Making Parliament Buildings: architects in conversation

The debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament, viewed from the public gallery.

Sophia Psarra

Last week the second stage of the UCL conference on Parliament Buildings jointly hosted by the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL and the UCL European Institute concluded in a rare conversation with four of the worlds leading architects in the design of parliaments. All have designed parliament buildings or assembly chambers. Two have designed parliament buildings from scratch; Benedetta Tagliabue of Miralles and Tagliabue EMBT with the Scottish Parliament building to her name and Ivan Harbour of RSHP Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners lead designer on the Welsh Assembly building (now Senedd). David Nelson of Foster + Partners re-designed the Reichstag and Paul Monahan from Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) is currently working on the re-creation of the House of Commons Chamber to enable parliament to be refurbished. These architects have designed buildings in the UK and abroad where the most powerful decisions of nations about how they want to run themselves are taken.

It is unusual to be able to assemble such distinguished architects in one place, at one time, but of course that is one of the benefits of our current predicament. We were not all in one place but can still comfortably communicate. Thanks to Jeremy Melvin, Visiting Professor of Architecture for convening this virtual assembly and so skilfully curating the conversation.

Exploiting this medium to the full, Benedetta Tagliabue took us on a perambulation around her office in Barcelona, stopping off at various models developed for the Scottish parliament. Keen to emphasise the importance of effectively communicating an architectural language to a multifaceted client new to architectural procurement, she pointed out some very large scale models produced for this purpose. Practical matters of detail need to be just as deftly handled as concepts of national identity, particularly if a national parliament had not previously existed. Benedetta gave us one of the most powerful definitions of parliament and parliament buildings as the places where war, conflict and political tension are transformed to a discussion.

Contrast this with the reconstruction of the German parliament building, in a country which in less than a hundred years was on its fourth version of parliamentary space, having gone through the original Reichstag in Berlin, two Bundestag buildings in Bonn and finally back to Berlin and the remodelling of the old Reichstag. Not to mention the assembly of the German Democratic Republic in Berlin. History is never far away. But which and whose history, David Nelson the lead designer of the Reichstag from Foster and Partners asked, amply demonstrated by reference to Russian graffiti on the Reichstag. Which layer of the historic palimpsest is to be revealed and which concealed?

For the Welsh Senedd building, Ivan Harbour drew on a powerful concept of a ‘place of assembly’ which in the past was frequently conducted around a stately tree. Emphasising the welcome and freedom of all to gather at this place but balancing it with the practical need for functional administration, environmental performance and security were some of the main influences on the design. But it also had challenges of scale and location in a vast empty dockland area of Cardiff Bay at the time.

And so the live project which is the decanting of the UK parliament from the Palace of Westminster with the re-creation of a new House of Commons Chamber in Whitehall. To the extent that such information can be revealed the project is to essentially to recreate the House of Commons Chamber as it currently is. With slight adjustments in its dimensions to accommodate disabled access it intends to retain the tight seating arrangements as laid out now, which have had such powers of parliamentary attrition attributed to them.

House of Commons Chamber: Speaker’s table. This image is subject to parliamentary copyright.

It was remarkable from earlier presentations by Sophia Psarra and Gustavo Maldonado, and by Naomi Gibson, Psarra and Maldonado that the UK oppositional seating format is exceptional in Europe with most parliaments opting for a semi-circular layout described as enabling a ‘Kantian’ consensus, as Gordana Fontana Giusti pointed out in her paper in the conference.

In designing parliament buildings a question arises as to who should be the legitimate consultees. David Nelson referred to extensive consideration of the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl’s preoccupation about how his seat would be arranged in the new Reichstag. It didn’t matter he was out of power before the project was finished, perhaps a reminder of the short term time horizon of politicians. It was also evident that assembly space designs based on the analogue supports of yesterday may be superseded as parliamentarians migrate almost exclusively to smart phones. The logical extension of such communication technology is the question provocatively raised in the session – ‘Eventually will there be a need for parliamentary space at all? Our short video of interviews with Parliamentarians from the UK Parliament and the Reichstag, launched at the first stage of this conference in November 2020, explores these questions among others in more detail.

However the question about parliamentary space may be answered, there was a growing sense from this conference that there was a yearning to be able to congregate in a physical conference space with its opportunity for incidental and chance encounters to tease out these issues.

The Parliament Buildings Conference was led by Professor Sophia Psarra in collaboration with Dr Uta Staiger and Dr Claudia Sternberg from the UCL European Institute with funding from the UCL Grand Challenges for Cultural Understanding.

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