Planted on a hill above the historic old town of Brussels, the hulking Palace of Justice looms ominously like a latter-day Acropolis or Mesopotamian ziggurat, but on an even grander scale.

It was the biggest edifice in Europe when it was completed in 1883, is still the largest courthouse in the world, and is thought to have inspired Adolf Hitler’s madcap Germania plans for a new Berlin.

Some 186 metres long, 177 metres wide, and 116 metres high, spread over 6.5 acres, it has 27 large courtrooms and a 45-tonne gilded dome. Even the imposing atrium, known as the Salle des Pas Perdus (which translates as the Hall of Lost Steps) could fit the city hall, the Hôtel de Ville, under its 80-metre ceiling. The sheer size is monumental and majestic, with a touch of the absurd, like a steampunk Tower of Babel.

Yet for all its bombastic proportions, the gargantuan complex has been partially hidden from view since the early 1980s, when it was shrouded in scaffolding to repair the crumbling masonry. Budget cuts, bureaucracy and sheer inertia have kept the rusty metal cage in place. Now, finally, the wraps are coming off and, at least for the law court’s admirers, it is a chance to put the absent Palace back on the Brussels landscape.

Mathieu Michel, the Belgian State Secretary responsible for buildings administration has vowed to remove the scaffolding on the main façade, facing in April 2024, with the others coming down in phases afterwards as part of a €200m (£177m) restoration. “The exterior of the palace will all be done in 2028. Everything,” he told i.

Mr Michel does not make excuses for the clutter cladding the courthouse. “It’s shameful,” he says. “They put up the scaffolding in the early 80s when they saw the stones had cracks. It was urgent and stopped the stone from falling. But then…nothing. Really, nothing. If someone goes to London, for example, and sees the Tower Bridge with scaffolding for 40 years, what image does it show the world?”

Inside the enormous building which is still a working court facility (PHOTO: Supplied)
Inside the enormous building which is still a working court facility (PHOTO: Supplied)
The enormous Palace of Justice in Brussels is said to have inspired Hitler's Germania plans (PHOTO: Supplied)
The enormous Palace of Justice in Brussels is said to have inspired Hitler’s Germania plans (PHOTO: Supplied)

Mr Michel speaks ardently about how the Palace of Justice can one day take its place as an emblem of Brussels, like the Atomium, the Hôtel de Ville and Manneken Pis. He talks about the ‘democracy route’ that runs along the Rue de la Régence from the Parliament, past the Royal Palace to the Palace of Justice.

“In 2030, Belgium will celebrate 200 years since its declaration of independence,” he says. “I want the building to play a major role in the bicentenary. It’s a lighthouse. It’s the symbol of justice. It’s a symbol of democracy.”

That pride in the building has not always been shared by his peers. In 2010, Belgium launched a competition to collect ideas for repurposing the courthouse. Responses included turning it into a commercial complex featuring shops, hotels and cinemas, while the winner suggested pulling it down completely and starting anew.

But in the face of fierce resistance from the judicial sector, the initiative was binned, and the government later confirmed that the legal system would remain the sole inhabitant.

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The Palace was conceived by architect Joseph Poelaert on the Mont aux Potences where convicted criminals were hanged in the Middle Ages. Amongst its direct imitators is the Palace of Justice in Lima, Peru – but on a smaller scale.

There have been major changes over the years. The two bronze entrance doors, each weighing ten tonnes, were melted down during the First World War to make cannons for the front. And while Hitler was dazzled by the building, it did not prevent the retreating Nazis from trying to destroy it: in September 1944, a few hours before Brussels was liberated by the Allies, German soldiers blew up the dome and the basement. The dome crumbled but was later rebuilt 2.5 metres higher than before.

By admin