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The varied history of Sweden's courthouses

Although the courts are among society's fundamental institutions, few researchers have looked at their spatial design. Eva Löfgren from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, has now studied the buildings where the old rural district courts held session. She has also surveyed how the use of the courthouses has evolved over time.

"These are exciting buildings," says Eva Löfgren from the Department of Conservation at the University of Gothenburg. "The picture of the historic district courthouse as a symbol for the administration of justice is complicated to some extent by the fact that the buildings also served other functions. For example, in the 18th and 19th centuries they were used for overnight accommodation and for meetings of the local community, and in modern times the courthouses contained apartments and entertaining areas." On qualifying as a conservation officer in 1997, Löfgren was hired to conduct a nationwide survey of all existing rural district courthouses. The material collected then largely gathered dust for several years after she moved on to other duties, but the courthouses kept nagging at the back of her mind.

"What I found so interesting was that the architectural form did not seem to be founded in the practice or needs of the law. As an architectural historian, you expect there to be a relationship between a building's function and form, but it seemed that this relationship needed to be questioned in this case."

Users have made their mark on the buildings Eva Löfgren has studied Swedish rural district courthouses built between 1734 and 1970, a period during which courthouses were built and paid for by the local community. After that, the state assumed responsibility for courthouses as part of the court reforms. In her thesis, Löfgren divides her investigations into three aspects: the conception of the buildings, the buildings themselves, and their use. The source material, which includes drawings and tender documents, bills from the actual construction process, and users' own stories, reveals a variety of users and activities which all made their mark on the buildings.

"You might expect the story of the courthouses to be all about timorous defendants and stern judges, but there are also children who grew up in these buildings, and courtrooms that were regularly used for parties, and the oldest buildings always included a large kitchen with a baking oven."

Löfgren can also show that many of the buildings were used for a very long time without users viewing them as old-fashioned. The conception of what a courthouse should look like, which was established back in the 18th century, survived in many respects right through to the 1950s.

The thesis Rummet och rätten Tingshus som föreställning, byggnad och rum i användning [Space and court: Swedish rural district courthouses as conception, buildings and space in practice] was successfully defended on 9 February 2010.

Contact: Eva Löfgren, Department of Conservation, University of Gothenburg +46 (0)501 120 04 +46 (0)733 97 09 52 eva.lofgren@conservation.gu.se

idw :: 01.03.2011