The Neverending Palace

19 Sep

When I was a kid I used to draw architectural plans for my ‘Dream House’. I produced a fair few of these over the years, and they invariably included such things as indoor swimming pools, music rooms shaped like grand pianos, multi-storeyed libraries with spiral staircases, chambers full of pillows designed for the benefit of my army of cats, and, out front, a giant fountain enclosed within a roundabout: the first sign of opulence that would greet my friends as they tossed their silk scarves over their shoulders and stepped out of their black stretch limousines. A limited imagination, yes, and naturally my dream house had large chunks of it fall off as I got older (I do still like the army of cats idea, though), but I remember that those plans used to mean something to me. Of course I knew that I’d never be able to build such a thing, but still I sat at the kitchen table rendering aerial views of dolphin-topped fountains and blowing blizzards of rubber residue onto the floor as I tried to make everything as close to the dream as my 7 year old hands could manage.

I didn’t pursue my architectural inclinations, but maybe if I’d grown up in Brussels the idea of being given an enormous budget, malleable deadlines and the freedom to tack on as many extensions as I wished might not have seemed so far-fetched. All I’d have to do is build a church and then a column that would impress the King, and then maybe I’d be thrown a roll of empty blueprints and asked to design a new civic building according to my loftiest fantasies.

In 1861, the Belgian architect Joseph Poelaert was given 3,000,000 Belgian francs and a 2-year deadline to create the Brussels Palace of Justice. 45,000,000 francs and 17 years later, some say it was only the architect’s death that finally brought construction to a close.

Poelaert appears to have been something of a juggernaut. I don’t know how or why he was continually thrown more time and more money to indulge in his gormenghastic schemes, but evidently he managed it somehow. When the beast was finished it was the largest building created in the 19th century, and it’s still the second biggest civic building in the world (second only to the Pentagon (the USA one this time, not the shape made by the city walls of Brussels)). There aren’t any indoor swimming pools or music rooms shaped like grand pianos as far as I know, but when you wander around it, you do sort of get the impression that this guy wanted to take advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity to create his dream house.

If you were a kid who was fascinated with architectural styles from around the world, what would you do if you suddenly found yourself with a gigantic plot of land, bags full of cash, and the unconditional trust of the government? Maybe you’d do what he did, and throw all of your favourite architectural styles into a big cauldron, stir them around a bit, and then – slowly and meticulously, leaving plenty of time for revisions and ‘wouldn’t it be nice if I could put a statue of Cicero in there as well’s – spread them all out over the plot of land you’d been allocated. Within the Palace of Justice you can find Egyptian Pharaoh heads, Assyrian winged lions, bas-reliefs borrowed from Khmer architecture, and classical Greco-Roman columns in Corinthian, Doric, Ionic and Tuscan styles. Apparently Poelaert wanted to crown the entire thing with a giant pyramid, but after he died a dome was installed instead: someone else’s cherry on top of his elaborate creation.

Although his whims were indulged by the authorities, it seems that the townsfolk of Brussels were not as prepared to turn a blind eye on him. For a start, the gigantic patch of land on which the Palace of Justice was built had to be expropriated from the surrounding Marolles district, meaning that many locals were forcefully relocated. Poelaert earned himself the nickname ‘Skieve Architekt’ (‘crooked architect’) – a name I’m sure I would have been happy to scream out had I been kicked out of my home so that somebody else could build his bloated tangle of dreams on top of it – and even today the Palace is quite controversial.

It remains controversial mainly because of its size. It still functions as a courthouse, but it’s so big that it’s impossibly expensive to maintain. On top of that, the elaborate nature of the thing demands a small army of people to police it. The Palace of Justice does not have a small army of people policing it, so there have been instances where the building has failed in its primary function: criminals have escaped from their trials and been lost in the labyrinthine corridors, leaving the pursuing security guards scratching their heads at each of the 16 possible exits. In 2009, Frédéric Deborsu, a reporter from RTBF and his crew decided to test the security of the Palace of Justice, and only had to hide behind a statue to get locked inside. They wandered around the palace all night long, prodding and poking into things they shouldn’t have had access to, and the next morning they were let out by a cleaning woman, no questions asked. This was broadcast on national TV, adding fuel to the ongoing public debate about how the building should be used.

Although the security issue is important, I think that it would be a shame for the building to be turned into a museum or some such thing, because that would mean it would be cleaned up and opened up and its secrets would be spilled out for all to see. To me, one of the things that makes this place so interesting is the fact that it is completely deserted and almost derelict in places, and its role as a courthouse means that there are certain parts of it that are always going to be inaccessible (at least in principle). When you walk around the outer galleries, you find cobwebs fluttering in the corners, grime-encrusted windows and long pigeon-stained walkways with locked doors at their end. Outside there are plants sprouting from the blackened turrets, and as you look up at the cold layers of stone and the blank stares of sentinel lions it seems ludicrous to suggest that there aren’t secret passageways or dungeons or those paintings where the eye-holes are cut out and people watch you from behind sprinkled about inside.

The truth is that you can’t have a building this fanciful sitting on your doorstep without concocting a few stories about it. From the time it was created it has inspired various myths and fantasies that are far too twisted and entertaining to kill by opening the place up to general inspection. (I’ll use the ‘some say’ thing here so it seems like we’re sitting around a campfire together.) Some say that there are dolphins inside the dome. Some say that there’s no complete map of the place, so any time renovations are undertaken new rooms and corridors are discovered. Some say that the building is deeper than it is high. Nobody knows how many floors there are in total and nobody knows what’s on the lowest level. Some say that the Palace holds a secret portal to a parallel world. Some say that Poelaert was completely out of control while the Palace was being constructed. Some say he became so obsessed with the place that it drove him into a delirium. Some say that on his death-bed he made people swear that his long-awaited pyramid would be installed on top. This is everything I’ve heard so far, but I’m sure I’ll hear more rumours the longer I’m in Brussels.

By now I’ve come to terms with the fact that the only way I’ll ever be able to express myself through my living quarters is via the trinkets and things I stuff it with, rather than the cat rooms or the fountain-roundabouts I used my millions to install. Sure I would have been angry if my home had been bulldozed to make way for a giant architectural confusion, but somehow I still find myself on Poelaert’s side here. It may be big and impractical, it may prompt escape-plots from convicted felons, but Poelaert’s dream house definitely adds something to the overall flavour of Brussels. It’s a mystery ingredient encased in scaffolding. Who needs practicality anyway when you can have loads of superstitions and stories instead?

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2 Responses to “The Neverending Palace”

  1. Lauren September 19, 2011 at 12:47 am #

    This is an incredibly charming idea and one that I’m glad exists in reality. I hope you intend to emulate the reporter who had an overnight stay… that would be very exciting. There’s something thrilling about the complete lack of security!

    • sarahwiecek September 19, 2011 at 11:17 am #

      Yes we were thinking about trying to get locked inside one night, actually. I think they’ve probably tightened security a bit since the last embarrassing incident, but I was always good at Hide and Seek, so I’m sure I could find something to crawl into until the security guards switched off their flashlights and went home. Apparently the reporter and his crew spent a lot of time looking at classified information about the trials that were currently taking place, but if I was in there I’m pretty sure I’d be searching for hidden passageways and the like.

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