Palace of Justice Brussels

VISITING THE PALACE OF JUSTICE, BRUSSELS

Ever since reading about the fact that defendants keep escaping justice by being able to flee from the Palace of Justice in Brussels (for example in a NY Times article in 2009), I was curious to visit the building. Being in Brussels for a conference in April 2010 meant I could see the place.

It is indeed an impressive building, not only from an architectural point of view (19th century neoclassicism), but also in its sheer size and complexity. Covering 26,000 sqm and boasting 44 (!!) entrances, it is a complete maze. I didn’t manage to find the main entrance, so made my way into one of the small side entrances – no security, no control, no one there, no questions asked. I was able to wander the building, up and down many levels, through long corridors with dozens or maybe hundreds of doors, passing by several courtyards – all completely undisturbed. I finally arrived in the main courtyard and also found the main entrance, which I then used to exit the building.

The building struck me as an odd combination of relatively high levels of visibility around the main courtyard, especially across different levels, and highly limited movement routes. Other parts of the building showcased interesting vistas, but didn’t make orientation easy, and lots of corners, niches and massive columns must make a little hide-and-seek game highly enjoyable.

Comparing this to my visit of the Royal Courts of Justice in London, which is highly controlled (e.g. bag scan at entry) I wonder though – is this an appropriate spatial configuration for a court building? How intelligible is the building? Is there really a broken relationship between seeing and walking? And does this contribute to the fact that defendants can escape with relative ease and a little help from their friends?

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