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Parliaments, democracy and architecture revisited

Paul Finch
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Paul Finch continues his report from the recent Athens Democracy Forum debates on architecture and democracy

Sitting under a 1,200-year-old olive tree in Costa Navarino, the gloriously landscaped Peloponnese resort (one hour from Kalamata airport), seemed a good way to discuss democracy, and to try making connections with the world of architecture.

The group of European journalists and designers involved were, in general, highly unimpressed by the recent Brexit vote, and mutterings about ‘mobocracy’ were inevitably linked to Donald Trump. The Greek philosophy academic who led our discussion encouraged us to read what various sages had said about the subject (Democritus, Plato, Aristotle), and much of it seemed highly relevant to today’s debates, especially in suffering Greece itself.

Athensdemocracyforum nyt

Athensdemocracyforum nyt

In the UK, referenda have been a rarity until very recently: proportional representation, Scotland and the Brexit vote are a flurry, compared with that single EEC decision back in 1975. Our group disliked what they called their opportunist nature, though I had to point out that the main political parties had promised an EU referendum as part of their general election campaigns – everyone went into it with their eyes open.

A Swiss architect defended giving more decision-making powers to the general populace (the Swiss vote on something every other month, it seems), and in response to criticism noted that they had indeed voted on things like the Swiss banking system, not just environment issues. The fact that no one else could name any Swiss politician seemed to counter the notion that referenda and demagoguery go hand-in-hand.

Back in London, a quite different perspective on the subject came from my World Architecture Festival colleague, Jeremy Melvin, in a talk at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris on ‘Parliamentary Democracy’ and the way in which monarchy and religion had been integral to its development, echoed in secular republics by the swearing-in of presidents.

Melvin’s proposition that Charles Barry’s plan for the rebuilt Palace of Westminster is a diagram of the British constitution and the relationship between monarch, Lords, Commons and the people was highly convincing. By implication this raises serious questions about what happens when the Palace is vacated for its £4 billion retrofit. One wonders how (even if) the ceremonial associated with parliamentary procedures will continue in other locations and, if it does not, whether it can survive a long period of disuse on the presumed return to the Palace.

Do circular chambers really promote peace and harmony?

The spatial relationship between architecture and democracy (do circular chambers really promote peace and harmony?) is of continuing fascination, not least to architects who have designed for government.

Michael Hopkins tells me that some preliminary analysis he has carried out in relation to his Portcullis House building, opposite Big Ben, suggests that you could fit a Commons chamber and voting lobbies into the ground floor of the building. This puts my own idea of using it for a revised second chamber into the shade. I wonder if MPs have thought about the Hopkins option? All one hears is about Church House or somewhere in Whitehall, or the Queen Elizabeth conference centre; but why not make use of a specially designed parliamentary building which is on the spot?

This one will run and run, as they say, and nobody can predict the long-term consequences of the long Westminster vacation, any more than they can know how leaving the EU will work out. You can’t tell how staying in would have worked out either. As Mervyn King says, the only future is ‘radical uncertainty’.

Whatever its faults, and whatever its architecture, all we can say is that parliamentary democracy is the best system of government we have devised to date (which does not mean unelected peers should be able to block Brexit). Looking at the other models on offer makes me shudder.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • When it comes to the current quality of our democracy, there's surely an analogy with the notion that a new building - warts and all - must be better than the dismal lump that preceded it; our two recent referenda, on Scottish and British independence, both involved the people deciding - but in both cases the people were subject to misinformation (barefaced lies, in fact) from some politicians of various hues, on both sides of the argument.
    Politicians who seemingly cannot be held to account in law, only by the electorate turning their backs on them. And the electorate might refuse to vote for them - and might also refuse to vote at all, which surely doesn't indicate a healthy democracy.

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