After the Law

Joseph P. wanders through the Salle des Pas Perdus—the room of lost steps. People pace back and forth; it is a place to wait. Train stations, government buildings, edifices of the law: all force those who enter to surrender themselves to their own irrelevance. You must abide, they command.

The gray zone of indeterminacy stretches out in front of P. Though he has done his share of waiting in life, he feels this entrance hall extend infinitely above and around him, a grand zone of lostness beyond his comprehension. The marble does not take heed of his footsteps; it refuses to bear any trace of his passage. Above, gray figures walk hurriedly down a corridor P. cannot reach, barely registering his presence. A constant murmuring reverberates round the hall, yet P. does not see anyone speaking. People keep a strange, wide distance between each other, silently glowering at the forests of Corinthian columns rising impassively to the sky.

P. has entered the Palais de Justice. His fate rises, suspended above him. He is before the law.

 

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The Palais de Justice is a monolithic monstrosity at the center of Brussels. W. G. Sebald called it “the largest accumulation of stone blocks in Europe”; with a surface area of 26,000 square meters, it is larger than Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In fact, the Palais was the biggest monument built in the nineteenth century; today it is second in size only to Bucharest’s Palace of the Parliament in Europe. It occupies an overbuilt square that connects two main transportation arteries in the center of Brussels by means of a large, blue-lit traffic island, and hovers above the city in the midst of Brussels’ leaden sky: a sight impossible to escape from almost any perspective. Built on the Galgenberg, where convicted criminals were hanged in the Middle Ages, it looks down from the higher, wealthy area of the city onto the Marolles, the historically poor neighborhood of Brussels, an ominous reminder of Justice and the Upright Life.

Despite its grandeur, the Palais has been under renovation for the better part of twenty years. Its golden dome is permanently surrounded by bleak gray scaffolding; shrubs shoot up through the roof. Though it has been the seat of the Supreme Court of Belgium for 130 years, its maintenance costs have become simply too much to bear for the government, which has decided to evacuate the building for the time being. Its future is up for debate: the city of Brussels is currently holding a competition to determine its use, with the winning proposal to be unveiled in 2011.

For now, the Palais de Justice confounds those who confront it, standing as an emptied monument, a hollowed symbol that refers to nothing except perhaps its own bizarre existence. One remembers, upon seeing it, that Brussels is a city prone not just to monumental spectacle, but also to eccentric and self-conscious myth-making. René Magritte and surrealist art both called Brussels home. The Palais, a supposedly rational temple to law, is an unlikely combination of the monumental and the mythical: entering it means surrendering yourself to the fact that you have entered a land where justice has ceded to myth, where ritual takes over from rational proceedings, and where bureaucracy has achieved hitherto unknown heights of refinement intended to eternally confound.


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Joseph Poelaert, one of Belgium’s most famous fin de siècle architects—harboring a reputation for slight insanity—worked on the plans for the Palais ten years before the city even decided to build one. When in 1860, an international competition to build Brussels’ new Palais de Justice was ordered by royal decree, Poelaert had already spent the better part of a decade hunched over his drawing board, sketching out a monumental map of his thoughts. It was to be his magnum opus, the eighth wonder of the world; the competition was the chance for his Palais, a symbol for greatness elaborately wrought in his mind, to be turned at last into a reality of massive stone.

The plans Poelaert submitted for his Palais to the municipal council in 1862 were as vague and uncertain as the myth of the building itself. The scale of the building was unclear from his designs, and the cost of its construction was a total mystery. Jules Anspach, the mayor of Brussels at the time, simply declared, “I want the expenditure to be the largest possible!” Anspach’s wish was fulfilled. The building, which had a projected budget of 4 million francs, ended up costing 50 million, completely emptying the coffers of Brussels and almost driving the city to ruin. Its construction would take an entire seventeen years to complete. Poelaert never saw the end result: he died in 1879, four years before its completion. The building was inaugurated in 1883, the largest public governmental building of the century: boasting 24 large courtrooms, 236 smaller rooms for diverse uses—including prison cells to detain criminals waiting to be convicted—and a further realm of mysterious, shadowy rooms whose locations and uses were obscure from the beginning.

Though it was designed to command quiet, dignified respect, the Palais de Justice was overrun by a rioting mob on October 15, 1883, the day of its inauguration. In the government’s blind desire to create a monument that would testify to the power of Belgium, an entire section of the Marolles was razed to make space for the edifice. At that period, urban development in Brussels mainly focused on beautifying the richer areas of the city, while the poorer ones were left to stagnate. However, with this particular assertion of might, the government had gone too far for the people. An angry mass stormed the entrance hall, pushing over furniture, slitting the covers of leather seats with razors, breaking mirrors, tearing down tapestries and paintings, shitting and pissing in the corners to fully desecrate the building. It was pillaged, ravaged, and abandoned in disgrace. For the angry Marolliens, the Palais de Justice was a symbol of might, not justice. They cursed Poelaert as a skieven architek, or crooked architect: thus inventing one of the most creative—and condemnatory—Brusseleer insults in existence today.

Another brutal scene occurred in June 2009, when a man sitting in the audience of a court case pulled out a gun and fatally shot a magistrate and her clerk. Later, the apprehended perpetrator claimed to have acted out of vengeance “toward Justice in general, and the magistrate in particular,” despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the case that had just been deliberated. Violence and madness, part of the dark underbelly of Justice, suddenly revealed themselves in the marble halls that ordinarily served to deny their existence.

 

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The Palais de Justice was built to create, not reflect, myths. It is a symbolist hodgepodge built in the Neoclassical style common to many European public monuments: a mysterious mix of Greek, Egyptian and Byzantine elements decorate each of the four distinctly-designed façades. Winged lions, Greek gods, and Masonic signs cover the halls, seemingly holding the elusive key to the law. The massive marble stairs that lead from the Salle des Pas Perdus to the upper gallery are flanked by statues of Greek and Roman senators, orators, and jurors. Shadows fall on their faces and ripple over their stone togas—they stand as silent guardians to the symbols hidden in the shadows of porticoes, forgotten but for the odd scholarly text collecting dust in the public archives of the Brussels library.

When the Palais was built during Leopold II’s reign, Belgium was a world power. The country was rich with the spoils of the Congo, and longed to prove this to the outside world. This edifice, dedicated to justice, was really a symbol of ill-gained wealth, a testament to imperialism and colonialism. More than that, it was intended to stand for the glory of the country: relatively new (it was founded in 1830), Belgium yearned for its own national myths which would create cultural memory and reflect a unified identity. As Belgium declined in importance again, hit hard by the Great Depression of the ’30s and the Second World War, the Palais became a world unto itself, dissociated from a larger social context.

Even taken on its own terms as a symbol of Poelaert’s madness, the Palais exceeds all attempts at comprehension. It is so easy, even inevitable, to become hopelessly lost in its vast system of lugubrious corridors. It is its own country; though it began as a map to Poelart’s own cavernous and convoluted mind, it slowly took on a grotesque life and topography of its own. Edmond Picard, a Belgian jurist and writer, said of his time working in the Palais, “For more than forty years, I have been traveling and living in the country of the law.” It is an enclosed system from which the traveler cannot escape, much in the same way that Kafka’s Joseph K. is trapped in the series of interminable corridors and constantly shifting rooms that populate his court. It comes as no surprise that Orson Welles initially planned on filming his adaptation of The Trial here: one can easily imagine a bird’s eye view of Joseph K., walking interminably around the sixteen-point star embedded in the center of the marble floor in the Salle des Pas Perdus, helplessly waiting for his trial to begin.

In The Trial, Joseph K. is told a parable titled “Before the Law.” A man from the country journeys to find the Law, and tries to gain access through a doorway which will lead him directly to it. However, this door is guarded by a doorkeeper, who tells the man that he cannot go through at this time. The man waits, at first patiently, then with increasing impatience as his waiting stretches from days into years. He begs the doorkeeper incessantly to let him in; he tries first to reason with him, and then to bribe him, to no avail. The man grows old; his eyesight begins to fail; he waits for so long that he befriends the fleas that live on the collar of the doorkeeper’s uniform. Just before his death, it occurs to him that there is one question he has not asked the doorkeeper. “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “So how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” As he dies, the doorkeeper bends over him, and shouts to the deaf old man: “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. Now I’m going to close it.”

Like this door to the Law, the Palais de Justice carries the promise of capturing an ever-receding opportunity for transcendence, knowledge, or even salvation. Entering it means accepting the myth of the Law, complete with its slow, Belgian bureaucratic mechanisms, shuffling paperwork, endless waits, interminable deliberations. Yet at the end of this, hidden in the catacombs of the basement, the vaults of the unreachable attic, the obscure carvings hidden in the shadows of porticoes, lies a glimpse of what is secret, unrepresentable, unspoken: the true meaning of this massive symbol.

But first one must find it. People emerge from the Palais telling stories of endless corridors that make the visitor walk compulsively, passing the same halls over and over again despite never changing direction. Some speak of courtrooms filled with ghost-like figures glimpsed when walking past, who have vanished on the way back. Disused wooden stairs branch off from main corridors, yet end abruptly in the air, hanging in a void, their ends blocked off by a dusty stockpile of bureaus, chairs, and filing cabinets. Gaping marble halls are scattered throughout the building, hushed like disused ballrooms at night. Other stories tell of people who set up shop in forgotten, crumbling rooms in the basement: a tobacconist’s, bookie’s, a barber shop, and a bar may all have flourished in its subterranean regions for brief periods, inexplicably vanishing overnight. The Palais also carries legends of more mystical architectural properties. In his haunting description of a visit, Sebald writes, “Austerlitz went on to tell me that he himself, looking for a labyrinth used in the initiation ceremonies of the Freemasons, which he had heard was either in the basement or the attic story of the palace, had wandered for hours through this mountain range of stone, through forests of columns, past colossal statues, upstairs and downstairs, and no one ever asked him what he wanted.” People still search for this labyrinth; the promise of secret, subversive knowledge in a palace of justice is almost impossible to resist, even if one must risk eternal lostness.

 

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According to Georg Simmel, all buildings contain the potential of their own ruin. The Palais de Justice may not yet be physically run-down, but with every further hollowing out of its symbolic potential, it has been inwardly collapsing since its construction. Walter Benjamin remarks that with Kafka, “there is no longer any talk of wisdom. Only the products of its decomposition are left.” One could extend the sentiment to the Palais de Justice itself.

Soon the Palais will be completely transformed. Suggestions for its future include turning it into a monumental art museum or luxury shopping-mall. A more outlandish proposal put forward by Franco Dragone, director for the Cirque du Soleil, involves turning the building into a giant souk and transforming it into a microcosm of the entire city of Brussels: a hectic, nonsensical crossroads of culture.

Most people, however, are still attached to the Palais as an edifice of the Law, the symbol of a particularly Belgian, surrealist bureaucracy that continually propagates its own mystique. To rob its halls of their impenetrability, bringing it into light and time again, would be the greatest injustice of all.