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The fabulous history of Walloon judicial architecture

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Travel

Heritage and justice. The places of power in Wallonia are infinitely rich. Overview before what could be, for everyone, a beautiful discovery of summer.

By Fredéric Marchesani

Justice, as it is today organized by Belgian law, is the heir and the result of a secular evolution. The places of power that house the judicial institutions are sometimes also the heirs of a rich and long history. In Wallonia, several courthouses are protected by a classification measure while others, brand new, may constitute the heritage of tomorrow.

The Liège Assize Court is the only room in a Walloon courthouse to be the subject of a classification measure. Neo-Gothic in style, it was designed in 1881 by the architect Lambert Noppius on the occasion of restoration work on the eastern wing of the palace. In its place there were formerly two anterooms fitted out during the reign of Jean-Théodore of Bavaria and forming part of the princely apartments under the Ancien Régime.

The exceptional room of the Assize Court of Liège, classified as a monument. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

The Assize Court is in a completely different style and bears witness to the neo-medieval current which was blowing in our regions at the end of the 19th century. The room consists of a large nave covered by a barrel vault. A paneling made up of panels carved in so-called “pleated towels”, surmounted by a frieze, gives verticality to the whole. The woodwork of the doors has geometric patterns, rosettes and clusters. The door handles take a form inspired by the heavy knockers of Gothic doors.

On either side of the central alley, two wrought iron enclosures precede the rows of benches. A monumental fireplace, also clearly of medieval inspiration, occupies the back of the room. There is a series of elements reminiscent of fortified castles: crenellated lintel, loopholes, coats of arms and arches with trilobed decorations. The hearth is made up of terracotta tiles struck with the Liège steps. The whole thus exudes an austere and solemn atmosphere, accentuated by the wine color of the walls and the semi-darkness which reigns in this place.

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Princely palaces that have become seats of justice

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The pillory of Braine-le-Château with, in the background, the former bailiff’s house. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

In addition to the old bailiff’s houses (judicial officer in feudal lordships), old courtyards and other trees and crosses of justice, Wallonia has preserved dozens of pillories. Also a symbol of seigneurial jurisdiction, the pillory is an outward sign of high justice. It was used to expose the condemned to jeers from the crowd and was therefore frequently erected in the main square of the city or village. Under the Ancien Régime, it was an infamous sentence, more serious than reprimand and an honorable fine.

Originally made of wood in the Middle Ages, it was subsequently erected in stone and sometimes took on imposing proportions. This is the case of the pillory of Braine-le-Château, recently restored and which is one of the most exceptional examples still preserved. As indicated by an inscription at the base of the lantern, this monument was built by “Maximilien de Hornes de Gasbecke, Knight of the Golden Fleece of Emperor Charles, 1521”.

Located on the Grand-Place, near the other buildings linked to the seigneurial power that are the bailiff’s house and the castle, it is one of the rare witnesses dating from this period that have come down to us. Its hexagonal base is surmounted by a 3 m column crowned with a capital bearing the dedicatory inscription, then by a 2.7 m lantern. At 8.4 m, this imposing monument is the tallest pillory preserved in Belgium. Many others can still be admired in Attre, Enghien, Frameries, Graty, La Louvière, Petit-Rechain, Villers-lez-Heest …

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The old pillory of La Louvière, symbol of justice of the Ancien Régime. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

In Liège and Namur, the venerable courthouses existed long before the independence of Belgium. The most imposing judicial center in Wallonia, the Liège courthouse is housed in the former palace of the prince-bishops, a marvel erected under the reign of Erard de la Marck in the 1520s and 1530 in Gothic-Renaissance style. From this period, it has preserved two exceptional courtyards bordered by columns with both astonishing and unusual decoration.

There are reliefs evoking both the theme of madness, popular during the Renaissance, and that of great discoveries. Ravaged by fire in 1734, the façade located on Place Saint-Lambert was rebuilt in a classical style during the reign of Georges-Louis de Berghes. After the revolution of 1789 and the annexation of the principality of Liège to the French Republic in 1795, the palace became the seat of justice. At the end of the 19th century, it was extended in neo-Gothic style towards the Place du Marché.

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The courtyard of the former palace of the prince-bishops of Liège at nightfall. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

The courthouse of Namur is, for its part, installed in the former residence of the local counts. The house was built in 1631 to accommodate the county governors who administered the territory on behalf of the King of Spain. In the 19th century, the building was restored in neo-Renaissance style by the architect Boveroulle in order to adapt it to its new functions as a courthouse. Built in bricks and blue stone, it has four wings framing a rectangular courtyard. The main façade, facing the street, is the only original. It is characterized by an avant-corps in the form of a tower-porch in the center of which there is a portal framed by Tuscan columns.

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The imposing front section of the Namur courthouse. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

Old and new palaces

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The courts of justice of Mons with, on the left, the room of the Assize Court and, in the background on the right, the Valenciennoise tower. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

In the course of the 19th century, the nascent Belgium organized its judicial system and many buildings had to be erected, Brussels being the most impressive example. The judicial cantons accommodate the justices of the peace and the police courts. The judicial districts become the seat of the commercial court, the labor court (now a company court) and the court of first instance. Each provincial capital becomes the seat of an assize court while in the south of the country, only Liège and Mons host an appeal court.

Several small and medium-sized Walloon towns are seeing a justice of the peace be installed on their territory. A few beautiful heritage buildings are inherited from this period. This is the case in Binche, which retains a neo-Gothic building built in 1902 by the architect Paul Saintenoy, or the very beautiful neoclassical building erected in 1825 in Boussu. Another neoclassical example, the justice of the peace of Philippeville was built in 1878. In addition to these new buildings, the justices of the peace are sometimes installed in old buildings. In Florennes, the institution is housed in the former castle of the lords of the place while in Andenne, the old town hall is reassigned. Erected in 1772, this beautiful classical building is adorned with a pediment and topped with a hexagonal bell tower.

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The hall of lost steps of the courts of justice of Mons. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

Other, larger cities even have several courthouses. This is the case in Liège which, for several years, has made use of modern annexes located opposite the palace of the prince-bishops, or in Namur, where a project for a new palace is under study. Arlon and Mons also have their old and new palaces. The former courthouse in Arlon has now become an exhibition hall. Located on Place Léopold, it was erected in neo-Gothic style by the architect Albert-Jean-Baptiste Jamot between 1864 and 1866. The ogival windows are next to the pinnacles and the friezes of arcature. The high projecting frontispiece is flanked by the coat of arms of the province of Luxembourg. Further on, in the historic suburbs, the new palace is made up of two glass buildings inaugurated in 1993 and 2003 respectively.

In Mons, the two palaces house legal services. Located at the entrance to Rue de Nimy, a stone’s throw from the Grand-Place, the old palace was inaugurated in 1848. Neoclassical in style, built in Soignies stone, it is characterized by an imposing pediment resting on Tuscan columns. Inside, the atrium is supported by elegant caryatids. Inaugurated in 2007, the new courts of justice in Mons were built by a trio of architects: Jean Barthélemy, Benoît Jonet and Michel Poulain.

They are the perfect example of the alliance between contemporary architecture and respect for heritage because they integrate the Valenciennoise tower, the only vestige preserved above ground of the second medieval enclosure of Mons. The circular room of the Assize Court also recalls the architecture of this defense tower. The new building is also part of the site of the old barracks, whose 19th century guardhouse has been preserved at the entrance to the site to recall the memory of the place. Its neo-Gothic architecture and the pink whitewash of its facades fit perfectly into the judicial complex.

While taking a city walk, be sure to take a look at the Walloon judicial architecture. Many other important buildings could have been mentioned: the courthouses of Verviers, Marche-en-Famenne, Neufchâteau, Dinant, Nivelles or even Tournai are not without interest.

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Building A of the Arlon courthouse, inaugurated in 1993. © BELGA PHOTO / EMILIE RENSON

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