Symbolism and Justice: The South African Constitutional Court

The design and art of a courthouse communicates a great deal about the culture and values of the institution contained within it.  Last month I had the incredible opportunity to visit the South African Constitutional Court in Johannesburg – an institution that is itself a potent symbol of the country’s attempts to move forward in the aftermath of the apartheid era.

The design of a place of justice cannot repair the harm to South African society that was brought about by apartheid, but it does serve as a symbol of restorative justice – and a deliberate attempt to make all South Africans feel more welcome in a government building.  The design was chosen after a public competition, with the winning, young South African architects designing the building inspired by the concept of ‘justice under a tree’.  This is reflected in the physical design of the building and pays homage to traditional dispute resolution processes used by the people of South Africa.

The website for the Court explains the way in which the architecture was very deliberately designed to be inclusive as well as symbolic:

The Constitutional Court’s new home was born of a remarkable and uniquely inclusive process – one that resulted in a public building like no other. This structure, South Africa’s first major post-apartheid government building, was designed to embody the openness and transparency called for by the Constitution itself.

The building is noted for its transparency and entrancing volumes. In contrast to most courts, it is welcoming rather than forbidding, filled with sparkle and warmth. It has no marble cladding or wood panelling, but has come to be admired for its graceful proportions. And the principal materials – timber, concrete, steel, glass and black slate – infuse the court with an African feel.

Below are some of my photos with captions describing the architectural and artistic elements of the Court:


Constitutional Hill sits on the site of the old fort and central prison dating back to the colonial era in the late 1800s.  Two prison museums  explain the harsh conditions of everyday life and the arbitrary laws that led to the arrest of thousands, including Ghandi and Mandela.


  Entrance to the grounds are through the original prison doors, with the old prison windows visible.  


These are the very large carved wooden doors that are the entrance to the court building itself.  They stand about eight meters high


Engraved in the doors are depictions in words and sign language of the 27 rights contained in the South African Bill of Rights. There are Braille carvings on the door handles.





Another view showing the seating of the public compared with the judges.  You can also see here the brick walls of the court room, which were salvaged from the prison that stood on the site of the court.  Reminders of South Africa’s political past are visible everywhere.








































I was particularly intrigued by the font.  This was specially commissioned for the Court, and designed to be different from the traditional ‘official’ fonts used in government and legal documents.  The photo on the left shows the name of the building in all the languages of South Africa.

For an interesting piece on Australian court design, and engaging principles of therapeutic and restorative justice, see this article by Professor Graham Brawn.



1 thought on “Symbolism and Justice: The South African Constitutional Court

  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking piece Lisa. It is a great reminder that the role of the architect, as an engineer of social change and reconciliation, is a much undervalued part of the restorative justice and social healing story.
    A further great example can be seen right now, in the inner west of Melbourne, Australia, where another important architectural contribution to social healing and conflict resolution is taking shape.
    Glenn Murcutt, the only Australian architect to have won the prestigious PritzKer Architecure Prize (in company with Frank Gehry, Sir Norman Foster and the late Zaha Hadid) has been retained to design and supervise the buiilding of a new mosque.
    Murcutt’s goal, shared by the local Islamic community’s building committee, is to provoke and influence a national debate about Islam. His building, not yet completed, is doing that already.
    The symbolism is immediately apparent. Murcutt designed a building without a traditional minaret (traditionally a round tower) explaining that it was not a requirement of Islam. Instead he has created his interpretation of a minaret as a high, stylised concrete wall leading up to a symbolic crescent from which there is a flat roof exposing 96 lanterns each topped by a window.
    From opposition and debate has come approval to build and now encouragement for everyone in the community to visit and explore. Undoubtedly very much more will be achieved.
    The power of symbolism is indeed a mighty force!
    ( See for a more detailed description)


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