A new complex by TALLER Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo brings order in the court

Patzcuaro courthouse by Taller de Arquitectura Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo. Photo Onnis Luque & Rafael Gamo

PÁTZCUARO – ‘It was necessary to express transparency, equality, democracy, justice and dignity.’ Let these words sink in. It’s becoming rare to hear this when talking about building walls in Mexico. But TALLER Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo designed a judicial compound cocooned by a volcanic stone wall, aimed at leading the way to a more open architectural language for the courthouse typology.

The Mexican judicial procedure, previously a written-based format, was voted out in 2008 and now transitions slowly but surely to an oral trial system closer to the one that operates in the USA. With this new policy, comes a need for an adapted infrastructure. After nearly six years of studying the subject and working on similar projects throughout the country, the architects' recipe for a new courthouse seems to be perfected.

Valuing subtraction over addition, the architects hollowed out the 1630 sq-m egg shaped compound. The void left inside was then filled by five pavilion buildings. Built on a slope, the structure follows the natural landscape and terraced gardens were designed for the northern end of the complex. Elevated pathways cut through the void with the various functions housed along them. As a one-storey building it favours a peripheral common circulation space, nestled between the stone walls.

Each pavilion is dedicated to different uses going from the technical spaces at the southern-most point, the administration services next, then the visitor rooms including waiting rooms and mediation rooms, and finally to the northern-most pavilion where the judge’s quarters are housed. In the middle, between the visitor’s and the judge’s pavilions are the two trial rooms.

The wooden boxes mirror each other with patios on both sides. Light seeps through from beneath the desks, with the windows stashed below the wooden panels ornamenting the walls. The reflective floors and high ceilings create a reassuring environment and counters any preconceived notions of how a courtroom should appear. Here, oppression is replaced by openness and a renewed faith in dialogue.

Steal posts and beams contrast well with the earthy tones of the bricks that fill in the gaps and the wood panelling in the interiors. Although the flow of people is under control with checkpoints dutifully placed along the corridors and pathways, there is no sense of barriers when walking through it. Everything is adjacent to gardens and patios, which are in view at all times with the abundant glazing used in the office spaces and meeting rooms.

The openings of the bricks are placed strategically to alternate gracefully between darkness and light within the corridors. A balance that clearly refers to the challenges faced in the courtrooms. When in the peripheral walls, clerestory windows are used, reminding visitors of its effective use in creating interesting ambiances.

The building is designed with the intention that the functions will transition as the Mexican judicial system does too. Could you talk about the way your architecture is placed at the forefront of change in this context?
Gabriela Carrillo: When we started designing the building, the rules for the new judicial system were not established yet; even though they talked about connections and functions. If you look at courthouses in Mexico today, you would be surprised by the standardized buildings with few windows covered by bars painted with the political colour of the time, the big closed offices for the judges with private bathrooms -even with Jacuzzis inside-, and small common areas crowded with people being closely followed by guards. They have no natural lighting or gardens.
Our building challenges all this. It is a flexible grid marked by metal columns and beams. It is contained by a wall defined by its public circulation and made of volcanic local stone with two wooden structures floating in the middle of it. Gardens and working areas coexist, bringing in more light and views to the outward-facing courtrooms.

In past interviews, you talk a lot about the importance of the hands-on approach Mexico can take in its new architecture. How was the process for this project?

GC: It took a long time to focus and tune our understanding of this new type of courthouse, its new formal language. We interviewed a lot of people from the different surrounding areas, visiting the small groups of buildings that were built before. This project couldn’t be possible without the support of Judge Alejandro González. The key to its success, really came from the undying support of our very sensitive client, accepting our proposals to change the values embedded in courthouse architecture.

We designed almost ten different courthouses in different areas of the state of Michoacán. There’s one in Lázaro Cardenas near the sea, or the one in the middle of the forest in Pátzcuaro, and others in warmer areas such as Uruapan and Morelia. We transformed old courthouses with the traditional system; all of this in the span of six years.

With these opportunities we started working a lot with intersections, shadow, light transformation, limits, and articulations. We came to a point where we understood how to play with the program so we could place all our attention in the poetry of the space we wanted to achieve.

We will keep continuing our exploration into the balance between the changing functions of the judicial system and the poetry that can come of the space.

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