

After the first democratic election in 1994, Justice Sachs became a judge on the Constitutional Court.  As a member of the Constitutional Committee and the National Executive of the ANC, Sachs took an active part in the negotiations which led to South Africa becoming a constitutional democracy. Justice Sachs gained international attention for his role in overthrowing South Africa’s statute defining marriage to be between one man and one woman.

And now, to his long list of accomplishments, Justice Sachs can add his role as Placemaker. As Arch Daily explains, Justice Sachs played a key role in ensuring that healing and hope were expressed by both the architecture and the art collection of the new Constitutional Court building- in short, in ensuring the Court was a great community place.

“Justice Under a Tree:” How to Build a Transparent Court by, for, and of the Community

"Justice Under a Tree"

As Sachs explains in Art and Justice, “the unifying theme of this building is the traditional form of participatory and transparent justice under a tree,” a symbol which encapsulates much of South Africa’s history and traditions. “In traditional African society, disputes are often settled by the elders of the community who gather under a tree for this purpose.  The limitations of the old patriarchal structures in many African societies notwithstanding, this way of solving problems is transparent and community oriented...”

“The Building Speaks the Story” 

Justice Sachs writes in the introduction of Art and Justice that “existing court buildings in South Africa possessed well-established ghosts.... the only images... were of dead white male judges and a blindfolded woman holding the scales of justice,” (17)  and it seemed that a “simple relic of history told a bitter story of exclusion....”

Justice Sachs had another vision for this new Court: “surely we could create a court that was rooted in our national experience and expressed the many and varied ways in which South Africans envisaged justice.... we were not looking for denunciatory or triumphalist art but works of a high aesthetic quality that represented the spirit of dignity in all its varied manifestations.”  Art was used to incorporate the past into the court building and provide South Africans a sense of ownership.

Art in the Constitutional Court makes the "building speak the story"  Flickr Zadie Diaz

Through Art, “People see that ‘this is our building.’” 

Justice Sachs explained, “something like art in a building seems a very small thing, but it obviously touches something quite deep.   We incorporated the pain of the past in the court building. An original prison staircase is in the foyer. The bricks of a demolished prison now clad the court chamber.  The building speaks the story.  When you come into our court, it involves millions of people who struggled.  We bring forth the suppressed voices of the past.  We bring in history in such a way that we can transcend our past.   This story is not about the triumph of one group over another.  This story is told both unconsciously and consciously – we transform negative energy into positivity, by engaging with the past, not denying it. Reconciliation comes when all voices can be heard within the unifying framework of our democratic Constitution.”

In other cities, including Dayton, Ohio, art in public buildings also “touches something quite deep.”  During the recent forum, an African American judge in the audience noted that in the Ohio Supreme Court – an art deco building [recently renovated at a cost of $13 million] whose period art she found offensive.  “People of Color are not represented in the court.  It’s as if African Americans don't really exist. Native Americans are portrayed only as a people who have been conquered.”

“We had no funds for art. It was donated with love...”

In South Africa, the Court’s budget for decor was limited- and quickly exhausted after commissioning South African artist Joseph Ndlovu to create a tapestry to reflect the values of the Bill of Rights-  so Sachs got creative.  He turned to the members of the art community in South Africa to contribute to the enhancement of the Court and even donated several works from his own collection.

But as Sachs is proud of saying, even without funding, the collection basically “collected itself.”   And art actually makes up part of the physical place: almost half of the art collection of the Constitutional Court is integrated into the fabric of the building itself.  So for the new Constitutional Court, “the architects called on artists and crafters from all parts of South African society to design many of the basic parts of the building -the doors, security gates, carpets, and lamps.”

Art in South Africa's Constitutional Court is not confined to frames: it adorns every part of the building. Flickr photo by Zadie Diaz

Balancing Security and Inclusiveness with Art, Architecture, and Programming 

Many public buildings become citadels designed for a single activity for a defined group of people (itself a form of privatization). South Africa’s Constitutional Court has avoided this fate through its thoughtful design and creative place-based programming made possible by the hard work of a variety of local partners with a strong vision.

The new Court is truly a civic space, as Justice Albie Sachs explains: “we have lots of public functions … book launches, exhibitions … debates and discussions on important public holidays, theatrical and dance performances, films. So it really is a public place, used by the public in all sorts of ways.”

And the physical configuration of the spaces supports transparency and inclusiveness, something the architects sought deliberately to advance- especially in the court chamber.  As the Architects explained:  “the court chamber was about making a space in the ground where people could gather,  where they could sit on a park bench and listen to what was happening.”

South Africa's Constitutional Court Flickr photo by Alex Kadis

“Put the most important space in the most public space” 

Andrew Makin, one of the architects of the Court, set out to avoid what happens to many other important buildings in which “there is often a very processional routes from the most public spaces to the most private or important ones, in order to do a kind of filtering job...  all the message are so that you are getting closer to God, or to the head of state... we wanted to take away that in-between process and put the most important space in the most public space- to demonstrate unequivocally that the debating forum for the ongoing dynamic development of our democratic order would be among the people.”

But what about security concerns?  “In the early debates before the building was up, there was almost a standoff between the architects and security,” said Makin.  “Government security wanted a secure perimeter fence that could be guarded.  The architects, citing Jane Jacobs, insisted that the ‘eyes of the people are security.’  The compromise was a single entry point to the building, where security screenings are conducted, including bag checks.  Physical security for the building is provided with widely-spaced horizontal grills over the expansive glass areas.” In some ways, security at the Constitutional Court in South Africa is somewhat easier to manage than many other courts in that there is only one court room, and it is not a criminal court involving circulation of potentially dangerous people.

Today, the whole Constitution Hill district is open for pedestrians 24/7. People can walk past the court at night, even peer in….small children pass on the way to and from school, going down a staircase at the top of the entrance. People pass on their way to work, and their way home,” said Sachs.  “Instead of the building being a public destination at the end of a journey ... it’s a connecting space, connecting three different neighborhoods of Johannesburg – a densely populated, dynamic but problematic area, the beautiful northern suburbs, and the bureaucratic side of the city.”

“Because of the openness of the place, the scale of the buildings, the activity during the day, the building is appreciated and respected, even loved, by the surrounding community. It is not a citadel for precious jewels, inviting burglary.”

“The fortress is never strong enough...”

In Dayton, there was discussion of federal buildings in the U.S. have a fortress-like quality, created by the sterility of the architecture and even the art.   Justice Sachs replied, “when you design a building as a fortress, the fortress is never big enough or strong enough.  There is always a way to get in.  It becomes a kind of prison for the people inside, isolated from the community.  You can say that a citadel taunts….  Certainly as far as the Constitution Court is concerned, for seven years there have been no security incidents at all.”

Megan MacIver
Megan MacIver
Related Articles & Resources
COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space