words William Wiles
The City of Justice is David Chipperfield Architects’ mammoth new project in Barcelona. The somewhat authoritarian 330,000sq m complex combines all of the city’s judicial administration onto one site – and includes some civic offices for the neighbouring city, L’Hospitalet.
The boundary between the two municipalities runs through the site, which was formerly an army base. The new complex consists of eight buildings: four blocks for the Barcelona judiciary, one block of forensic services, two blocks of offices and retail and one block of city offices on the L’Hospitalet side of the line. The site also includes some social housing, and the four court blocks are linked by a public four-storey concourse building.
For Andrew Phillips, project director at Chipperfield, the main priority was “how to make such a lot of programme not one big intimidating building”. Another problem was the area’s lack of character. “It had been a bit of a no-man’s land,” Phillips says. “There wasn’t really any grain to key into. Everybody thinks of Barcelona as having this incredible grid, but at the periphery that doesn’t exist.”
Phillips describes the result as a “sort of still-life of blocks scattered across the site”, with dynamic spaces in between. Despite this effort to break up the massing, isn’t it still a rather severe bit of urbanism? “I wouldn’t say severe,” says Phillips. He admits it does look massive from a distance, but close up “the windows become almost like a basket weave, so it doesn’t feel so [uncompromising].”
The monumental nature of the site is further softened by the differences between the blocks, which are constructed in pastel-pigmented concrete. “The play of colours between the blocks makes a huge difference to breaking down this sense of monotony,” says Phillips. “When you’re there and you’re walking through the public space, you’re surrounded by a very consistent [architectural] language, which is actually quite calming.”