Whether or not you notice the Vancouver Law Courts depends a lot on if you’re driving or walking. Glancing quickly from the window of your car, the sunken concrete building covered in small trees, ferns, and ivy may appear like a parking garage or a park, or maybe a parking garage decaying into a park.
By foot, however, the unadorned square pillars, shrub-covered terraces, and imposing sky bridge begin to announce themselves for what they are: the elements of a modernist temple to the bureaucratic state. Does the building’s wide pavilion base invite walkers to pause and share conversation with their fellow citizens, or, as in my experience, does it simply deter—creating a no-man’s land between the evidently public sidewalks and the decidedly semi-public offices hidden beneath the green?
Technically, the Law Courts building is only the southern portion of the overall Robson Square complex—the taller, slightly more temple-like section with a glass roof draped like a sheet over its terraces. To get inside, you cross the street below the sky bridge, go through two double doors into what looks like a hotel lobby from the Soviet bloc, then board an elevator and get off on the fourth floor, where everything is immediately very quiet.
I know I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing three adults, dressed in fancy costumes of black robes, shoulder pads, and white ruffles walking towards me, whispering, while I stand beneath a glass ceiling, next to massive concrete steps with ferns growing all over them. They pass by, and I look to my right to see another flock of them telling secrets beside the sixteen-foot-tall black marble statue of Thetis, goddess of justice. The indeterminate age, purpose, and meaning of this whole place becomes thrilling.
The dissimilitude between the unearthed city of Atlantis outside, and the cramped courtrooms inside is jarring. Gold railings, fans, and a large baroque coat of arms centered on the wall take the spectator from the temple and into a settler, monarchical past—at least, were it not for the twelve or so computer screens, the security guards, and the clumsy, bewildered way we take our seats.
The judge enters, smiles congenially. We stand, and he sits. Members of the jury enter and take their seats across from the witness.
A lawyer at the stand begins a line of rapid questioning: did you or did you not see Antony in Bangkok?” Another lawyer shoots up out of his seat to object. For the first time in my life, I hear someone referred to in total seriousness as “My Lord.” The judge promptly sends out the just-seated jury and witness so they can talk out whatever this issue is in private.
The witness had, apparently, given at some point a false testimony to a police officer. He said he had not seen Antony in Bangkok, but later he said he had seen him and admitted he didn’t know at the time. In questioning, however, he gave a simple “no” that revealed he had seen him on the street, and had been incorrect when he gave testimony to the police officer. The prosecutor tried to clarify the evident confusion. The defense attorney, on the other hand, was fighting to preserve the contradiction, mystery and doubt.
Now, as they discuss, each side assumes opposite postures. The prosecutors speak with a kind of “common sense” vocabulary and tone, while the defense takes on a formal flourish, placing special emphasis on legal jargon, both strutting like peacocks. The judge seems genuinely confused, like a parent attempting to settle some conflict that exists partially in the language of discourse and partially in the special language of children, a language that lives in and builds its own world.
Whatever truth emerges here—whatever story has the final say—depends on where the lines are drawn between ambiguity and clarity. Were the judge to employ his formal tone, the lines would already be set and drawn, the sacred marked out of the profane. But to stay in common sense jargon is really to defer.
To use the building as metaphor is to stay wandering in those uncertain, Soviet-style hallways where you can say what you like, and not to emerge into the bizarrely clear courtyard with the ferns and the statue and the whispering. Power is letting in the light, building a courtyard. It is constructing lost and deciding when you, or the person next to you, are found.
We leave the courtroom before anything is really settled and I pluck a leaf from one of the ferns in the inner sanctum. I put it in my mouth (as I have the dangerous habit of doing with leaves) and I chew for a moment. It’s plastic. Of course it’s plastic.