Back in the early1970s a competition was held for the design of a new parliamentary building. It was won by the young partnership of Spence and Webster.The proposed structure, which beat 246 entries from all over the Commonwealth, was uncompromisingly modern. It made little if any concession to the style of the Houses of Parliament, Old Scotland Yard, or the ramshackle buildings on Bridge Street it was intended to replace. But instead of being built there and then for a ludicrously cheap-sounding £33 million, the project dragged on in a political limbo until 1975, when the government decided to refurbish existing buildings instead. It went further than that, replacing the top two storeys of one building with a replica of a dome that had last stood there in 1933. Today, of course, the whole project has been subsumed by Michael Hopkins and Partners' Portcullis House.
The big difference between the Spence and Webster scheme and the Hopkins building lies in the way the former was designed to float above the ground like an umbrella over a giant public podium.There the populace was to mingle with their political representatives in a good natured daily demonstration of democracy at work. Idealistic? Certainly Portcullis House is not like that.
Try to saunter into its secluded covered courtyard to chat to your MP in the freewheeling style beloved of the ancient Greeks and you will get more than a straight left from John Prescott.You will be arrested, if not shot.
Of course a lot of things have changed since 1974 that go some way to explaining this, but perhaps the most terrible has been the growth of a security mentality that sweeps all before it.All freedoms, all information and all creative expression, especially in architecture.Under the guise of ensuring national safety, Britain has become a country ruled by fear with one-and-a-half million security cameras scrutinising every face in every shopping centre, no litter bins or fire extinguishers on the tube, and nearly 5,000 speed cameras hard at work entrapping motorists night and day.
Whether lack of security was the real reason for the abandonment of the Spence and Webster parliament building may be unproven, but it is an issue that has risen repeatedly ever since, and not only in Northern Ireland where it has dominated planning and architectural design for a generation. In London the facade treatment and cleared areas around the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre have a security function. The complete 'World Squares for all' project which, in addition to part-pedestrianising Trafalgar Square, proposed removing all traffic from Whitehall, Parliament Square and Horse Guards Road, also had a security dimension.
In its latest guise the question has come up again in connection with the Terry Farrell project for increasing public access to Buckingham Palace. Farrell's research shows that not more than 150 years ago the 16 hectares of Buckingham Palace Gardens formed part of Green Park with no vehicle-proof brick walls, revolving spikes or alarm systems to be seen. As reported in The Times last week, Terry Farrell now advocates demolishing the palace walls and replacing them with gated railings as well as throwing the Palace open 'for conferences, receptions and European Union events' like those in post-monarchic Europe.With a great deal of luck, his proposal might mark the turning of the tide against the security mania that threatens to shackle architecture to the self-defeating wisdom of defensible space. But perhaps not yet, for this stroke of genius has been dismissed by the chairman of the Greater London Authority Green Spaces Investigative Committee as 'the threat of terrorism means it would never work'.