By Stephen Thornton
The Palace of Westminster – home to the British parliament – is rapidly heading towards an advanced stage of decrepitude. Unless “not inconsequential” sums of public money are used to refurbish the largely 19th century edifice, it has been warned, the MPs and Lords will shortly have to find a new place to work.
A debate is growing about whether the unfortunate state of the building has provided an opportunity to consider whether Parliament should be modernised for the 21st century. Ideas include moving the institution outside the capital – Hull in the north of England being one imaginative suggestion.
There have been many suggestions about how to tackle this problem over the years – some of which might provide a little inspiration for the latest project.
The Palace of Westminster was completely rebuilt in 1834 after being destroyed by a fire. Extensive reconstruction was also needed after the Blitz. In both cases, history rather than modernity provided the main architectural spur.
The rules for the competition to design the new Houses of Parliament in 1834 dictated that they must be built on the same site, either in Gothic or Elizabethan style. The competition was won by Charles Barry, and, assisted by Augustus Pugin, the building was completed in 1870. It was largely in the Gothic style and even then was regarded by many as old-fashioned.
Similarly, following the war damage, Winston Churchill insisted the Commons retain its traditional feel. He demanded that the chamber should remain set out in the traditional adversarial style, with benches facing each other. Giles Gilbert Scott’s designs did surreptitiously introduce elements of the 20th century – such as decent heating, lighting and ventilation – but the chamber itself remained unabashedly in the Gothic style.
These precedents suggests that any refurbishment to the Houses of Parliament is likely to be of a more conservative nature – even if it is to take place after the construction of the architecturally bold Scottish Parliament.
Concrete walkways of power
In July 1965, two proposals were published that hinted that a more radical approach to the architecture of power in London was conceivable. The most significant of these was a government-commissioned plan to demolish most of the 18th and 19th-century palaces that formed Whitehall – the administrative heart of London.
The plan, devised by architect Leslie Martin, was to replace them with a ziggurat-section megastructure built in concrete. Although Westminster itself was to remain largely untouched, the whole area from Downing Street to Parliament Square, and St James’ Park to the Thames would have been transformed.
The scheme included plans for accommodation for MPs and a riverside tunnel in front of Parliament linking Embankment with Victoria Street in order to remove passing traffic from Parliament Square. The public were to be welcomed into grand arcades and riverside cafes. More controversially, Martin’s “total plan” involved the demolition of buildings such as the George Gilbert Scott-designed Foreign Office.
Martin had made his name through his contribution to the creation of the modernist Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank. He was very much part of the establishment so, while his was a radical scheme, his vision for Whitehall seemed to resonate with the wider 1960s enthusiasm for modernity, as represented by design icons such as the Post Office Tower and Concorde.
Response to Martin’s scheme was largely positive – both in the media and on both sides of the political spectrum. And yet, for all this initial broad enthusiasm, the public mood shifted within just a few years – egged on by the likes of preservation groups such as the Victorian Society. This, combined with a dip in the government’s enthusiasm, led to Martin’s grand scheme being largely abandoned.
Though Martin’s plan for a grandiose megastructure in concrete does demonstrate that bold, forward-looking proposals for the power quarters of London were once conceivable, it is unlikely that those considering refashioning London’s seats of power in the 21st century will give it much consideration. They may, however, give a modicum of thought to the second proposal put forward in July 1965 – a summer in which London is said to have swung most heartily.
This proposal arrived in the form of an article in the influential magazine New Society by Cedric Price, an iconoclastic architect. Price was then in the early stages of a career in which little he suggested was actually built. But his ideas have since been seen as precursors for, among other creations, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Millennium Dome in Greenwich and the London Eye.
Among the most significant of these ideas – unusual in an architect – was a disregard for the permanence of buildings. He had a particular distaste for grand, monumental edifices.
As a result, Price’s proposals tended towards temporary, mutable and highly accessible structures. Plans for a multi-functional, endlessly changeable Fun Palace by the banks of the Thames and the Potteries Thinkbelt, a mobile university based on a stretch of disused railway, were among the most celebrated – or reviled – of his schemes.
Inspired by the Martin plan, Price turned his often mischievous eye towards Parliament and declared that it was better to replace the historic monument with something more “flexible, accessible and dispensable”. His answer was the Pop-up Parliament, a temporary structure dubbed a “supermarket of democracy”.
According to Price, Westminster should be demolished, and in its place should stand a six or seven-storey building built in glass, steel and concrete. His proposal featured such innovations as a helicopter/hovercraft port and a computerised library.
Outside the building, Westminster Square was to be vastly extended. It would be turned into an amphitheatre where the public could watch parliamentary work on “video-information screens”. Pontoons would be used to transform the Thames into an exhibition space. The goal was to maximise public participation, using architecture to bring people closer to the work being done on their behalf.
Unlike Martin’s scheme, there is no record of Price’s sketchy, rather tongue-in-cheek plan being taken seriously by the government of the day. Indeed Price’s intention seems to have been more to critique the state of representative democracy than to present an earnest architectural proposal.
If not treated seriously in the mid-1960s, an era just before the preservation lobby became powerful, Price’s proposal would be thoroughly damned by today’s more heritage-obsessed society – not least as the Palace of Westminster and its environs are now listed as a World Heritage Site. The battle for a modern parliament building in London has long since been lost.
But, while the refurbishments take place, parliamentarians may well have to find a temporary new home. In which case, some type of “flexible, accessible and dispensable” – and, like the Thinkbelt, potentially transportable – structure might be considered for this purpose. A pop-up parliament reconfigured for an era when pop-up architecture has become achingly fashionable might be just the ticket.
It may be that those involved in the plans to refashion Parliament for the 21st century will, at last, consider the prophetic ideas of a cigar-smoking maverick from Staffordshire called Cedric Price.
Stephen Thornton is senior lecturer and programme director at the Department of Politics and IR at Cardiff University. His current research research tends to focus on British political history during the 1960 and 1970s, and his latest book is Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin, Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat (with Adam Sharr of Newcastle University).