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The Austrian Parliament’s successful renovation

7 Jul 2023
A statue is moved on the roof during the renovation of the Austrian Parliament building. ©Austrian Parliamentary Administration/Thomas Topf
A statue is moved on the roof during the renovation of the Austrian Parliament building. ©Austrian Parliamentary Administration/Thomas Topf

Austria’s Parliament moved back into its fully renovated building at the start of 2023, less than six years after it moved out wholesale in Summer 2017. The renovation project, which was managed by parliamentarians and the Parliamentary Administration, overran original plans in terms of both costs and time, but it seems to have enjoyed notable levels of cross-party consensus and public support.

Dr Melanie Sully, Professor of Political Science
,
Professor of Political Science

Dr Melanie Sully

Dr Melanie Sully
Professor of Political Science

Dr Melanie Sully is a professor of political science from Britain working in Austria, with a focus on parliaments, democracy, political parties and elections. She is a Hansard Society member. Her website is at: https://www.melanie-sully.at/www/

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The Austrian Parliament building, on Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse, was built between 1874 and 1883 to a design by Theophil Hansen. It measures 152 metres long and 133 metres wide. The building is home to both Houses of Parliament – the lower Nationalrat (National Council), which has 183 Members, and the upper Bundesrat (Federal Council), which has 60. The two Houses have separate plenary Chambers within the single building.

During the Second World War the building was badly damaged by bombing, necessitating reconstruction work which was completed in the 1950s. Repairs have been carried out intermittently since then, and at the beginning of the 21st century the visitors’ entrance was remodelled at the front of the building.

However, in the last two decades it was clear that more had to be done. The roof was leaking, furniture in the plenary was broken and there were rodents in the cellar – all signs that some kind of renovation was necessary. In addition, there were concerns that crumbling masonry could be a danger to life and limb, which might result in legal action.

Eventually, in 2010-11, a technical building scan was commissioned to assess the nature and extent of the structural disrepair, and several options for review were drawn up by the Parliamentary Administration:

  • One was simply to let everything ‘tick over’ until the damage was so bad that demolition might be the only course of action.

  • Another was to relocate Members of Parliament and staff while a root-and-branch renovation of the whole building was carried out.

In 2014 the latter option was adopted in the Presidents Conference (the body which brings together the three Speakers of the National Council and the heads of the parliamentary groups, to develop the agenda and sittings of the House, coordinate committee work and mediate in procedural disputes if needed). Legislation was passed unanimously by both Houses stipulating the budget for the project and defining its governance arrangements.

A consensus on the plan for a relocation and full-scale renovation was secured among all the parliamentary groups.

Subsequently, a decision was taken to relocate to the nearby former Imperial Palace and adapt the large ballroom – where many a waltz had taken place – for plenary sessions for both Houses.

The lower House, the National Council, holds a plenary session in the Ballroom of the Imperial Palace, Parliament’s temporary accommodation during the renovation. Austrian Parliamentary Administration/Anna Rauchenberger
The lower House, the National Council, holds a plenary session in the Ballroom of the Imperial Palace, Parliament’s temporary accommodation during the renovation. Austrian Parliamentary Administration/Anna Rauchenberger

Offices for MPs and staff were housed in temporary containers, known more romantically as ‘Pavilions’, situated on and near the Heldenplatz, in close proximity to the Federal Chancellery. After the renovation was completed these constructions were dismantled and will be reused by the Federal Army. The Pavilions situated on the Heldenplatz boasted inscriptions taken from the Federal Constitution, human rights documents and the United Nations, in a project that received the German Design Award.

Some of the furniture from the Parliament which would no longer be needed was auctioned off and the proceeds went to the Federal Budget.

Both during the period away from the Parliament building, and since the return there, renovation work did not necessitate changes to the Rules of Procedure. In both Houses the Rules have a statutory basis and can only be amended by a two-thirds majority in each House, respectively.

There was some discussion about the possibility of installing an electronic voting system in the renovated plenary Chamber of the National Council, but this was a point on which a consensus could not be reached. This would not have required amendment of the Rules of Procedure in any case, since Paragraph 66(2) of the Rules of the National Council already allows for electronic voting, should such a system be available.

As might be anticipated when expenditure for politicians is mooted, the cost of such an ambitious renovation was a central concern.

The project was anchored in law in 2014 with calculated costs of €352.2 million for the renovation (£302.8 million at July 2023 exchange rates), with a possible overrun margin of 20%. A further €51.4 million (£44.2 million) was set aside to meet the costs of temporary accommodation during the renovation work.

By 2020 it was clear that the extra 20% would be needed, and agreement by all parties concerned was secured. The 2014 law was accordingly adapted and again passed by the Parliament. Some extra cost was caused by inflation, but the Covid-19 pandemic also had an adverse effect: frequent illness or quarantine among the 500 workers on the Parliament building site could not have been foreseen.

The full cost of the renovation will not be known until the end of 2023, but it is not expected to exceed a further 3%. This would bring the total cost of the renovation to just over €430 million. The separate budget for the temporary accommodation also overran by 20%. Combined, this makes the total estimated cost of the project around €500 million (£429.9 million).

The management of the renovation involved the Parliamentary Administration and the parliamentary groups. Ministries were not involved, and little input was forthcoming from the general public.

Originally, the work was planned to take three years, beginning in 2017; but early delays resulting from the renegotiation of various contracts meant that it took around five years in all. In the end, the Parliament completed the move out of its building in 2017 and returned in January 2023 for the first plenary meeting of the lower House in its renovated Chamber.

A committee consisting of the Speakers, the chairs of the parliamentary groups and the President of the Court of Audit regularly reviewed the project budget and timeline. In addition, an advisory body consisting of the representatives of the parliamentary groups, the Parliamentary Administration and parliament staff oversaw planning and the quality of the work undertaken. Energy efficiency and environmentally friendly materials were taken into account in the planning stages.

In preparation for the renovation, comparative data was gathered on expenditure and operating costs from a number of European legislatures, through the International Network of Parliamentary Properties (INPP) (of which Austria was a founding member).

Since reopening in January 2023 the renovated Parliament has attracted huge interest from the general public and schools.

Guided tours of the renovated building – including exhibitions depicting the history of parliamentarism and democracy – are popular among the general public and schools (the voting age for parliamentary elections in Austria is 16). Tours are conducted daily for around 70 groups from the general public, and the number of visitors per week has soared compared to figures from before the renovation. In addition there is a new lending library open to anyone.

In the renovated building, an impressive glass dome – with a diameter of 28 metres and area of 550 square metres – adorns the National Council’s plenary Chamber, while a lift takes members of the public to restaurants on the top floor and a terrace with stunning views of Vienna.

Before the grand re-opening some problems cropped up with the acoustics in the plenary of the National Council, but these were quickly corrected. Tight security was initially a cause of irritation, and some staff complained that swipe cards were malfunctioning, but the aim overall has been to present a building accessible to the public where genuine security concerns have been met.

On the whole the renovated Parliament now presents a successful combination of modernity, digitalisation and classical tradition.

One controversial point in the renovated building surrounded an Austrian Bösendorfer grand piano which the Speaker proudly rented at a cost of €3,000 (£2,578) a month. With its frame featuring 23-carat gold-plating, many considered it an unnecessary luxury. However, cultural events are often held in the Parliament, and some reckoned that the piano was an appropriate acquisition.

The ‘Golden Grand’ sparked off a lively debate in a country which seems always to be having some cultural controversy; and in protest against such lavishness in such an adverse economic climate, a pensioner stuck himself to the piano. Although the instrument was undamaged, it has now been exchanged for a less extravagant model.

Apart from this incident, the renovation of the Parliament building enjoyed a remarkable degree of consensus among all political parties.

Considering that voters’ trust in politicians is low, the general public were on the whole supportive of the renovation.

The Deputy Secretary General of the Parliament, Alexis Wintoniak, thinks that public support was sustainable because the renovation was couched in terms of the preservation of an historical artefact, and depoliticised. The Parliament building has witnessed many a turbulent scene, from the days of the Habsburg Monarchy through two World Wars and two Republics. There is a general appreciation that it is a jewel too precious to lose, and like any other property needs to be kept up-to- date and in working order.

For the remodelling of the visitors’ entrance to the building at the start of this century, see Alexis Wintoniak, “Zur Generalsanierung des Parlamentsgebäudes”, in Österreichisches Jahrbuch für Politik, eds. A. Khol et al, Vienna, 2021. The author would like to thank Mr Wintoniak, Deputy Secretary General of the Austrian Parliament, who was in charge of the parliamentary renovation project, for being interviewed for this blogpost.

Sully, M. (7 July 2023), The Austrian Parliament’s successful renovation (Hansard Society blog)

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