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Contemporary Interpretation

A Contemporary Interpretation of the Palace of Justice through
Materiality, Tectonics, Style and Symbolism

Rick Abelen

Published Jul 14, 2020

  • Materiality: The concept or applied use of various materials in the medium of building.

  • Tectonics: The science or art of construction, both in relation to use and artistic design.

  • Architectural Style: The features that make a building notable or historically identifiable.

  • Symbolism: The use of symbols to represent ideas, or the meaning of something as a symbol.

Historically, architecture has been used to interpret and display a society’s norms, values and position towards various aspects of that society. This perception is also strongly present in the organization and design of a Palace of Justice or Court of Appeals. Consider, for example, the Palace of Justice in Brussels, Belgium. This building considers both symbolism and functionality as very important in its design (National Center for State Courts, n.d.).  It reflects the independence, dignity and importance of a judicial system and the powers belonging to a country or state. Courthouses have often been a dominant institution within a city (Federale Overheidsdienst Justitie, 2015).  Architecturally speaking, the Palladian influence can be seen in many courthouses. Principles such as symmetry, hierarchy and order were often recognizable in courthouse buildings, as shown in figure 1 (Hardenbergh, Tobin, & Yeh, 1991). Traditionally, courthouses arose using an architectural language of strength and dignity (National Center for State Courts, n.d.). Often, esteem for justice and law reflects itself architecturally in large columns, heavy doors, and grand staircases (Hardenbergh, Tobin, & Yeh, 1991). The quality of space translates itself consistently from form and mass to all levels of detail within the building. The materiality and tectonics of a Palace of Justice would therefore be independent of Zeitgeist and fashion. However, style characteristics such as proportion and rhythm are clearly present in contemporary court buildings, just like the images and meaning that they encourage. “The courthouse became not only a powerful place within the community but also a visual reference to people approaching the town, often dominating the town’s skyline.” (Hardenbergh, Tobin, & Yeh, 1991) A courthouse often aims to be visible, recognizable, authoritative and functional. Contrary to the courthouses of the past, the institution is a lively and public place. The judicial system is a public matter. “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.” (McCarthy, 1924)

A Palace of Justice gives a generous gesture to the city. An imposing court building should reflect the essence of the judicial system. This gesture can also be found in the image of Lady Justice, which can often be found on courthouses (Swatt, 2011). Lady Justice is usually depicted as a blindfolded figure, with a sword in her right hand and a libra in her left hand.  In the design of a Palace of Justice, one could start from the conceptual image of jurisprudence in the present time. The role for Lady Justice as a referee in disputes has increased over the past decades, however the role of the sword, which symbolizes judgement, has decreased (Federale overheidsdienst Justitie, 2015). While jurisdiction has become more controllable and open (not requiring a word), the blindfold has still retained the same values of impartiality and anonymity. Architecturally, this could mean the clarity and transparency of an entrance, vestibule or courtroom is desirable more than ever before. With such a design, it could be argued that a courthouse complex is a reflection of the jurisdiction.

Visitors to the Palace of Justice in Brussels are received in a well-kept environment. Any inconvenience of an unclear course of events or a deficient entourage will create tension (Hardenbergh, Tobin, & Yeh, 1991). Hence, there is a reassuring spaciousness, rich materials and colors, as well as foyers that offer a view which together result in a well-cared environment and materiality (Reno, Dwyer, Robinson, & Gist, 1997).

Different users of the Palace of Justice, such as judges or defendants, will have a different point of view on the symbolism and functioning of the complex. The arrangement and positioning of different spaces and users should therefore reflect the appropriate relationships between the judicial authority and other users, with circulation within the building being an important factor in this (National Center for State Courts, n.d.). Circulation within a building reflects a hierarchy of spaces. From an historical perspective, one could conclude that the Palace of Justice in Brussels has obtained its position and identity through its size, specific architectural elements, and position within the urban fabric. The unique identity has remained, regardless of an architectural epoch or style influences.


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