Nov 2, 2016 by

In their new book, “Parliament,” the partners in XML, a creative agency in Amsterdam focusing on architecture, urbanism and research, compared 193 different legislative buildings. Despite major differences among countries and cultures, the authors were able to sort the design of parliamentary structures into five typologies: the opposing benches, derived from the medieval royal court; the neo-Classicist semicircle of 19th-century European nation-states; the horseshoe, a hybrid of the previous two; the circle (rarest of all); and the classroom (commonly found in authoritarian countries).

This relative homogeneity, the architects observe, suggests a systematic lack of innovation. The three dominant typologies (opposing benches, classroom and semicircle) were developed for the most part between 1800 and 1850, and remain mostly unchanged. The XML principal David Mulder (one of the authors, with Max Cohen de Lara, of “Parliament”), said in our recent interview:, “They are fixed in time. That’s crazy. The world has changed enormously.”

Today’s legislative buildings are responding to that change from a context that, in the case of the British Parliament, dates from 1215 when Magna Carta formalized an agreement between the king and his subordinates. The “opposing benches” typology emerged from this; early meetings took place in the nave of St. Stephen’s Chapel, creating the archetype of two long oppositional rows.

These typologies persist in an inward orientation despite the huge changes in governing, from the emergence of global convenings and agreements to the hyperlocal decision making seen at the grass roots level. Voting can be done by machine. Developments in mass media from radio to Twitter have extended and transformed the space of politics outward. Yet in the room where it happens (to steal one of Aaron Burr’s lines from “Hamilton”), the process and physical space remain frozen in time.

Could architecture help shift parliamentary politics into a new era? Mr. Mulder points out that opportunity for change may be imminent: Because so many Parliament buildings were constructed around the same time, they tend to go through similar renovation cycles. In Europe alone, the buildings in Austria, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Norway are all due for an update. Usually governments incline to preservation and restoration, but this time around a few are revealing an openness to change.


Assemblée Nationale, France Credit XML

The architecture firm Gensler has drawn up plans for Project Poseidon, a floating modular building on the Thames to house Parliament while its meeting place, the Palace of Westminster, is being refurbished (expected around 2020) — an idea that it claims could save British taxpayers more than $2.3 billion over plans to move the body into separate, existing buildings elsewhere. The red and green benches in the Commons and the Lords would be relocated to the temporary building but would be housed under a dramatic glass ceiling.

“The Palace of Westminster is one of the most important symbols of democracy in the world,” said Ian Mulcahey, Gensler’s managing director. “We thought, ‘Why not create a temporary Parliament on the river and give a sense of continuity for the government, rather than having one house in a bunker somewhere and another in a courtyard somewhere else?’” The Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has said the idea “should be looked at.” (Nine firms have submitted bids for the palace renovation; a decision will be made by the end of the year.)

George Ferguson, the mayor of Bristol, goes even further: His idea is to move Parliament to his city, in part to provoke debate around the growing economic and social disparity between London and the rest of Britain. In response, the London-based Studio Egret West envisions a temporary building designed to promote greater accountability, transparency and connection between politicians and people.

Moving the seat of government into a new city is certainly a way to shake up the structures of power. The rotating presidency of the European Union — the member states take six-month turns as president of the European Council — provides near continuous opportunity.

XML and Jurgen Bey were commissioned to design four spaces for the European Council in Brussels for the Dutch presidency in the first half of 2016. For the meeting hall, they created an informal space from 28 blue-gray interlocking furniture pieces representing the European Union’s 28 members, echoing the body’s motto of “united in diversity.” At the end of the presidency, each of the 28 members was presented with one of the unique pieces of furniture.


Jurgen Bey European Council presidential chambers. Credit XML

“We combined two archetypes,” Mr. Mulder said. “The opposing benches and the semicircle combined in one space. The space that resulted is one in which people literally have to position themselves: Where you sit is where you stand.”

XML pushed these ideas even further with the installation of a European water bar in the main lobby of the Council building. The bar offered 28 water bottles, each filled with water originating from one of the member states. Which country’s water would the leaders choose? Their own, their allies’, their antagonists’? This symbolic choice, the architects suggest, contributes to a dialogue about differences between countries and shared identity. Why would you prefer water from your own country? What do you do if the bottle with water from your country is empty? (I am imagining how this might play out in the United States in light of the news about the poisoning of water in Flint, Mich.)

The European Council’s building is where the political leaders of the 28 member states make decisions affecting the lives of 500 million Europeans. “Paradoxically,” Mr. Mulder said, “the building is not open to the public. This is why our design connects the administrative reality inside with the reality of Europe outside of its walls.”

XML’s experimentation presented a series of spirited explorations into the way architecture can shape political culture. This project was part of a larger Dutch initiative, Europe by People, that turned the brief Dutch presidency into a series of creative experiments in participatory democracy.

Can other countries follow the creative lead of the Netherlands? I hope so. An effort like XML’s shows how playing with the architecture upends stability and routine — and might just change the status quo.

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