Temporary House of Commons: another rotten parliament?


Beyond the toxic imbroglio of Brexit and the unedifying psychodrama of the Tory leadership contest, something is deeply rotten in the “mother of parliaments”. The recent spectacle of a Commons sitting being suspended because of foetid water pouring into the chamber was just the latest and most televisual manifestation of problems with the ageing fabric of Britain’s creaking ship of state. Dating from the mid-19th century, with some parts considerably older, the Palace of Westminster has now reached the point where a £4bn programme of remedial action is required to make it remotely fit for purpose. Corrupted by decades of air pollution, its blackened Anston stone is now crumbling like feta cheese. Roofs leak, asbestos runs stealthily through its veins, vermin scuttle with impunity and antiquated Victorian plumbing cannot cope with modern volumes of water and sewage. Images of Notre Dame being apocalyptically consumed by flames must have induced queasiness in the members of the fire safety teams who patrol Westminster’s labyrinthine corridors every hour of every day, ready to stave off incipient catastrophe.

Fire is a recurring theme of parliamentary history. Both Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, architects of the present building, were on hand to witness the conflagration of October 1834 which more or less destroyed its predecessor, giving them the opportunity to remodel Britain’s legislature as a fussy, frivolous neo-gothic wedding cake. “C’est un rêve en pierre” – a dream in stone – Nicholas I of Russia is said to have remarked, and Monet spent hours immortalising its many moods. Incorporating actual medieval structures, such as the surviving Westminster Hall, it represented the apotheosis of gothic as the dominant national style, classicism being fatally associated in the popular patriotic mind with the anarchy of revolutionary France. More royal residence than democratic legislature, the building was instantly antique, its lavishly ornamented interior groaning with allusions to royalty, aristocracy and chivalry. Reflecting Victorian political and social structures, however, it was expressly conceived for the use of a privileged ruling elite. Universal suffrage would not be achieved until 1928.

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In May 1941 disaster struck again, when the House of Commons was consumed in a German bombing raid during the worst night of the blitz. Churchill wept in the ruins and vowed to rebuild, giving the task to Giles Gilbert Scott, an architect of protracted versatility who also turned his hand to Battersea power station and the K2 telephone kiosk. What might have been an opportune moment to reconsider the physical form – and, indeed, the very location of parliament – was decisively passed over in the urge to slavishly reproduce the Victorian era in situ. The case for retaining the historic oblong chamber was forcefully made by Churchill, who disdained the “continental hemicycle” as it enabled “every individual or every group to move round to the centre, adopting various shades of pink according as the weather changes”. Nancy Astor, the first woman to hold a seat in the Commons, begged to differ, thinking it better if MPs were not obliged to confront each other across the chamber “almost like dogs on a leash”. A proposal in 1943 by the Scottish socialist and biographer of Lenin, James Maxton, to resituate parliament in a new building on the edge of London, complete with airport and car park, was derided as a “Potters Bar Canberra”. It remains one of the great “what ifs”.

The proposed chamber ‘faithfully retains the adversarial oblong’.



The proposed chamber ‘faithfully retains the adversarial oblong’. Photograph: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

For centuries, the UK’s two-party system has been perpetuated in a cramped, adversarial chamber, sustained by an armature of bewilderingly arcane rituals, but as political power ebbs from Westminster and its familiar landscape begins to atomise in the gravitational pull of Brexit, what constitutes a modern and cogent architectural expression of British parliamentary democracy? The recent unveiling of interim accommodation for 650 decanted MPs, who are to be shoehorned into Richmond House, the former Department of Health in Whitehall, for the anticipated eight-year duration of the palace’s patching up, might point the way, but has attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.

The officially sanctioned design by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) involves gutting Richmond House while retaining its concertina-like facade, has simultaneously piqued traditionalists, who resent its air of bland managerialism, and irked modernists, who deplore the desecration of William Whitfield’s 1987 “masterpiece of contextualism”. Whitfield, who died in March aged 98, made a career out of recherche interventions – he has been described as the “go-to architect for cathedral deans” – and, like Gilbert Scott, could turn his hand to many idioms. Richmond House is listed Grade II*, so battle looms between heritage bodies who would preserve Whitfield’s building and the government. Prior to AHMM’s scheme, alternative strategies for decanting involved consigning MPs to the regions, and two entirely speculative proposals for a floating parliament moored next to the Palace of Westminster, one provocatively featuring a trio of redundant Woolwich ferries to create a “Houseboat of Commons”.

More to the point, the AHMM scheme faithfully retains the adversarial oblong, which appears simply cut and pasted into renderings of the interior, as if the functioning of British political life is entirely contingent on talismanic rows of green leather benches. Doubtless MPs will find it comforting, a green leather umbilicus connecting them with the ailing mothership, but it does seem like another missed opportunity to experiment with alternative layouts and explore different ways of conducting debate. Both the devolved Scottish and Welsh parliaments have embraced the continental hemicycle without mishap, and the tone of their encounters seems more civilised for it.

One speculative proposal, above, was for a floating parliament moored alongside the Palace of Westminster.



One speculative proposal, above, was for a floating parliament moored alongside the Palace of Westminster. Photograph: © Gensler

The dilemma of what to do with tottering parliament buildings is by no means confined to Britain. Austria, Finland and the Netherlands are currently grappling with similar issues, but their experiences cannot match either the level of expense or intensity of feeling engulfing Westminster. Going further back, one conspicuous exemplar is the 1999 reconstruction of the former Reichstag in Berlin to accommodate Germany’s parliament following unification. In an extraordinary act of patronage unthinkable here, leading British architect Norman Foster was selected for the remodelling. Foster squared up to the building’s carcass with characteristic technocratic bombast, but it is the more intimate details, such as the graffiti scrawled on the walls by victorious Russian soldiers and now preserved for posterity, that speak most eloquently of the building and its contested place in German history.

Hopelessly infatuated with a Victorian vision of itself, Britain seems set on the opposite course, committed to painstakingly licking Barry and Pugin’s decaying wedding cake back into shape. But once MPs get a taste of working life beyond the aspic confines of the palace’s 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, 31 lifts and three miles of corridors, the genie might well be out of the bottle and they may never return. “We shape our buildings and then they shape us,” Churchill famously said when advocating the postwar rebuilding that kept things exactly the same. But the more things stay the same, the more they probably need to change.



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