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Visiting the Palace of Justice at Brussels, Belgium: Gigantic Building, Huge Issues

Updated on March 19, 2019
Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
The Palace of Justice, Brussels, seen from the 'Parc de Bruxelles' / 'Park van Brussel'
The Palace of Justice, Brussels, seen from the 'Parc de Bruxelles' / 'Park van Brussel' | Source
Cupola, Palace of Justice, Brussels
Cupola, Palace of Justice, Brussels | Source
Map location of Brussels, Belgium
Map location of Brussels, Belgium | Source

Grandiosity for its own sake

The enormous Palace of Justice (French: Palais de Justice ; Dutch: Justitiepaleis ) building in central Brussels looked so new and different when completed in 1883 (having taken since 1866 to build) that many Belgians were utterly shocked, to the extent that the word 'architect' became a term of abuse for some people. The architect in question was Joseph Poelaert.

But we must consider the context. It wasn't necessarily the architect who was to 'blame'. The question arises, who commissioned him? Every act of the Belgian king must be marked by a minister (as the Belgian Constitution says) and behind the gigantic Palace of Justice project was the grandiose vision of King Leopold I of the Belgians through the ministry of justice, who appointed Poelart in 1861.

Some more historical context

When architect Poelart eventually started his enormous undertaking, King Leopold I had died the previous year. Belgium as an independent kingdom had hardly been in existence 36 years. In comparison with Great Britain, France and Prussia, Belgium was a relatively small country, with a history of being overrun by other countries' armies, and with so little influence beyond its borders that the Kingdom was not even allowed to guarantee the borders of the small, neighbouring Grand Duchy of Luxembourg because to do so would supposedly jeopardize Belgium's neutrality. Somewhat chafing at the limitations and restrictions placed upon the country, Belgium's leaders — especially its monarchs — set about undertakings which would distinguish it and assert the country's gifts and talents. One gigantic project undertaken — largely at the behest of King Leopold II — was the acquisition of the Congo, a process not without some sorry results. The building of the gigantic Palace of Justice in central Brussels — on a scale exceeding that of St Peter's Basilica in Rome — was another, although it is reckoned that Leopold II was not particularly the driving force behind it; or, stated differently, it wasn't his idea.

Finally opened in 1883, this structure, 104 meters tall, with a diameter of 160 by 150 metres, and conceived according to arguably elephantine grandiosity, has consumed maintenance budgets ever since.

...and the fascists

After Germany invaded in 1940, Hitler professed to like the building; indeed, Albert Speer was supposed to make a special study of it with a view to emulating its colossal features by way of pursuing his Fuehrer's often ghastly vision.

Having professed to admire the building, Nazis in turned tried to destroy it, when retreating in 1944; the resulting damage was not repaired until 1947.

Little me...

Having been in Brussels on numerous occasions, I still cannot fail to be impressed, dwarfed, and otherwise taken aback at this building's sheer scale. When I lived in Belgium, I lodged in property belonging to the legal business partner of the Belgian minister of justice of the day; and I still pause to take in the sheer, almost megalomaniac, determination of the minister's 19th century predecessor in commissioning the much reviled architect Poelart to his task.

So when you go to Brussels, see what you think.

Also worth seeing

The other outstanding historical and cultural sites worth visiting in Brussels are too many to mention properly here, but while in Brussels be sure to visit the Grand' Place . The Royal Palace (French: Palais royal ; Dutch: Koninklijk Paleis ) has an impressive façade, seen from the Park of Brussels (French: Parc de Bruxelles ; Dutch: Park van Brussel ); a wing of the Palace, the Hôtel Bellevue, contains a superb museum of the royal dynasty which has reigned in Belgium since the 19th century. The Erasmus House (Maison d'Erasme; Erasmushuis), Anderlecht, is a museum dedicated to the great Renaissance scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam.


How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. However, the Metro is a very convenient way of getting around Brussels. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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