Powers of Three at EPFLausanne

Featured image: Permeability and the relationship between Parliament and the public in the Houses of Parliament, United Kingdom and the German Bundestag in the Reichstag Building. Sophia Psarra and Gustavo Maldonado. 2020. ‘The Palace of Westminster and the Reichstag Building: Spatial Form and Political Culture’

Fresh from presenting at the Bartlett/UCL European Institute joint conference on ‘Parliament Buildings’, Naomi Gibson and Gustavo Maldonado presented our research on parliament buildings in Europe, to the Laboratory of Media and Design at EPF Lausanne, yesterday, 1 March. Clearly the significance of this area of research is being quickly recognised not just in one of the top European design schools but also in the US where I virtually presented on the subject last week.

It is understandable that design schools would grasp the importance of the subject. The research work brings together three powerful forces in our society: Political Power, Digital Power and Architectural Power. Architects and the academy must understand and address these forces if we are to demonstrate our ability to reformulate hackneyed old relationships and create the places where re-structuring them can constructively flourish.

Political power at the highest level has up to now been exercised through national parliaments conducted in physical places of assembly. These deliberations, funnelled through assembly chambers, have largely been disseminated to the public through a symbiotic relationship with the press.  Social media and its faithful servant the ‘architecture of the algorithm’ has changed all that. But the algorithm is not neutral and the audience is not passive, as it has been demonstrated in 2020 by the indiscriminate use of algorithms in the A levels exam, and the recent debate about AI bias in the Silicon Valley.

We often hear about the iconic nature of parliaments imbued with history and carrying the legacy of generations of ‘established precedent’, known in the UK as the British constitution. They have evolved with Version 2019 owing most of its transformation to the television age.  Version 2020 has well and truly propelled parliament into the digital age – no longer the soap-box but the digital platform that holds sway.

It is highly likely that not a single person reading this can recall the ‘iconic’ Swiss parliament building. There may be a good reason for this. Switzerland’s fabled canton system is a highly distributed form of governance housed locally. Strip away the buildings and we arrive at the digital forum we are so used to operating every day. But can that be the answer? There is so much more to political engagement than the mechanistic recounting of decisions already taken.

There is a final observation worth making here. The work we are doing on parliament buildings is conducted in a multi-disciplinary research context with all the enriching potential that implies as well as wide scope for misunderstanding. I have recently been reviewing applications for research funding and was struck by the explosion in unintelligible language in student submissions and claims for AI as the source of all truth. If we are to remain relevant and persuade a wider audience of the merits of our work, we should press the pause button on this.

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