By Robert Such. Published in World Architecture.

“It was the most impossible site for a law court,” says Christian de Portzamparc, architect of the Palais de Justice in Grasse, on the French Riviera. “It’s absolutely not balanced, not symmetrical… not simple, and not seeable from the city… so it’s a paradox to do a law court there.” But he managed.

When approaching Grasse, a sizeable town of red-tiled roofs climbing up the foothills of the Alpes-Maritimes, it is easy to see how context plays a major role. Grasse possesses some of the tacky, glittering pastiche of nearby Cannes and Nice, but without the jet set. Voluminous pines and tall, slender cypresses rub shoulders with a provincial mix of Italianate-style 19th-century Classicism, and a palette of citrus colours.

The palais lies downhill from the old medieval centre, with its alleyways that are often too narrow to swing the proverbial cat. From roads tacking their way up and down the hillside in a series of hairpin bends, the first sign of the building is its pinkish key-shaped roof. Seven main sections of open-jointed terracotta-coloured concrete slabs perform a dual purpose: to give protection from the relentless sun, while allowing air circulation between it and the flat, waterproof roof below, and to hide the lift mechanisms and air conditioning equipment.

Portzamparc carried off the top prize in an open competition in 1993. The local authorities had acquired industrial land and were looking to move judicial business from ancient seats in the centre to a more modern and larger setting.

Not everything went smoothly. “Lunches are important,” observes Portzamparc, referring to the give-and-take approach of building contractors. “Many things you decide through talking with them and you slowly lose the relation with the plan… I had to modify the project sometimes because they had made mistakes.” He recounts how the stucco on the facade needed to be redone several times before it hid the uneven concrete surface.

His comment about the impossibility of the location is well founded – a busy road ties the site up in a noose. On the west side of the loop is a high polygonal-masonry wall and an ornately decorated ex-Chiris perfume factory. On the south side, contemporary constructions typify a ridiculous pastiche of the ubiquitous Romanesque style. As Portzamparc notes: “The law court exists and at the same time is integrated… It’s important to do that in honest architecture, to make something which is not neo-Provençal.”

Two entrances, front and rear, feed into the salle des pas perdus (waiting hall). Within the long, marbled hall – a perfect space for pacing – single or paired concrete columns, serving as perspective markers, alternate with rows of tapered wooden posts which act as sun-breaks, splintering sunlight and creating a zebra pattern that resembles the one seen on the sunlit avenues in Grasse. “The salle des pas perdus is a sort of mirror, or double, of the garden of plane, palm and cypress trees outside,” says the Moroccan-born architect.

On each floor is a corridor that runs down the spine of the building, linking the commercial court, conciliation board and high court of justice in the elliptical building to the three blocks along the axis.

The ellipse, one of Portzamparc’s favourite motifs, works well here and complements the curve of the street that wraps itself around the western boundary. The dynamic sense of flow is also captured inside, with the looped walkway and lower part of the split-level ground floor bringing to mind a cavern carved out by a river swirling about, eroding and sculpting.

To achieve the external, rough-concrete ellipsoid shell, he returned to the quarry from where the stone for the old wall had been extracted, “to show that it is possible to be in agreement with the site”.

He did not intend the complex to resemble a fortification, yet it does. But while small square openings — with their jambs, head and sill splayed towards the interior of the courtrooms — in the curved wall give the impression of being in a fort, they also ape a gallery wall of ephemeral, urban snapshots.

All the courtrooms, from the more sombre to the well lit, have natural light by either zenithal light wells or tall, narrow windows behind the bench. Variations in atmosphere are created by a wide range of textures, tints and contrast: colourful and sober shades of stucco; olive-green, translucent and clear glass; and a number of concrete finishes.

Furniture is by Elizabeth de Portzamparc, interior designer of the National Assembly’s Information Centre and Café de la Musique at Parc de la Villette. Here, she mixes and matches the warm and cool hues of sycamore, beech and dyed leather with the dark Brazilian rosewood court room portals.

As the state requires that any of its new buildings receive artistic input, Jacques Martinez became involved in the scheme. His 21 paintings – with an orange, leafy theme – are hung high up in the salle des pas perdus in the hope that rather than studying their feet people will look up at his work – and, hopefully, at the architecture too.