Houses of parliament

26 July 2019

Self-evidently the product of the political culture in which it sits, a new parliament also has to transcend the order of intellectual fashion to remain relevant for decades, if not centuries after its construction. Greg Noone speaks to a number of people with experience in this field, including Ivan Harbour of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Wolf D Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au, about their attempts at meeting this challenge.

The House of Commons chamber in the UK parliament seats its members upon tiered, opposing benches. This design is a throwback to the earliest days of the assembly, when the realm’s landed gentry gathered to advise the monarch from the nave of St Stephen’s Chapel in the old Palace of Westminster. Aside from providing a predetermined seating arrangement, confining them to pews also served to mitigate the consequences of heated debate by preventing members from swinging at one another with swords.

Despite these precautions debate in the chamber has, on frequent occasions, become rancorous. Around the world, the House of Commons has become a byword for braying confrontations, where political debate is regarded less as an opportunity to solve pressing national problems than a competition for electoral advantage. So far its members have not agreed upon a withdrawal agreement from the EU, leading architects like David Mulder van der Vegt to wonder whether the chamber itself bears some responsibility for the dysfunction.

“In this setting, it’s very difficult to find middle ground,” argues Mulder van der Vegt, a partner at design practice XML. “I think a semi-circular setting – it’s not always the best setting for an interesting or an intense debate, but it’s a setting that almost automatically forces all the positions into a singular shape and, in a sense, a kind of compromise by default.”

Mulder van der Vegt is the co-author of Parliament, a catalogue of assemblies in 193 countries, with accompanying information on the level of democracy and political debate in each. One might think that such a compendium would produce a similar number of seating typologies, but there are only five: the opposing benches, used by the House of Commons; the semi-circle, one of the most common forms; the horseshoe, a fusion of the previous two; the circle; and the classroom, where all the representatives face a single rostrum.

What Mulder van der Vegt discovered was that the level and character of debate varied across each typology. Classroom settings were commonly encountered in autocracies or ex-authoritarian regimes, while semi-circular seating arrangements – by far the most common form – were almost exclusively found in coalition-friendly democracies. The circular typology, which is only used by 11 parliaments, was judged the most democratic, while the horseshoe formation is the most common in Commonwealth countries (less surprising once one considers the drawbacks of their mother country’s chamber.)

What’s all the more remarkable, says Mulder van der Vegt, is that most of these typologies seem fixed. “As most of these parliaments emerged at around the same time, they’re also going through the same kind of renovation cycle,” he explains. “The UK is renovating, and Austria just did. There are plans for renovation in Canada.”

None of these countries have seriously discussed the possibility of building a new parliamentary building. “It’s kind of a missed opportunity, but it’s something that’s happening everywhere,” says Mulder van der Vegt. “It shows the proof of the argument, and that of the book – that these political cultures are very much fixed in architecture.”

Time to talk shop

It is inescapable that the design of a parliament is informed by the political environment into which it is placed. Indeed, by dint of its nature as a fixed structure, the parliament arguably suspends the bones of that political environment in aspic. The challenge for the architect, then, is to balance two opposing principles in the design: to make it sufficiently de rigueur to get it commissioned, but also to build enough give in the structure to let it adapt to changing political circumstances.

If we follow the first principle to its logical extreme, you end up with Matt Bloomfield’s ‘Parliamentary Campus of God’s Own Country’. The concept – a proposal for a Yorkshire assembly – captivated the Royal Academy last year, an “exhilarating proposition about the future”, according to one judge.

Bloomfield’s compact wooden model is certainly entrancing. It is also, unmistakably, satire. While paying fealty to the practicalities of members having their offices on-site, the (hypothetically independent) region’s assembly also contains a gym, a community refectory, and a greyhound track.

If a parliament should reflect the state of current political discourse, give them what they really want from their civic spaces. “It’s tough, isn’t it, to have people face off against each other between a line that is supposedly designed to the length of a sword so they can’t physically attack each other,” says Bloomfield. “In a way, the criticism against empty rhetoric that I was making in the project was almost kind of a cynical suggestion that architecture isn’t effective at changing things. There’s got to be a systemic change in the system before there’s a change in layout.”

This was, in part, the challenge confronted by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners in its design for the Senedd. Completed in 2006, the Welsh Assembly’s long, sheltering slate roof and glass-roofed debating chamber, into which the public can peer as they fancy, are beloved by local residents and tourists alike.

Ivan Harbour remembers the tremendous stress involved in formulating the design. The choice of a semi-circular chamber was decided early in the consultation process. “Devolution [had] only just scraped through,” he says. “We certainly felt that we needed to create a place that encouraged participation, that the building really should have open arms and should invite you in, not be dictatorial in any way, to create a sort of living room for the Welsh people.”

This was achieved by turning the traditional spatial relationship between the electorate and the elected in a parliament building from the vertical – where walls separate the one from the other – to a horizontal plane, by having ordinary people observing assembly debates through a glass roof above the chamber. “That was the radical part of this project,” says Harbour. “The electorate are always above the elected.”

This democratic literalism carries outward to the Senedd’s exterior. During the design competition, Harbour and his colleagues produced a sketch of demonstrators sheltering underneath the building’s extended canopy during a rainstorm. “We actually have photographs of demonstrators in front of it, almost reproducing the sketch as imagined,” he says. “And so, in that sense, in my opinion it sort of fulfilled its purpose. We created a place for the Welsh people to begin to see their own, whether they’re singing their support or protesting.”

People palace

The Senedd is emblematic of a whole new generation of parliament designs that have been built since the end of the 20th century, from the transparent dome of Foster’s restored Reichstag in Berlin, Germany, to the new Burkinabe parliament currently under construction in Ouagadougou, a literal glass hill overlooking the low-rise city.

Wolf D Prix aspired to something similar with his plans for a modern Albanian parliament, placing a public walkway over a crystalline debating chamber. Not only that, but the new building would go even further by erasing the so-called ‘Pyramid of Tirana’ – a vast concrete and glass museum dedicated to the life of the communist-era dictator, Enver Hoxha. “The iconography was quite clear: get rid of the history of dictatorship and place a new sign of an open society, democracy, in this place,” says Prix.

Where Harbour’s Senedd is, in some ways, a celebration of Welsh democracy, Prix’s design was a statement of intent. Just a decade removed from the fall of communism, the principle of free elections and speech in Albania seemed fragile. “If people think that democracy is important, then they have to build the parliament as an icon for the importance of having an open society,” says Prix. This doesn’t just mean that everything has to be made of glass. “Transparency is not openness. Openness is how the programme is experienced.”

Even partially demolishing the Pyramid, however, was considered by many Albanians to be a step too far. By 2011, the site had become a popular meeting place for mothers with small children, who showed a fondness for sliding down its walls.

A change of government later, and Prix’s parliament was nixed. The Hoxhaist ziggurat, meanwhile, is scheduled for remodelling.

“The Pyramid is a sign, the icon of the most cruel dictator,” says Prix. “It’s stupid to leave it there. Even remodelling is really wrong. It’s wrong. Because it’s not a standpoint for an open society, to remodel it. It’s like renovating the Kremlin into a youth centre. Even the Russians removed Lenin and Stalin from the Kremlin to another place.”

Populism incarnate

History, then, can as much damn a parliamentary project as define it. What, then, of the future?

A clue might be found in the layout of the EU Council meeting hall in Brussels. Commissioned in 2016 to celebrate the Dutch presidency of the organisation, XML and designer Jurgen Bey challenged conventional thinking surrounding the chamber’s core functionality. After all, so much about the traditional assembly building is fixed, not least the seats and desks inside the chamber, which serves to define the character of debate taking place.

“Sometimes it’s about having a confrontation, or it’s about a sort of opposition in which different positions are heard and made clear,” says Mulder van der Vegt. “Sometimes, it’s also just trying to find a compromise. It’s never one thing.”

To that end, XML and Bey created a fluid chamber, with rudimentary chairs and desks created out of 28 interlocking furniture pieces. Unlike previous visions for the chamber, which followed a formula of ‘design furniture from his country plus flags’, the two intended to produce a celebration of European identity in their proposal.

“It’s a landscape that can be used in very unexpected and different ways,” says Mulder van der Vegt. “Government leaders could choose where to sit depending on the kind of exchange they’re about to have.”

One might take the design as an implicit rejection of the principle that a parliamentary assembly should, indeed, act as great and gainful mirror of the national will. Appearing like so many pieces of adult-sized Playmobil in the confinement of the EU Council chamber, the design playfully tugs at the tension between the two ideas of what a parliament actually is: a building housing the representatives of the nation, and the place – any place – where those men and woman happen to meet.

The National Assembly of Wales, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.
The model of Matt Bloomfield's proposed Yorkshire assembly.

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