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Architectural Icon: European Court of Justice

Architectural Icon: European Court of Justice

by Sarita RAO 4 min. 11.09.2022
A Japanese-inspired palace expanded over the decades to incorporate three striking towers that dominate the Kirchberg skyline
Three towers on the skyline, the work of architect Dominique Perrault, house the highest court in Europe
Three towers on the skyline, the work of architect Dominique Perrault, house the highest court in Europe
Photo credit: Guy Jallay

Three striking towers, the tallest buildings in Luxembourg, dominate the skyline in Kirchberg, shimmering gold even in a grey winter light, a beacon for the European Union’s highest legal institution, the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Yet the court has been extended several times since it began life in its first premises at the same location in the early 1970s. 

The European Court of Justice was founded in 1952, with judges residing in what is now the Villa Vauban, and representing just six countries. The original building that became its first home, finished in 1973, took inspiration from Japanese style palaces, and was the architectural work of Luxembourger Jean-Paul Conzémius and Belgian architects Francis Jamagne and Michel Van der Elst.

The original "palais"

Built from Corten steel (also known as weathering steel as it doesn't need to be painted), a combination of steel, copper, chromium and nickel, the first “palais” is still preserved despite several expansions and updates. The original anti-corrosive steel forms a fine layer of rust in the first few years, which requires little maintenance once it reaches a rich bronze colour. The original plaza and park were designed to soften the imposing steel building.

Expansion in the 80s and 90s

Not long after it was built the ECJ expanded again, with countries like Ireland, Denmark and the UK joining the EU. Luxembourg-based architects Paczowski and Fritsch were responsible for the next expansion in the 1980s and the creation of the Erasmus building in pink granite, designed to complement the existing steel building. A further extension in 1992 of granite, glass and aluminium and, in 1994, a cube-shaped castle-like building with four turrets were added.

However the 1990s saw a rapid expansion of the EU, with a number of Eastern European countries joining the union, which grew to contain 28 countries (now 27, following the UK’s exit). At its inception the court employed a few hundred people. Today its numbers have swelled to more than 2,000 employees, including judges and legal support staff, plus lawyer linguists representing all 27 countries and their native languages.

Two, then three towers

To manage this rapid expansion, Parisian architect Dominique Perrault put forward a proposal to build two bronze towers, both more than 100metres high and therefore the tallest buildings in Luxembourg at the time their construction was completed in 2008. Perrault noted that the ECJ was not a criminal court dishing out prison sentences and therefore did not need to be austere in appearance. His gold-coloured towers with metallic mesh facades, were designed to stand out on Luxembourg’s skyline, shimmering even under grey autumn skies.

A third tower, which was completed in 2019, stands at a slight angle against the other two, and is slightly taller than its counterparts, standing at 118 metres. It incorporates six more levels and a viewing point. The black section mirrors the original palace which is now enclosed in an orthogonal ring of black enamelled glass facades, whilst the bronze section mimics the façade on its twin sisters.

Perrault’s towers created something functional to house the 2,000 plus employees, but also have the grandeur to reflect the role of the institution they house. An urban function includes a public plaza, in keeping with the development of the district, which has seen a rapid expansion of residential quarters. A multilingual garden is also planned. 

Inside the third tower, a ramp leads to the central court, a timber-lined chamber with purple carpets. Modern court buildings tend not to have many windows which might distract the judges, so Perrault has incorporated lighting from the ceiling to create a golden ambience. 

The General Court of the European Court of Justice incorporates a golden mesh to create light
The General Court of the European Court of Justice incorporates a golden mesh to create light
Gerry Huberty

A giant net of gold-tinted woven steel hangs over the judges’ benches and the public viewing gallery, encircling the ceiling lights to create a flower of artificial light that complements the natural lighting. This same steel is used for the sunshades. The internal corridors, cafes, judges’ chambers and offices are also lit in part with daylight but also artificial light, to give them an ethereal feel.

Perrault has always maintained that glass was not a symbol of transparency but rather to let light into the building. The roof of the new tower also has solar panels which can generate 360,000 kWh annually.

The buildings house a huge collection of art work including sculptures, paintings and tapestries, from internationally renowned artists such as Moore, Rodin and Miro, and local artists such as Wercollier. Many of the art works celebrate the concept and importance of justice.

Visit the ECJ

The Luxembourg City Tourist Office (LCTO) organises tours at weekends and during judicial vacations (when there are no hearings). The visits service of the court organises guided tours, free of charge, to view the ECJ art collection. Tours are given in English, French and German. You can also take a guided tour of the building in all the official languages of the EU, with more information on virtual and in-person tours here.

You can find a brochure (in English) for a self-guided tour put together by the LCTO that covers the art and architecture of Kirchberg, here

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