international ideas competition Brussels Courthouse. Imagine the future! promoted by the Belgian Building Agency
••• a change in the function
In 1860, when the first open competition for the project of the new courthouse was announced, Belgium was a young enthusiastic nation willing to grow within the values of its recently drafted Constitution, which introduced a new, modern justice system declaring all men equal in front fo the law.
To celebrate this, the authorities decided to build a great monument, a beacon for the country, a declaration in front fo the rest of Europe, and a solid memory for the generations to come: a majestic house where Justice was to be practiced and represented. Accordingly, Mr Poelaert, who was finally chosen to develop the plans, conceived a monumental palace, that included in one independent architectonc organism all the the different types and levels of the democratic legal system. Having no nation ever attempted this before, Mr Poelaert first had to manage thousands of square meters without the guide of a clear pre-existent typology codified by the (neo)classical beaux-arts culture he came from. Two are his great achievements: the coherence and cleanness of the original program and distribution, and the formal architectural control. These two features place Poelaert’s masterpiece amongst the most important buildings of the 19th century.
On the original program: the functional and symbolic needs and expectations were obtained through extremely complex as well as sophisticated planning. However, this led to a lack of flexibility that was payed by the large availability of connective spaces. In order to install services, lifts, technical upgrades and to get more offices and courts, many volumes have been saturated to the limit in respect to the original distribution. This, and the difficulties to reach the higher security and energetic standards of today, leads us to the hypothesis of a change of the use of the actual courthouse.
About the formal control: according to Rem Koolhaas’ conception of “bigness”, a building like the Brussels Courthouse almost should not be possible. The talent of Mr Poelaert disproves this interpretation when he managed to keep the unity of his architectural act, despite its size. However, in this case, in our opinion, the fact of having only one conceptual use of space for such a large area, and the employment of stone as the only material, is responsible, amongst other things, for the sense of urban sterility that many people from Brussels declare to have experienced in the precincts. A diversification of the environments derived by a diversification of the usages could offer the plurality that people expect from an urban public place.
Despite a reinterpretaion of the scope of the palace, the courthouse will continue to be a monumental representation of the Belgian justice system, as unequivocally states the golden crown on top of the dome: this is the message imprinted in the shapes, volumes and details. We are suggesting to simply add more messages and meanings to the original one.
The function we propose to introduce is connected to Europe. Reflecting on the original spirit of 1860, we tried to present the problem in contemporary terms and we translated the national enthusiasms of the 19th century to the desire of today for a continental common path towards political understanding, diffused welfare and social progress.
••• a europe hyper culture centre
•• an idea_ the Europe Hyper Culture Centre is a space where different cultural centres, each belonging to a different European Union member, are located. It is conceived as a permanent expo shared and supported by all the nations of the EU and run by an appropriate institution founded for the occasion. The administration should be carried out democratically by the assembly of the delegates of the national centers. These centres will be assigned space and offices withing the palace following a balanced population criterium, whilst the areas for expositions and events will be shared. The hearing courts will be converted into halls, each of them provided with specific technical equipment and meant to host, in accordance, projections, lectures, conferences, live music and performances. These spaces will be shared by the different centers, so that all of them will have access to the such high-quality facilities. One of the main aim of the assembly of the delegates should be to monthly compile the calendars of the events, which would give a large and continuous offer of attractions for the inhabitants of Brussels and the tourists. We also suggest to assign a small part of the building to a guest extra-European country for a short period of time ( i.e. 6 months).
Many parts of the building will be transformed into public spaces (see description be- low) to make the palace a part of the living urban tissue, thanks to the free access and comfortable environments for reading, relaxing and meeting.
The advantage is that the cultural centers will have a vast and first-rate space to use and their activities will have more visibility thanks to the importance of the institution hosting them. The activities will be sponsored by the countries, whilst the incomes (of the bars, the stores, the refectory and the entry tickets to the exhibitions) will finance the maintaing of the Palace itself, thus allowing it to be self-sufficient on an economic level.
The concept of the Europe Hyper Culture Center is synthesized by us in the drawing where the former courthouse is shown as a case containing an engine. It is a way to express our intention to bring movement and activity in the building. The ‘Bruxelles think engine’ takes its fuel from the joyful atmosphere produced by what happens inside it and by the mood of the city. It also gets its power from the various parts of Europe where it is rooted, and whose culture it expresses. Inside it, the ideas meet and clash, join and compete. Exchange is induced, culture is produced, ready to export its colours towards Europe and the world.
•• a palace_ follows an explanation of the new functions that we suggest to introduce in the courthouse. The description is structured like a list divided in levels (see the axonometric distribution drawings for the correspondent locations).
the four greenhouses: the four courtyards surrounding the Hall of the Lost Steps will be brought back to the original Poelaert’s plan by removing them of the new additions (only the toilets will be kept), and covered with glass roofs in order to have a climate control of the volume and improve the energetic performance of the building. Thus, they will be changed into thematic greenhouses: The Garden of the North, The Garden of the East, The Garden of the South and The Garden of the West, each one hosting the botanical species representing the nature and the envi- ronment of the cardinal polarities of Europe. The four greenhouses will be accessible from level -1 and will be crossed by light walking bridges at the higher levels to get different viewpoints and improve circulation.
• front offices of the centres: each cultural centre will have a room dedicated to the relation with the public for informations, subscriptions or selling tickets for the activities.
• reading rooms: free open spaces for reading or studying accessible for everyone.
• inter-library: intended specifically for the needs of a multi-language culture centre, it will be a service allowing people to easily order books, movies and other con- tents from all the european countries.
• internet point: free access to computers.
• classrooms: rooms to be used for lectures, lessons, seminars and workshops organized by the cultural centers.
• bar: it is located at the entrance from the ramps (now part of the external exposition path, as described below), and will serve both the inside and the outside.
• restaurant/refectory: a low cost quality food service for both visitors and employees. It will help the structure in getting the role of a living part of the neighbourhood.
• 24h expo: the monumental colonnade of the main entrance from the stairs in Place Poelaert will be used for expositions, accessible anytime. The expositive path will include part of the opposing square and the ramps descending to Marolles.
• bar: it is located in the left wing embracing the main colonnade. It will serve drinks and beverages for the exposition visitors and for the tables located in the terrace in the square. The presence of the expo and the service of the bar, open from morning till evening, will turn the colonnade into a meeting place.
• shop: it is located in the right wing embracing the main colonnade. Here it will be possible to buy books, catalogues, turistic and thematic merchandise, etc.
• the Hall of the Lost Steps: it is the main space of the building, and it will be left free to use for socialization and relaxing, and furnished with poufs and sofas. The very center of the hall will be available for temporary art installations.
• events halls: the former hearing courts are where the main events will take place. They will be furnished in accordance to the assigned function (see the axonometric distribution drawings). The furnishing and technical differentiation of the highest standards will be made available for every cultural center.
• national cultural centers: the size of each one of them is derived from a balanced population criterium. Each country will customize its space.
belgium • czech republic • united kingdom • luxembourg • bulgaria • hungary • sweden • cyprus • denmark • greece • austria • france
• 24h expo: it is the upstairs continuation of the expositive outdoor path of the colonnade.
• reading rooms
• bar: it is located in a panoramic position and it serves level 1
• events halls
• national cultural centers
spain • poland • ireland • germany • italy • finland
• guest country: offices for the extra EU countries invited to stay and take part to the activities for short time.
• bar: it is located in a panoramic position and it serves level 2
• reading rooms
• events halls
• national cultural centre
malta • lithuania • estonia • latvia • slovenia • slovakia • romania • holland • por- tugal
• administration offices
• administration offices
• assembly hall: it is the place where the delegates of the cultural centers sit to discuss the management of the activities and the calendar of the events.
• radio europe: a radio and internet streaming station which will publicize and broadcast live the activities of the centers.
• candidate countries: expecting the enlargement of the EU family, some spaces are left available to be filled with more cultural centers.
•• a urban environment_ We adjusted the plan of Place Poelaert in order to let the inhabitants of Brussels truly regain the property of such a beautiful location, which also is a hub connecting the avenue Louise and the boulevard de Waterloo outside the “walls”, and rue de la Regence and the way down to Marolles inside the “walls”. The role of “city door” for the pedestrians is confirmed by the first glance at the downtown panorama from the square.
We suggest to suppress the roundabout (we do not consider it essential for the circu- lation) and to make the cars follow the trams, to rectify the waste of space. Most of the square will be only for pedestrian use and furnished with the relative facilities.
We meant to improve the permeability of the Palace with the outside, and to achieve this, from the outside we started: the expositive path that we introduced concerns both with the palace and its surrounds, especially Place Poelaert and the ramps. The bars in the Palace (the one located in the left frontal wing and the one located at the entrance from the ramp at level -1) also will sells drinks and food both for people inside and outside the palace. The ramps will be given special attention to better connect with Marolles.
Our intervention revolves around the revegetation of the zone. It contrasts with the customary aridity of the urban environments and generates some enriching antithesis:
• organic vs mineral
The monumental stone volumes of the Court would be valorized by contrast with the vegetation, while the sensorial experience would be improved.
• organic vs classical
Following the same contrast criterium, we developed the sinuous shapes for the structure that embrace the trees in the square and the undefinable space which they generate. The Court will stand over this uncertain environment exhibiting its otherness with its size and its ordered classical lexicon.
• organic vs urban
The adjustment that we suggest for the surroundings of the Courthouse is an ideal reproduction of a forest (not a park), conceived to bring a more natural perception of the spaces of the city in order to produce unexpected landscapes.
••• some good reasons
• for Europe_ In our intention, the “Bruxelles think engine” should offer a positive im- pulse to the unification process of the EU, allowing for cutural exchange, encounter and creativity. A space for local identities to promote themselves is offered, but within a context of multiculturalism, understanding, art, experimentation and adventure. Also, the presence of a “guest country” opens up the capacity to connect and explore culture and identities beyond the European Union on a global scale.
• for Brussels_ the Europe Hyper Culture Centre will become a strong attraction, ca- pable of drawing to the city tourists from many countries. The high dome already is a reference in the skyline of the city, and we intend to make it a reference also in the life of the city, by offering free-access climatically controlled comfortable environments to be used for various activities. The Centre will become a part of the city centre of the city, thus expanding its limits. The palace can be imagined as the vertex of a four sided touristic walking route from the Mont des Arts to the Grand Place, to Marolles quarter and the former Courthouse. The two sides of such a polygon concerning with the Cour- thouse are rue de la Regence, and the way down to Marolles. Rue de la Regence will naturally be valorized by the improvements made in this polarity, thus becoming more popular in the city.
One of our main intentions is to solve the old difficult and reknown relationship between the Courthouse and the Marolles quarter, that suffered from the presence of the palace, the difference in height and consequent access issues. In addition to the modern lift and the recently renewed little square in rue de l’Epée, we aim at strengthening the role of the monumental ramps (now often used as parking) as connectors. The bar, the vegetation and the expositive path will accompany the pedestrians from Marolles to the Palace and vice versa.
• for the Courthouse_ A building like the Courthouse of Brussels is marked by the will of monumentality which is impressed in its gigantic size and in the eclectic neoclassical shapes. We consider the loss of its first function (even if it is going to be replaced with a very vital one) as the step to symbolically gain the “status of monument” as it was meant in the past from Piranesi up to the end of the “classic era”. The plentitude of vegetation that we introduced has the aim (in addition to the obvious improvement of the quality of life) of representing this change of status, reproducing an image which also quotes the old picturesque engravings, where the majestic ruins were impressive testimonies of the past and an encouragement for the future.
This intention is also part of the choice of the introduction of the four greenhouses. The other relevant part is the improvement of the energetic performances that would be obtained thanks to them.
We have chosen to restore the spaces according to the first project of Poelaert. The elimination of the saturation of the inner spaces made throughout the years would give back the original shapes, and also offer larger and shorter way-outs. It will improve the security problems, which also will be less urgent once the function as Courthouse will be removed.
in collaboration with: RRS Studio, arch. Catherine Cornuel, arch. Alexandre Berbinschi