Walk 2: The courts

3 September 2021 (clear, 25C).

Most people will associate Brusells law with the Palais de Justice (1883, architect Joseph Poelaert) on Place Poelaert in the Marolles district. But once again the complexities of Belgian history and society make the tapestry richer than that. A ’juridical walk’ will take you through three landmarks.

Old Palais de Justice (Place de la Justice). Unknown artist.

The walk begins at Place de la Justice (formerly Place du Palais), a small square just south of the Central Railway Station. This is the site where the first Palais de Justice (1823, architect François Verly) stood. It was a traditional neoclassical courthouse decorated with a Graeco-Roman peristyle. Problems in terms of capacity became evident very soon after the building was completed, and plans to build a new courthouse began as early as the 1840s. The old courthouse was demolished in 1892, one year before its successor was inaugurated. The only thing that is left of the courthouse is the name of the square. Otherwise it has been rebuilt into nondescript commercial properties and an underground carpark with Boulevard de l’Empereur cutting the square into two as an overbridge. The completion of the renovation work in 2009 was marked by an installation consisting of 89 blue flags on yellow flagpoles (Bleus sur jaune, artist Daniel Buren). The association, if any, between the installation and the name of the square is lost.

The photographs of the square are here.

Next, walking towards Place de l’Albertine, we climb the stairs at Mont des Arts to reach Place Royale. This square is one of the most important renovation works that took place after the Coudenberg Palace, the seat of the Dukes of Brabant before independence, was destroyed in the fire of 1731. The square itself was developed from the plans of several architects (e.g. Jean-Benoît-Vincent Barré, Joachim Zinner), but its neoclassical uniformity is due mostly to the portico designs of Barnabé Guimard who is also responsible for many of the other facades in the vicinities.

The square is surrounded by a church and seven princely houses or hôtels. The most notable of these houses is undoubtedly the Hôtels de Coudenberg (1777, architects Jean-Benoît-Vincent Barré and Barnabé Guimard) on the east side, plural because it is made up of a church and two wings. The Cathédrale Saint-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg (1776, architects Jean-Benoît-Vincent Barré and Barnabé Guimard), with its bell tower ’à l’impériale’ (added 1849, architect Tilman-François Suys), stands between the two next-to-identical wings as the most prominent element of the whole. The left wing (nr. 7-8) is the Belgian Constitutional Court. In terms of expressive power, the building is underwhelming if one considers the Court’s legal status. It takes up only slightly more space than the right wing (nr. 5-6) which mainly seems to cater for receptions of high-society weddings that take place in the cathedral.

The photographs of the Constitutional Court are here.

A straight line runs on Rue de la Régence from Place Royal to the new Palais de Justice that represents Poelaert’s eclecticist vision. Seen from a distance, you realise how this ’singular architectural monstrosity’, as WG Sebald’s character calls it in Austerlitz, was intentionally built to have a certain power effect. This is the perspective, including the huge phallic dome and cupola, that one most often sees of the building. There is, however, nothing ’magnificent’ or ’royal’ about its power effect. The huge building is clumsy and charmless, like a bully that has to resort to intimidation because of a lack of natural authority. This, of course, also becomes the general character of the law that the building supposedly represents.

Brussels courthouse.
Palais de Justice, exterior detail.

The sensation gets more intense as one approaches the building. The exterior of the courthouse is run down and in desperate need of repair, and any decorative elements that could have given some playfulness to the otherwise pompous building are so high up that they wouldn’t be accessible to mere mortals. The interior resembles neoclassical courthouse architecture otherwise except for the darker colours and the vastness of its cubic space.

You can find images of the courthouse’s exterior here and interior here.

Carey Young has produced remarkable visual art on the building.