Parliamentary Architectures Alastair Parvin 01/11/08 13.21
Rethinking government topology.
Building Design magazine this week reports on the support a number of architects have given to the idea of replacing the semi-permanent tents occupying the river-side terrace of the Houses of Parliament. Labour MP Andrew MacKinley has called for them to be ripped down because "they are disfiguring AW Pugin's grade I listed Palace of Westminster". "This is a world heritage building...It should be jealously safeguarded but these marquees have become a permanent feature. It's outrageous." Who would have guessed that a number of architects would leap to the support of the idea - lending childishly lite architectural rhetoric to the moral virtuousness of the proposal: "Something could be done that is much more 21st century, with photovoltaic cells and a light, airy structure - rather than this stripy tented thing." The extraordinary, self-serving cynicism of this aside, the response is a neat illustration of the irrelevance of conventional architectural wisdom, and its proximity to what is, essentially, protracted advertising.
So firstly - I have to justify my criticism. Why is it such an absurd thing to propose?
- By proposing to replace a canvas structure with a 'permanent' one that performs essentially the same role, architects are exposing a deep-seated antisocial priority: The cultural longevity and aesthetic integrity of the scene - the preserved cultural artefact - is treated as more important than those who actually use the building or those who would otherwise benefit from the expenditure of cash. Not only does it seem extraordinarily elitist that the many should owe allegiance to the aesthetic whims of the few, but it seems utterly illogical. Surely a permanent, 'elegant' structure would be more invasive, more a contentious mark upon the face of the preserved landmark than would a cheap one which can always be removed. The primary role of these semi-permeant marquees is to liberate the users from the claustrophobia of "permanent" design decisions - their cultural and financial worthlessness may be their greatest value.
-It seems extraordinarily solipsistic that of all the debates one might have about the design of our governmental architecture, we should choose something so utterly asinine as the riverside refreshment tents. It looks almost like a metaphor for architecture's socially marginal status - a false humility.
So what if we were to do the opposite? What if architecture was to suspend its peripheral status and take seriously its capacity to design something more fundamental than nostalgic cosmetics? A while ago, Jack Straw's proposal to open a competition to rethink the design of the debating chamber of the House of Commons was scrapped before it got off the ground - but it would be interesting to see what ideas would emerge if designers and students were to apply thinking to the future of parliamentary democracy. Here are 3 to start:
#1: The Microcosm Parliament
One of the most common criticisms of the houses of parliament (and the origin of Winston Churchill's assertion that: "first we shape our buildings and then they shape us") is the extent to which the layout of the debating chamber reinforces the tit-for-tat party sectarianism of British Politics. Many would argue that in the 21st century, the confrontational party-centric mindset dominates political outcomes to the detriment of constituents. What is proposed therefore is an alternative seating plan, where Right. Hon. Members are seated not according to 'front bench' > 'back bench' hierarchies but simply according to geographical location of their constituency. Each member still carries the ideals and allegiances to their party, and undoubtedly clustering will occur, but nonetheless their position in the house is dictated primarily by those they represent. It is interesting to note that until recently, this would have seated Tony Blair next to William Hague.
#2: The National Network Parliament
The Houses of Parliament should be emptied and leased as a Hotel, Museum and Conference Centre - uses befitting its de facto role as tourist icon and cultural relic . Parliament meanwhile would form a partnership with the British Rail Network. MP's offices would be located either at stations across the country and/or in the trains themselves (thus allowing surgeries to be attended during the daily commute). Debating chambers meanwhile would be established a key national nodes and offices in underused post-industrial rail depots. The London-centric power hierarchy would be replaced by a regional fluidity - and railway towns such as Runcorn, Crewe and Rugby would take on renewed status. The result of this is that the financing of the project (bolstered by revenues from the Westminster Palace Hotel) aligns the interest of access to democracy and affordable mobility as a citizen's right.
#3: The Expiring Parliament
The Houses of Parliament would be demolished, and the site designated as a national commons. Parliament is relocated to sites along particular lengths of UK coastlines retreating due to erosion. Government would buy this land from those homeowners who have been ruined by the devaluation of their houses, who are currently eligible to no compensation. The land would be bought at full normal market value, since the constant threat of collapse - which is undesirable to dwellings - is of great value to government. The construction of a lightweight, low embedded-energy administration building upon a retreaing coast would force a condition in which parliament must collapse and be rebuilt further inland every few years - so we would arrive at a situation of institutionalised change: where each generation must rethink and redesign its conception of democratic government.
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