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As a burgeoning city of the industrial revolution, Birmingham was often described as 'a city of terracotta'. The attractive and versatile material enabled the creation of elaborate, decorative façades and was a cheaper alternative to carved stone, which the city lacked.

In the late 1800s many great public buildings were built in terracotta, designed to project pride in public service provision and it became symbolic of the city's civic gospel movement - a philosophy of philanthropy and social improvement, championed by the city's influential leaders and industrialists.

The jewel in Birmingham's terracotta crown is surely the Grade I-listed Victoria Law Courts.

Inside the Great Hall at Victoria Law Courts

Inside the Great Hall at Victoria Law Courts

The haunting gothic structure sits boldly on Corporation Street. The outward grandeur of its richly decorated façade makes it one of the city's most recognisable buildings.

But unless for work or more unsavoury reasons people rarely venture within its terracotta carapace.

Completed in 1891, it is the triumphant work of architects Aston Webb and Ingress Bell, who won a design competition against 126 architects from across the country.

The site for the new building was to be at the end of the newly created Parisian style boulevard that was Corporation Street. This followed the extensive slum clearance of mayor Joseph Chamberlain's controversial 'Birmingham Improvement Scheme', which had begun in 1876.

Still to this day, each morning the inverted portcullis, one of only two portcullises of its type in the country, is lowered through the ground.

Entering the building you pass through the imposing archway, under the watchful eye of Queen Victoria, whose statue surmounts the grand arch. On the other side stands the Great Hall, an impressive double-height space with large crown-like chandeliers hanging in the cavernous ceiling from the hammerbeam timber roof structure.

In stark contrast to the exterior of red terracotta, the interior is faced with a softer sandy yellow shade of terracotta, but with the same lavish ornamentation. Impressive stained glass windows depict and celebrate the city's industries and notable figures from the past, instilling an immense sense of civic pride in Birmingham's rich heritage and establishing a corporate identity for what was the newly formed city of Birmingham.

The main corridor to the courtrooms

The main corridor to the courtrooms

Leaving from the grandeur of the Great Hall visitors are funnelled into the main corridor, which splits off in several directions.

The sudden change in scale is amplified by the richness in the detail of the elaborate terracotta walls and the plasterwork to the ceiling, creating an almost oppressive journey to the court rooms. Six of the original Victorian court rooms remain, although adapted with secure docks, televisions and microphone equipment to meet modern demands.

These courtrooms are dark and foreboding. Their eerie grandeur is a stark reminder of the power of the judicial system has wielded over the years.

A staircase rises from below the ground directly into the dock in the main courtrooms, from where defendants are brought via an underground tunnel from Steelhouse Lane Custody Suite. The courtrooms retain most of their original features, including the gothic canopied judges' chairs, from which, over the years, many criminals would have received their judgement.

Inside Court 1

Inside Court 1

From when it first opened, up until 1988, the building housed the Crown Court, but since then it has been home only to Birmingham Magistrates' Court.

It is the largest single court complex in Europe, housing 22 courts. It's also the busiest court in the UK, with 525 trials a month and it still manages to find gaps in its scheduling to allow in film crews for TV dramas.

Today's court is a far cry from the one of 1891. Now the concept of a digital court is being tested ahead of a national rollout, with Wi Fi and tablet computers playing a central role in the standard format.

All of the modifications of the building are being carried out in close consultation with English Heritage, ensuring the integrity of the building is not lost, whilst securing the future of the building as a working court for many years to come.

Article by Matthew Goer, Director, Associated Architects
Published in the Birmingham Post, 18 December 2014

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