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By: Sophie Tian

The Palace of Justice was once the most important court building in Brussels, but now it’s decrepit. Water has seeped into abandoned hallways, which has invited fungus to grow out of control. Homeless people often break in and camp among scattered archived legal files, leaving a stench of alcohol and urine. It’s not much better in the rooms occupied by lawyers, either.

The government tasked Architect Andre Demesmaeker with fixing the Palace of Justice. It won’t be easy, however, as the building has been under restoration since 1984- so long that even the scaffolding has started to crumble, hence its nickname “Palace of Scaffolding”.

But Mr. Demesmaeker is up to the challenge, powered by a love for his hometown. “I was born in Brussels. I grew up in Brussels, and with some luck, I might even die in Brussels,” he said.

Growing up, he wanted to be a pharmacist but didn’t like the idea of being stuck in a lab. Mr. Demesmaker had a love for exploration, and he chose to pursue a career in architecture. He says he’s always loved unlocking mysteries. “My dad would buy a new radio. I would take it apart,” he confessed.

Mr. Demesmaeker started as a freelance architect but later joined the Belgian Buildings Agency, which preserves historical buildings, for job stability. More than 10 years ago, he investigated a ceiling collapse at the Palace of Justice. Four years after that, he led the restoration of the historical building. Thus started Mr. Demesmaeker’s “lifelong job”, as he calls it.

The Palace of Justice, located at the heart of Brussels, is a giant 19th-century building that houses Belgium’s judiciary system. Its dilapidated appearance resembles the state of Belgium’s government, which is notoriously unstable. From 2018 to 2020, the government experienced two years of paralysis before a new one was formed.

While most people might see the Palace of Justice as a blemish in the city, Mr. Demesmaeker sees a historical treasure as something holding secrets within its abandoned halls. Recalling his first visit to the Palace of Justice, he said, “I opened a door not seen in ages. I entered this attic and had to start climbing to explore.” Later, he continued, “That’s what I love: trudge, crawl, search, investigate.”

Chairman Jean-Pierre Buyle admires Mr. Demesmaeker’s love for the building and sees it as the one quality that makes him perfect for the job. “This monument has suffered greatly from a lack of love,” said Mr. Buyle.

Mr. Demesmaeker’s collection proves that statement true. As he explores the halls of the Palace of Justice, he gathers little objects that were discarded by other workers. Some items in his collection include a stone with graffiti on it, several pieces of wood, a plaque reading “No Lawyers Allowed”, and his newest addition, a tire.

Although Mr. Demesmaeker seems confident, he faces new political challenges every day. A few include: a corrupt building agency official who had recently been arrested, a bankrupt scaffolding company, uncooperative lawyers, and finding agreements with judges and administrators. There are architectural challenges too- another ceiling recently collapsed.

Although Mr. Demesmaeker has already refurbished the scaffolds and work on the exterior of the building is beginning, the project is far from over. He hopes to complete the exterior before Belgium’s 200th birthday in 2030. When asked when he would finish the entire project, he answered, “I just hope to finish before retirement.”

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