Parliament Buildings: The architecture of power, accountability and democracy in Europe

59dba85cfc7e93b1388b4567From Churchill’s claim ‘we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us’ to Mitterrand’s belief that ‘there is no great politics without great architecture’, parliamentary buildings are widely recognised as the symbols and instruments of political life. Parliament buildings are the symbols and instruments of political life. They shape political culture and the space where the government is held to account and so their architecture, history and rituals say a lot about norms of governance and behaviour. With the wide adoption of television coverage and social media, these buildings project political culture outward, changing the scale and speed of communication between citizens and the parliament. 

Claudia Sternberg from the UCL European Institute and I have been awarded a grant to research European Parliament buildings by the UCL Grand Challenges – Cultural Understanding (GCCU) – European Voices call.

The GCCU seeks to ensure cultural interaction and diversity, with the European Voices initiative, supporting research into individual voices and multicultural perspectives included under the term ‘European’.

In the face of ongoing political change, confidence in democracy is waning – calling upon us to rethink our political institutions and the buildings in which they are accommodated. Most architectural explorations of parliamentary buildings and their debating/assembly chambers offer mere records of typology. Although cognizant of the manipulation of the wider physical environment to achieve political effects, architectural theory has little to say about parliamentary buildings as political institutions that facilitate spatial democratic practices including theatrical spectacles, rituals and discourses alongside the making of laws and policies. Political approaches to the architecture of parliaments are disappointingly lacking, much of the literature focusing instead on the metaphoric use of space or some abstract exploration of spatiality, agency and process.

While the twentieth century saw the construction of brand new parliaments, most parliament buildings were designed in the 18th and 19th in responce to different social economical and political structures. Yet, the spatial forms of congregation and negotiation have remained fixed reflecting the political processes of past times.

The research will ask various questions of European parliament buildings, including:

  • How do parliament buildings shape the nations’ concept of their political self?
  • How do their real and broadcasted spaces affect political practices, ideologies and consciousness?
  • How do spaces, narratives, ceremonies and insignia shape identity, democracy and citizen participation?

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