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Bronx Clear

How a courthouse polices us through the glass.


The new Bronx Hall of Justice, a faceted-glass mother ship designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects, appears at first too fragile to be a criminal courthouse. The greenish-glass panes that form its corrugated outer walls practically invite smashing. The entrance is a grand glass curtain wall leading to an open, sunlit lobby. Inside, too, there’s a profusion of glass. The place looks like no match for an irritated juror, let alone a raging Crip.

But just as we recognize the protective value of transparency in government, and in the justice system, literal transparency can be a security feature, too. In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham envisioned a prison—the Panopticon—in which inmates could be under constant, surreptitious observation. Viñoly’s courthouse is a compassionate Panopticon: It allows everyone to observe everyone else. This doesn’t obviate the need for cameras or guards, but it limits the possibility of nasty surprises.

Glass is deceptive: All that visibility distracts from what you can’t see—prisoners, for instance. They are held in a basement and brought up by elevators equipped with mini-cells into lockups adjoining the courtrooms. No more marching handcuffed defendants through crowded hallways. Judges also have separate traffic patterns, which lead to cheery chambers with bulletproof views and sniper-deterring clerestory windows. The glass railings, designed to prevent someone from jumping—or being tossed—from an upper floor, are engineered to withstand plenty of abuse. Since we live in a post-9/11 age, the panes on the external walls are blast-resistant—which “doesn’t mean blast-proof, but it does mean that if someone exploded a bomb on the street outside, glass projecting into the building would not cause harm to the occupants,” explains the project director, Fred Wilmers.

Everybody knows what impregnability looks like: massive stone walls, slits for windows, and a single gate, preferably behind a moat. But safety is partly a matter of perception. After 9/11, when New York was suddenly pocked with bollards and barriers, every security measure reignited nervousness. The Freedom Tower will rest on a 200-foot metal cube, an ostentatious reminder of all we have to fear. Such fortifications have a soul-draining grimness and intimidate the very people they are meant to protect. But the Bronx courthouse suggests that we can plan for worst-case scenarios without living in their grip; that we can build public places where citizens know they’re being watched over yet don’t have the feeling that they’re on parole.

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