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Parliament’s retrofit should look to the future, not dwell on the past

Paul Finch
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The multibillion pound refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster is an opportunity to anticipate and enable major future change, writes Paul Finch

With a start date now in prospect for what will be Europe’s biggest retrofit project, the Palace of Westminster, the implications of a six-year absence by Parliament are beginning to be discussed. Will things ever be the same? The answer to that is almost certainly no. In the devolved locations to be occupied by MPs and peers, it is unlikely that certain rituals will make much sense and, once abandoned, they may not return.

Just as organisations undertaking major relocations often rethink seating plans, storage, security and so on, it is almost inevitable that the way Parliament functions will come in for scrutiny. Will we finally get electronic voting on non-controversial matters? More seriously, will we finally reform the absurd House of Lords, cutting numbers and introducing a degree of electoral accountability? Let’s hope so.

As ever, the role of architecture in all this will be to influence operational efficiency and general amenity, while trying to anticipate and enable potential future change. In this sense retrofits are about the future, not the past – and, moreover, futures whose precise nature we can only guess at.

A good example of this is Portcullis House, Michael Hopkins’ increasingly impressive Palace of Westminster extension opposite Big Ben. This requires no retrofit of course, but is a good example of why trying to determine rigidly how buildings are used is unwise. During the course of construction, the nature of Westminster democracy had changed utterly. New parliaments had been created in Wales and Scotland, and changes were made concerning who exactly would occupy the rooms and offices.

I have always thought that the central space in Portcullis House, now chiefly occupied by fig trees, would make good chamber for a reformed House of Lords – a new second chamber in a new(ish) building. Probably too much to hope for.

It is almost inevitable that the way parliament functions will come in for scrutiny

Parliamentary buildings have a long history in relation to retrofit, as I was reminded on holiday in Berlin this summer. The Reichstag is truly impressive, not least because it is the symbol of what must be one of the great retrofit projects in world history, the reuniting of East and West Berlin, still a work in progress after nearly 30 years.

Visiting the brilliant if chaotic DDR and Checkpoint Charlie museums proved a humbling experience, bringing home the awfulness of a regime that made spies or surveillance targets of everyone, and whose art and architecture by and large were dismal affairs, as a current exhibition of DDR art at the Martin-Gropius-Bau shows.

The Reichstag Building in Berlin

The Reichstag Building in Berlin Image by Cezary Piwowarski

Source: Cezary Piwowarski

Reichstag, Berlin

Yet now the city is vibrant with the sound of building, involving both historic structures and the brand new, with work by architects from Berlin and across the world. Whatever political arguments may be raging in respect of immigration and EU matters, Berlin itself seems comfortable in its own skin, though this may have been partly because of wonderful recent weather. The only cloud in the sky seemed to be the continuing shambles over construction of the city’s new airport, which is years behind schedule and way over budget, not least because, reportedly, some work is having to be ripped out as it no longer conforms with regulation. All very un-German.

But all that pales into insignificance compared with the 40 years of Berlin as a claustrophobic enclave, the western part only surviving because of American and NATO support. The Wall came down because of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and it had nothing to do with the EU, despite silly claims in the recent Brexit debate about who kept Europe safe during the Cold War.

As for the Wall, sometimes demolition trumps retrofit. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The central space of Portcullis House is -- to the view of users -- chiefly occupied by tables and chairs, a coffee bar, a self-service cafeteria and a restaurant. It is, increasingly, the hub of Commons activity outside the Chamber and the place where meetings happen -- a convenient and pleasant central meeting point. For some reason the human aspect of this use of the building does not come across in Paul Finch's grand repurposing of the atrium. I wonder why?

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