Another major characteristic of indigenous architecture that differs from our punitive model is in the layout and organization of the space where the processes occur. The traditional courtroom has changed little over the last few hundred years. The judge still sits on a raised dais at the head of the courtroom. To the left side the jury is boxed in while the person testifying is enclosed near the judge, separated by a partition and bailiff for security. The families or visitors to the court are further separated from the proceedings by a low wall at the back of the courtroom. The space is arranged as a series of boxes separating the parties except for the center often crowded with lawyers, stenographers and clerks.
“The judges’ unchallenged authority demands a visual framework that expresses the hierarchy of the judicial process”
-Justice Brayer speaking about the Boston Courthouse
When we look at indigenous spaces for restorative justice the opposite arrangement is often found. There is no hierarchical change in level. No jury or judge is required so authority figures (community elders) family and friends are all on the periphery of the room, connected and free from separation. The center is empty except for the occasional altar and the potential for resolution and healing.
In our modern day restorative processes the arrangement is similar. Participants form a circle around the edge and authority is present in the form of a circle keeper or facilitator. In The National Survey of Restorative Victim offender programs (2000) it was found that 94 % of the programs had the victim and offender sit across from each other during the mediation session, allowing for direct eye contact. This kind of arrangement is one of the most personal ways we relate to each other as human beings and diverges strongly from the organization of parties in the punitive system. As we look at this face-to-face orientation and the structure of other restorative practice such as the peace keeping circle—it seems obvious that the hierarchical organization of the courtroom is not suited to the practice of restorative justice. I would suggest that the occupation of the peripheryandlack of hierarchy is conducive to a circular, oval or curved form that would support the natural arrangement required for restorative process. It would provide an appropriate alternative to the room of boxes.
Deanna VanBuren is the principal and founder of FOURM design studio in Oakland California.
Her practice specializes in designing for alternatives to incarceration. She is currently on the national board of Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility