Parliament Buildings: The Architecture of Politics in Europe

30 Oct 2023
Parliament and Westminster Bridge (aerial)
Parliament and Westminster Bridge (aerial)

Parliamentary buildings are a highly specialised but profoundly significant building type. They function as both centres of political power and work-places for thousands of people, and have wide implications in culture and society. Compared to the traditional cataloguing of architectural styles and Chamber layouts, a new book makes the case for a more diverse and wide-ranging approach to their study.

Professor Sophia Psarra, Professor of Architecture and Spatial Design, Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London
Professor Sophia Psarra,
Professor of Architecture and Spatial Design, Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London

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We can learn much about a nation and a society by observing closely the parliament building that its representatives occupy.

Yet, architectural studies of parliament buildings have typically been mere records of architectural styles, or classifications by location, size and type of plenary hall.

For example, Pevsner’s 1976 A History of Building Types shows how the battle between classical and gothic drove architectural debates in the 19th century. The work of Plenum (2014) and XML architects (2016) is about classification, with the latter identifying five types of plenary halls among the 193 UN Member States: opposing benches, semicircles, horseshoes, circles and classrooms.

Although interesting, the seating layout of these halls as well as their style and architectural language tell us little about the history that brought them into being, or the ways in which they relate to the spaces around them.

At a time when extensive refurbishment is proposed to the Palace of Westminster, under the Restoration and Renewal Programme (R&R), we need to know how these spaces are engaged by politicians as well as understand the political culture, rules of behaviour and social interactions within them.

As the products of a multiplicity of choices, parliament buildings are both centres of political power and work-places for thousands of people. Some have been affected by radical socio-political change, while others evolve and adapt over time.

Because parliamentary architecture has wide implications in culture and society, the study of legislative buildings needs to be diverse and wide-ranging.

Parliament Buildings: The Architecture of Politics in Europe, published on 30 October 2023 by UCL Press, attempts to undertake this task. It brings together 33 essays from architecture, art history, political thought, sociology, anthropology and political science. It examines familiar locations, such as the Palace of Westminster, le Palais de Bourbon and the Berlin Reichstag, and extends to other less-studied places including Ceausescu’s House of the Republic in Bucharest, Moscow’s Dumaand Sweden’s Riksdag, as well as parliaments in Malta, modern Greece and Bulgaria, among others. It delves into institutions as diametrically opposed as the supra-national home of the European Parliament and the Sami Parliament in Finland, a fixed site for a nomadic people.

Two chapters provide far-reaching comparative examination, one of the 16 German state parliament buildings and another of 28 parliament buildings now or previously in the EU (the EU-27 plus the UK House of Commons).

Keeping its focus on the challenge for architects of having to synthesise so many influences into such an iconic building type, under close public and private scrutiny, the book concludes with a guest-edited section by Jeremy Melvin introducing four accounts by architects who have been directly responsible for four recent parliamentary projects, three of which have been realised:

  • Benedetta Tagliague recounts the development of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh by Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue (EMBT);

  • David Nelson provides graphic detail on the reconstruction of Berlin’s Reichstag by Forster and Partners; and

  • Ivan Harbour explains the symbolism of the Senedd by Stirk Rogers Harbour and Partners.

The one as-yet-unbuilt project which is covered is the design for a temporary chamber for the UK House of Commons, by Paul Monaghan of AHMM, in preparation for Restoration and Renewal.

Within this diversity of geography and method, the book addresses a set of key questions centring on the relationship between architecture and political culture in Europe. Its main themes and findings point to some key observations.

There is a widely-spread assumption that the common principle of parliamentary democracy in the nation-states of the EU is reflected in the near-universality within the bloc of the classical semi-circular plan (the exceptions being Cyprus, Malta and Ireland, previously under UK rule). Instead, a variegated picture emerges in relation to the positioning of the ruling Government, the Chair, the rostrum, different political parties and the MPs in terms of where they sit, how seats are allocated, the power dynamics of visibility, and the rules of procedure. In 30% of the 28 nations examined, the Government sits integrated with the legislature, while in the rest the Government is separated from it, facing it frontally or obliquely from a position in front of or to the side of the Chair. In the UK, Malta, Cyprus and Ireland, parties move from one side of the House to the other depending on election results, while Sweden – uniquely – distributes seats in the Chamber by constituency location.

In the European Parliament, MEPs sit next to a wide range of representatives from different European nations within the same political affiliation. This can reflect aspirations for unity based on free mingling (as well as a fair amount of randomness, as seats are allocated alphabetically). But it also shows that some MEPs tend to flock together by nationality.

In contrast to simplifying interpretations of narratives of European integration, Europe emerges as a reflection of the tension between the common destiny of parliamentary democracy and the diverse pragmatics of political culture, spatial position and power.

In terms of Chamber layouts, it is perhaps simplistic to compare the ‘opposing benches’ format with the semicircle and conclude in favour of the widely-spread idea that the former is confrontational and the latter cooperative. Rather, the two layouts concern different forms of parliamentarism. With particular reference to the UK House of Commons, evidence shows that placing the unequal categories of Government and Opposition face-to-face in a densely-spaced Chamber of equal-visibility relations subtly rebalances the unequal distribution of power.

But there is more to parliament buildings than the shape of, and power dynamics in, the Chamber.

Legislative buildings are complex physical artefacts as well as institutions of socio-technical practices and traditions, intellectual products and social networks.

We learn a lot about parliament buildings by considering, for example, the history of politically-engaged groups who were rendered invisible in the building and how they challenged the institutional culture of parliament, or literary fiction, particularly if this is by a prominent Prime Minister, as in the case of Britain’s Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th century.

It is also essential to look at how parliamentarians and staff use spaces today. Understanding the rhythms of parliamentary life requires a multi-disciplinary inquiry into the spaces of formal debate as well as those facilitating informal encounters, seasons, diaries and appointments in parliamentary buildings and beyond.

Regarding public engagement, representative democracy offers things that mediated spaces on TV and social media cannot replace – that is, the capacity to build the physical and in-between space of regulated speech and informal debate. In digital parliamentary interactions and public engagement, data highlights certain activities but obscures others. It contains inequalities, just as the physical institution does. Considering transparency and public accessibility, this is sometimes symbolised using transparent materials or a ceremonious route to an elevated position in the building. Instead of symbolic transparency, the Central Lobby in the UK Houses of Parliament is the crossroads for Members of Parliament and the public (where constituents can meet their MPs).

Of the 28 nations in the EU-based comparison, 61% have undergone dramatic constitutional change from the 1950s onwards. Political ideologies come and go, but the buildings have outlived abrupt political shifts as well as imperceptible political transformations. Former authoritarian regimes that shifted to constitutional democracy are indiscriminately housed in architectural edifices that express authoritarian structures or democratic institutions.

Against the background of the need to refurbish the Palace of Westminster, the EU-based comparative study found that out of the 28 buildings examined 36% were repurposed having first been built as aristocratic palaces or for some other different function, while 46% had had major remodelling work since they were erected. The response to the expansion needs of parliament buildings has typically been not one of tabula rasa, but of ‘make do and mend’ adaptation over time.

With particular reference to Restoration and Renewal at Westminster, what stands in the way of innovative adaptation is the underrated potential of the political imagination, or the ways in which the status and outdated image of the Palace of Westminster impacts the emotional attachment of users and the public.

With respect to the designing of new buildings, inventing an architectural language for parliamentary democracy in the case of stateless nations, devolved parliaments, or constitutional changes raises questions about how buildings mean, how meanings change over time, and what buildings mean when their sites are associated with troubled histories, or when they preside over conflicts, dramatic breaks, continuities or paradoxical hybridities.

Finally, understanding two such utterly disparate phenomena as socio-political practice and physical space is in some cases beyond the reach of language. This does not lessen the power of language in setting out ordering systems within which institutions operate, but points to the importance of architecture as a tacit non-verbal medium shaping political culture in physical space for the successful adaptation of existing parliament buildings, the restoration/reconfiguration of historical ones, or the design of new structures. The book Parliament Buildings highlights the importance of architecture when it comes to inventing new relationships with institutional spaces in order to live together better in a time when social, political, and cultural reference points are undergoing radical transformations.

Psarra, S. (30 October 2023), Parliament Buildings: The Architecture of Politics in Europe (Hansard Society blog)

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