To save the Houses of Parliament, we may need to perform an intervention on parliamentarians. As Tristram Hunt, the former MP and now director of the V&A – another colossal, grade I-listed Victorian building – tells me: “the Speaker should say that any MP who is going to be elected in the forthcoming general election is putting themselves forward on the clear understanding that they will not be working in the Palace of Westminster.”
The malaise of the Palace runs throughout its body and into its bones. Asbestos needs to be removed from more than 1,000 locations on the site. The leaky Victorian cast-iron roofs require replacing. Inside, there has been no real adaptation of the Palace to modern life since the building was completed in 1876. Electrical cables run down ducts alongside steam pipes. The sewage ejector systems date back to 1888. The place is infested with rodents. (“You’d be deep in a meeting in the Whips’ Office,” recalls Hunt, “and a rat would run across the floor.”) Fire wardens tour the building constantly.
“There are fires and floods happening all the time,” says Hunt. “Yes, it’s the MPs’ place of work. But it also holds an incredible national collection of fine and decorative arts and written historical records and they are increasingly at risk.” The building – designed by Augustus Pugin and Charles Barry, after the Great Fire had consumed the original medieval palace in 1834 – is also a work of art in its own right, and a symbol of the nation.
The Restoration and Renewal Act approved by Parliament in 2019 gave licence for urgent repairs, but in the five years since, the plans have frequently stalled. Refurbishing the most important building in the UK won’t come cheap: at current estimates it will cost anywhere between £7 billion and £13 billion – a horrendous prospect for any government, particularly in an election year, and one of the reasons why no progress has been made. Nor is the figure reliable: two centuries of improvised improvements are bound to throw up unwanted surprises (the recent renovation of Big Ben, originally estimated at £29 million, ended up costing £80 million for such reasons). If, as some recalcitrant parliamentarians are insisting, they continue to occupy the building throughout the works, the estimated cost for the entire project rises to around £22 billion.
However, to do nothing is unconscionable. Left alone, the Palace of Westminster will either degrade to the point that it is unusable or, as is more likely, a major flood or fire will cause damage on a scale similar to the blaze that devastated Windsor Castle in 1992. Given the symbolic significance of the project and the cost that we as a nation will have to bear, it is surely an opportunity for some profound thinking. What would Britain’s master builders do? I asked three leading contemporary architects what they believe should be the future of Parliament.
One school of thought is that the Palace of Westminster should be abandoned altogether, and a new home for British politics be built entirely from scratch. Architect Asif Khan – who is currently transforming the historic Smithfield Market site in central London into the new Museum of London – is certainly an advocate for moving Parliament permanently out of its current premises. “I don’t think that the architecture serves to find solutions and common ground for the future of the country,” he tells me. “It’s bizarre that our debating chamber has this adversarial form. Based on two parties, it can only result in polar opinions.” In 1943, Winston Churchill addressed the issue of how the House of Commons might be rebuilt after wartime bombardment. “The semi-circular assembly, which appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or every group to move round the centre, adopting various shades of pink … as the weather changes,” he said.
Yet in our current era, which we find so polarised, the raked banks of opposing seats in the House of Commons are seen by some as a contributory factor. Khan agrees with the premise of Churchill’s more famous statement from 1943 – “we shape our buildings and they in turn shape us” – but he disagrees with Churchill’s subsequent support of the status quo. He points out that in 1952, not long after Churchill made the remark, and indeed as part of the same post-war rebuilding process, the modernist United Nations Headquarters in New York was completed with a horseshoe-shaped debating chamber. It was designed by a committee including the greatest architects of its age: Oscar Niemeyer, who would go on to design the new Brazilian capital Brasília; and Le Corbusier, who would take charge of the Indian Punjab’s capital Chandigarh.
For Khan, the UN building offers a model for an alternative Parliament in the UK. It may not be particularly pretty, he admits, but this suite of buildings on the East River is filled with light. The ultra-modernist General Assembly building, in particular, was designed to offer the public and journalists as much space as the delegates themselves. Compared to the British Parliament, which is heavily policed, with sections closed off and the public funnelled through cramped sections to a limited viewing gallery, the UN Headquarters offers generous amounts of space to its public areas, heightening the sense that it is open to all.
Khan explains that this same principle underlies parliaments of old. He shows me pictures of the Althing in Iceland, one of the longest-surviving parliaments in the world, which began in 930 AD with tribal leaders and disputants gathering around a huge rock. He shows me images of majlis, too: the Arabian councils that are also held in the round which, he says, are less formal and less hierarchical than European parliaments. The instrumental role of architecture in fostering democracy may stumble here. But such rooms are seductive: light and airy, they could make Parliament at least symbolically more approachable. One could imagine them reconciled to post-war utopianism but in a new form. Modern, clean – and likely to give huge swathes of the Conservative Party conniptions.
However, the belief that all contemporary architects are hellbent on erasing history so they can make fantastical shapes is a good two decades out of date. It is telling that although Khan suggests that a new building should house Parliament, he believes the Palace of Westminster should nevertheless be retained, although converted to serve a different function – as a museum, maybe. Contemporary architecture is filled with the spirit of retrofit, driven by a determination to reuse existing buildings in new or better ways; making traditional architecture more accessible and more energy-efficient while decreasing the amount of new building taking place. A globally successful British practice such as Wilkinson Eyre may have designed the dynamic modern Millennium Bridge in Gateshead – completed in 2001 – but its most recent work is the astonishing £1 billion renovation of Battersea Power Station, which re-opened as a “shopping and leisure destination” in 2022. As such gargantuan structures degrade, they find new life in our era of extreme heritage.
Far from imagining their own edifices rising from the ashes of Pugin and Barry’s masterpiece, most contemporary architects seem more interested in the challenge of temporarily rehousing MPs in ingenious ways while the original building is being overhauled. As part of an official review of the plans to restore Parliament, Norman Foster in 2020 proposed a sleek, bomb-proof steel-and-glass lozenge – a distended greenhouse not unlike his Crossrail station in Canary Wharf – containing a replica of the Commons chamber to be built on Horse Guards Parade.
Jamie Fobert, who last year finished a well-received refurbishment of the National Portrait Gallery, believes there’s nothing particularly adversarial about the internal design of the British Parliament – indeed, he would champion it. “I don’t think the form of any building ever changed the political landscape of a country,” he says. “Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress are not any politer to each other because they sit in a horseshoe.” (He adds by way of caveat, “obviously if you find you have rows and rows of seats facing a stage, like the National People’s Congress of China, you are in trouble.”)
As a Canadian-born Londoner, Fobert is acutely aware of a parliament building’s symbolic significance, pointing out that one in Ottawa, while generally aping the gothic style of the British Houses of Parliament, has sloping mansard roofs to also reconcile it to French architectural traditions. But Fobert also believes that it’s essential to decant Parliament into a temporary building while the Palace of Westminster is fixed up. He imagines making a copy of Parliament’s remarkable interior, designed by Pugin: a scan or cast, from the House of Commons through the corridors, lobbies and central Hall and on to the House of Lords. This scan would then be built – constructed out of anything from glass to resin or bales of straw – in Hyde Park on the site of the Great Exhibition of 1851 to temporarily host parliamentarians; a celebration of Britain’s leading role in modern industrial temporary architecture.
If Fobert’s idea offers a more textured, thoughtful building than Foster’s, he picks up on a key premise of the British peer’s previous work. In 1992, Foster designed a glass dome to sit atop the Reichstag in Berlin, providing a view into the parliament from above and, conversely, a sign of the activity within to those outside. Did this make the German parliament more transparent in terms of its processes? Not really. The dome is instead a monument to the ambition of a new country. Like any great work of art and architecture, it inspires those who have the capacity for inspiration.
But a temporary building with a lifespan of at least a decade is still a brand new building. Perhaps we should embrace renovation all the way, as some suggest – moving MPs to an existing, adapted building.
This is the argument favoured by Amanda Levete, who recently designed a major extension of the V&A in London. “There is no better way of rethinking how you do something than being forced to by the very fabric and geometry of the new space that you’re in,” she says. Her suggestion is to house MPs in a thorough redesign of the Queen Elizabeth II Centre – the brutalist conference centre that sits across Parliament Square from the House of Commons.
“The QEII as it stands is not a good building,” she admits, but it could be converted “with style and drama”; words which suggest a different approach to the ultra-beige temporary Commons chamber in Whitehall’s Richmond House, proposed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris on the request of the body in charge of works, five years ago. “The message that it would send about our responsibility to reuse buildings and convert them in the way that we’ve always done domestically – extended Georgian houses, for example – is so powerful.” Levete would use the building as a testing pad for different configurations of the chamber: a more experimental parliament. It’s the kind of move liable to annoy both the 20th Century Society types who treasure brutalism as a memory of a nobler historic moment and the trads who loathe brutalism because it isn’t a part of their favoured history.
Levete’s point is important, though. After ensuring the practical needs of a working parliament are catered for, parliamentarians must be able to carry out their work in a building that has strong symbolic value. But with the current indecision of MPs, the only symbolism right now is that of a shambolic adhocracy with the public’s wants forgotten.
What is being suggested by these three contemporary architects is that we should embrace an inevitable reset; seize the moment and ensure that parliamentary democracy is well served by its surroundings; and create an architecture of persuasion and consensus. The cost is gut-wrenching, but as Hunt puts it: “We’ve got the stewardship responsibility now, which behoves us to take the long-term decisions.” We should remember as this Parliament runs its final days that the Palace of Westminster does not belong to MPs. If they can’t get their own house in order, then someone else should be given the responsibility.