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The Law Courts Building in Vancouver | The "Skyscraper On Its Side"

Updated on October 25, 2013

The Law Courts Building, Vancouver: Criminal Defence Meets Nature

One of the most stunning and under appreciated pieces of architecture in Vancouver is the Law Courts building. It's an amazing structure in the heart of the downtown core that's more than just another big corporate complex. It was thoughtfully and carefully constructed and it has stood the test of time and looks great to this day. I believe it will be an iconic building a hundred years from now.

All this being said, the Vancouver Law Courts tends to fly under the radar a little bit, mostly because it's not a gigantic skyscraper like most of the buildings in the city. However, when you walk by the building itself, you'll notice how stunning and ground breaking the complex really is.

This article is intended to help visitors and residents of Vancouver, BC gain an appreciation of one of the most important buildings in the city, both architecturally speaking and as it relates to the vital infrastructure of the city and province. Many important trials and legal proceedings take place behind that massive glass atrium roof.

The building is located in the Robson Square complex, but the main entrance is accessible from Hornby and Nelson Street.

*None of the information here should be construed as legal advice.


Skyscraper On Its Side: Behind the Vancouver Law Courts' Design

The Vancouver Law Courts building can be tough to fully appreciate. Despite the gorgeous design and concept, it just doesn't 'stick up' enough for most people to see it. There are a few places where you can get a good chance to admire the structure, such as while looking down from a taller building, but it's tough to grasp the full concept if you're just walking by.

The story behind the building is as follows. The courts in Vancouver were formerly housed in a neo-Classical styled building which also lies in the center of the city. This building, though beautiful and well loved, didn't have the space for all the Vancouver criminal law proceedings anymore and the Provincial government decided that an upgrade was in order.

Since the movement of the day was upwards, there were plans in place for a 50+ story gargantuan skyscraper, one which would have held the height record in the city even to this day. However, after architect Arthur Erickson was hired to design the building, the direction changed. His vision was to go against the grain of the time and build a sprawling 'horizontal highrise' that would change the downtown skyline and bring light in to the square.

The new building was not without its controversy. It took up over 50,000 square feet of valuable downtown real estate, and it was a great departure from the classic looks of the former courthouse. The concept of importing green space and light into such a corporate environment had mixed results.


Vancouver Law Courts Building: The Architecture

The most prominent and noticeable part of the Law Courts is the giant glass atrium roof. Much of the structure is covered by this focal point, and it's held up by an iconic steel space-frame structure. As you enter the building you'll be directly under this roof, and the entryway is light and spacious with plenty of green space.

This massive glass feature makes a lot of sense, and it's clear that Erickson's firm put a lot of thought into it. Vancouver has a very rainy climate, and as such natural light is a very important thing. The more glass and windows you add, the more light you can benefit from.

The rest of the building is constructed from concrete, and the structure is modernist in aesthetic. You'll notice the heavy stepped levels underneath the glass canopy of the roof and space-frame. This style was very in keeping with the time it was built, but fortunately the look has endured and it continues to be one of Vancouver's better looking buildings to this day.

There are a few reasons for these enduring good looks. The hard geometric angles of the stepped levels are softened in two ways, first by the sloped glass roof, and secondly by the extensive use of greenery inside the building under the atrium roof. At the time this use of green space on the terraces was almost unheard of, but it was clearly a visionary thing: many Vancouver skyscrapers now boast green roofs.

The Building Today: How It's Used, How to Visit

The Law Courts building in Vancouver is used today to house the two highest courts of British Columbia, the Supreme Court of British Columbia, and the Court of Appeals. It is used exclusively by these two systems, and they keep the building quite busy.

As such, you probably won't end up visiting the building for Vancouver criminal law unless it's a fairly serious or high profile incident that has worked its way up through the lower court systems.

That being said, the building is understandably attractive and extremely popular, so it can be rented and the rooftop and atrium spaces used for non-legal events, such as weddings, office parties and fashion shows. Something about the late modernist geometry and the high glass ceiling make it a spectacularly modern and fun place to host a party.

It's also possible to visit the Law Courts if you're in town. There are many public areas which are connected on three levels, from both the street and from Robson Square (another great place to visit), and the atrium level is open to the public, so you're welcome to pop by and snap some photos, or just enjoy being in a green space during a rainy day.

Having the supreme court in my hometown is a huge deal. It's really neat to see some major crimes tried in its halls. The crime rate is quite low in Vancouver and BC on the whole, and I consider courts like this one to be a huge contributor to that.

The Vancouver Supreme law courts building is a huge part of my beautiful city and an important landmark. If you're visiting town, I highly suggest checking it out!

The Law Courts on a Map

Vancouver Law Courts, Vancouver BC:
Nelson Street & Hornby Street, Vancouver, BC V6Z 2S1, Canada

get directions

The main entrance to the courts is located here, but the building itself takes up more than an acre of real estate.

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