Is restoring a building designed in the 1830s the best option for serving our present democracy? asks Ellis Woodman
Consultation on the proposed restoration of the Palace of Westminster concludes in a couple of weeks, and we can only hope it brings clarity to bear on a question that remains nothing if not open-ended. If MPs stay in place throughout construction, it is estimated work may extend for as long as 37 years and cost £5.7 billion. If they decamp, it might be limited to £3.5 billion but may involve them occupying temporary accommodation for a decade.
This is not the first time MPs have faced such a quandary. On October 28, 1943, they met in the House of Lords, their own chamber having recently been destroyed by incendiary bombing. The subject under debate was whether the building should be restored and, if so, how. Churchill opened proceedings by arguing for a full restoration on the grounds that Britain’s political structure was intimately bound up with the architecture of its seat of government. ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,’ he claimed, ultimately persuading the house of his case.
Yet, the prime minister’s position was not unanimously shared. One MP argued for retaining the signs of damage as a memorial to the war effort. Another claimed that works offered a welcome opportunity to abandon the building’s Gothic language and establish the Classical chamber that should have been built in the first place.
Does the combative layout of the House of Commons remain a suitable arrangement?
Still more radical were the suggestions of James Maxton, the Labour MP for Glasgow Bridgeton. ‘We should be thinking of growing into a new type of world after this war,’ Maxton argued, ‘and should think in terms of starting in different surroundings.’ What he had in mind was a parkland site, 20 miles outside London, where a new building could be tailored to a vision of Britain as a key player in global politics. ‘I would have a railway especially in those grounds,’ he said. ‘I would have a fine car park, I would have an aerodrome, I would have everything done on the finest and biggest scale, a place to which the nations of the world knew they had come to discuss the problems that interest them and interest us.’ He failed to address the matter of architectural style but we can safely assume that pointed arches played little part in Maxton’s determinedly futuristic vision.
History may not have thanked him had his argument won the day. However, it is surely imperative that we now find the courage to question again, whether the continued use of a building designed in the 1830s still lies in the best interests of our present democracy. It is with that aim that the Architecture Foundation is staging a discussion at Westminster on 26 January, Theatres of Democracy, featuring presentations by Pugin’s biographer, Rosemary Hill; political sketch-writer of The Daily Telegraph Michael Deacon; and Amsterdam-based architect XML, whose research into the relationship between the architecture of the world’s parliament buildings and the political structures they support featured in the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.
In an age that appears to have tired of the rigid structure of two-party politics, does the combative layout of the House of Commons remain a suitable arrangement? How should parliament respond to the emergence of new digital technologies? Given the threat to the union presented by the rise of Scottish Nationalism, should it be based in London at all? At the very least, the prospect that parliament might relocate temporarily affords a fantastic opportunity to challenge the culture of this most critical of all our institutions. Churchill was right that our buildings come to shape us. In the case of the Palace of Westminster it is time to ask again: whether for good or ill.
Tickets for the event are available from www.architecturefoundation.org.uk