In Texas, land of law and order, the concept of justice is inscribed into the very fabric of the city, acting as the foundation of its organization and design. This is, if not entirely unique, certainly unusual.
Ancient Greeks focused on the agora, the Italians on the piazza. Across New England, the psychic center of life is the town green, which typically fronts a church. But in Texas, civic space spreads from the courthouse square.
This form is a product of the state’s rugged history. The courthouse, resplendent in its grandeur and stacked up to the heavens, stands as a dramatic symbol of man’s authority and dominion over a landscape once and sometimes still harsh and wild.
If it is an architecture that projects the power of the state, it also serves as a beacon of justice for all. That justice is drawn not just from abstract ideals, but from the reciprocal consent of the governed, their presence marked by the public spaces that form the enclosing perimeter of the court square.
Today we might ask whether we are living up to this covenant, whether the spaces of our cities, and Dallas in particular, work to reinforce a common sense of justice or to undermine it.
The functional viability of the county courthouse was dependent on its symbolic visibility; the idea that the justice it served was both present and accountable to the population. But in our sprawling city of pockets, with neighborhoods cauterized by highways, the beacon of justice may seem impossibly remote if not altogether invisible to a large percentage of citizens. The recent events in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson suggest the dangers of such disenfranchisement.
The city’s long history of neighborhood red-lining, restrictive housing and highway construction suggests a willful distortion of physical space in ways that were inherently unjust.
It is telling that Dallas’ historic county courthouse, Old Red, is now a museum, its symbolic function having been displaced to the complex of jails that are the unholy gateway to our city. One of these, the Dawson State Jail, a grim block that looks like some kind of dystopian Lego project, now sits vacant in a sea of parking and bureaucratic limbo as state and city officials jockey over what to do about it.
Sitting directly across Commerce Street is the rambling and almost defiantly ugly Lew Sterrett Justice Center, a dispiriting agglomeration of mud-brown structures that seems designed to dehumanize all who would approach. It is not a surprise to find that the complex, which opened in 1982, was designed by committee and beset by a host of scandals relating to its construction and systems.
Among the parties responsible for the center was the firm of George Dahl, the prolific Dallas architect whose works spanned most of the 20th century and practically defined the city’s physical character. Dahl’s diverse achievements include the design of Fair Park, 1401 Elm (the former First National Bank Tower), the Gold Crest Apartments on Turtle Creek and even the home of The Dallas Morning News.
As University of Texas at Arlington architectural historian Kathryn Holliday has recently revealed, Dahl’s firm was also responsible for and buoyed by its work expanding the Texas prison system, including 15 projects worth $20 million. One does not need to vilify Dahl to read in the scope of his firm’s work a deterioration in the relationship between justice and the built landscape.
What does it say about our values that we have allowed these buildings to achieve, along with the bail bondsmen, package stores and payday lenders that are their sad detritus, such symbolic prominence as the gateway to our city?
In some ways, we might describe their presence as fitting, given the growth of the prison industrial complex in the United States generally and Texas in particular over the past 40 years. In 1975, the American prison population was well under half a million. Today, as a result of the war on drugs and a generalized culture of fear, it sits at well over 2 million, though it has begun to drop.
The rate of incarceration of black men from urban ghettos is itself a crime. In Dallas, this situation is especially dire. The advocacy group Texas Appleseed has identified a schools-to-prison pipeline in which young males are routinely thrust into the adult court system for truancy and other petty crimes, initiating a lifelong spiral of imprisonment and poverty.
“We need to understand the connection between prisons and what’s gone wrong in our cities,” says Raphael Sperry, the president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. “Prisons are supposed to be about rehabilitation, but somehow we got on the wrong path and they’ve become warehouses.”