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How a new Parliament building could become a dreadful reality

The old Palace of Westminster went up in flames in 1834 (Alamy)

7 min read

If the doomsayers are right, and Parliament burns down or is forced to relocate entirely, what comes next? Architectural historian Professor James Stevens Curl explains how the current structure came to be – and explains why he fears the worst in the future.

That architecture, before Modernism stripped it of meaning, symbolism, beauty, longevity, and much else, once had profound resonances is self-evident. One only has to consider how the style, somewhat unfortunately labelled “Gothic”, has been perceived, used, and evolved, long after it is supposed to have been superseded by Classicism, to realise that meaning in architecture was at one time a powerful weapon in terms of culture, politics, continuity, history, national identity, and so on.

It is no accident that the Palace of Westminster (constructed 1835-60) is dressed in Gothic garments, and many have regarded it as the perfect expression of the nation’s traditions and civilisation, contrasting it with the albeit splendid Greek Revival Parliament Building in Vienna (1874-83), by Theophilus Edvard von Hansen (1813-91), as a symptom of the degeneracy of the Habsburg Empire, with its quadrigæ charging off in four directions, and therefore suggesting the disparate multinational make-up of the decaying State. Greek Antiquity, in short, had few real resonances for the subjects of the Dual Monarchy under Kaiser Franz Josef (r.1848-1916).

In October 1834 the old Palace of Westminster went up in flames. The young Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52) was overjoyed to see “composition mullions and cement pinnacles and battlements flying and crackling, while… two-and-sixpenny turrets were smoking like so many manufactory chimneys till the heat shivered them into a thousand pieces”.

With this momentous conflagration the principles of Georgian Picturesque also went up in flames, and on the site arose the new Gothic Revival Palace of Westminster: designed, with a brilliant, essentially Classical, plan by Charles Barry (1795-1860), with whom Pugin collaborated on the detail, the conditions stipulated in the documents concerning the architectural competition that the style should be “Gothic of Elizabethan”, for those were associated with legitimacy, authority, religion, law, tradition, learning, freedom, and a great deal more.

“The obliteration of history has always been high on the agenda of Modernist architects”

Pugin’s rich, colourful Gothic suggested mediæval pagentry and chivalry, the heraldry of old families and institutions, and a long-established social order. With all those resonances the chilly Greek Revival of Robert Smirke (1780-1867) or William Wilkins (1778-1839), the stucco scenography of John Nash (1752-1835), the “depravity” of James Wyatt (1746-1813), and the curious architecture of John Soane (1753-1837) seemed relatively impoverished in terms of resonances with national history and character, and therefore unsuitable for such a significant building of national importance.

In recent years there has been much concern about the costs of restoring and conserving the Palace, known in the vernacular as the “Houses of Parliament”, but those costs have spiralled thanks to a deplorable pusillanimous national tendency to avoid spending money on maintenance. All buildings require maintenance, and failure to carry it out for reasons of “economy” is daft: bean-counters and unimaginative apparatchiks do immeasurable harm, and eventually the reckoning comes with astronomical charges.

There has even been talk of commissioning a new Parliament Building and abandoning the Palace of Westminster: one can almost hear the slavering of architectural chops at the mere prospect, but the blood runs cold when considering what might eventually emerge, as well as the dreadful problems, at many levels, regarding the future of the Barry/Pugin masterpiece, which is so embedded in our history. Doubtless that is what appeals to the iconoclasts, to those desiring the tabula rasa, and to the Modernists who scent rich pickings and world fame.

One can foresee the sort of thing that might emerge, with the arts establishment and the Royal Institute of British Architects trotting out the tired old clichés concerning “buildings for our own time”, “rational, contemporary solutions”, “exciting fresh ideas”, and other dreary matters all too often resulting in expensive messes.

One can see the worst of such thought in China, where a halt has been called to the “chaotic propagation of grandiose, West-worshipping and weird architecture”. (1) There were sharp intakes of breath when an academic at Tsinghua University, Beijing, had the temerity to remark that China had “too many buildings designed by Zaha Hadid” (1950-2016). (2) Another prominent name, the ubiquitous Rem Koolhaas (1944-), with Ole Scheeren (1971-), of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) (3), designed the China Central Television headquarters in Beijing (2002-12): it was lampooned as “The Big Underpants” (4) (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1: China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters, "The Big Underpants"

There have been calls for new buildings to be less outrageously expensive, less wasteful of energy (more “green”), more agreeable to look at, and respecting and reflecting China’s traditions; which might suggest that Western “iconic buildings” have become at least a bore, and are possibly no longer welcome. (5) There is also the old problem of architects in the contemporary world working for oppressive régimes: criticism of this has been somewhat muted.

Empty gestures are made closer to home as well. The Scottish Parliament Building (1998-2004), by Enric Miralles Moya (1955-2000), sited at the foot of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, opposite Holyrood Palace, with its infantile, unreadable allusions to upturned boats (why boats, upturned or otherwise, anyway?) and fatuous claims that its applied “decorations” draw inspiration from the painting, The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (c.1784), by Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), cannot be said to respond to its context.

The costs of this inchoate pile-up are also not without controversy. It has no connection whatsoever to indigenous Scottish architecture of any period, and ignores especially the great Classical architectural legacy that was such an integral part of Edinburgh. The stuck-on “decorations” (“ornament” is always stuck on to Modernist buildings, for it is no longer an integral part of a grossly impoverished architectural language, bereft of meaning, but guaranteed to jar, disturb, and create unease) have no true symbolic meaning: and that is because architects no longer know what a symbol actually is. A symbol represents what it is; an allegory represents what it is not. But that is a distinction embedded in theology, and therefore not one that will be even vaguely familiar (or welcome) today.

Scottish Parliament building
Scottish Parliament Building, Holyrood

The obliteration of history has always been high on the agenda of Modernist architects, and the Scottish Parliament building manages to ignore history, thereby conforming to the demands of the Modernist cult. This was clearly another instance of a country, with a splendid and unique heritage of great architecture, turning its back on that heritage to acquire an “iconic” building devoid of meaning and stuffed with banalities: all to be able to claim a spurious “Modernity” and perhaps by so doing conceal a queasy sense of national disappointment.

Everyone can be sure, if a new Parliament Building becomes a dreadful reality, of certainties that will include astronomical costs far in excess of any “estimates” or contracted sums, huge problems with failures and faults of many kinds, and choruses of hyperbole from those who pander to popular “culture”, which is something that depends on spectacle, flashy images and sensations, advertised just long enough to attract purchasers in droves, until superseded by different illusions.

An architecture from which any understanding of history has been abstracted, is hugely diminished by the phenomena of image, sensationalism, and the seeking after anything that could be described by that overused and very foolish word, “iconic” Like Pugin, in his Contrasts, I have weighed Modernist “architecture” in the balance, and found it wanting (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2: 'Contrasts: Or, A Parallel Between The Noble Edifices Of The Middle Ages And Corresponding Buildings Of The Present Day' by AWN Pugin

References: 1) Jonathan Morrison in The Times (25 February 2016) 18, 2) Ibid, 3) Office for Metropolitan Architecture, founded 1975, 4) Jonathan Morrison in The Times (25 February 2016) 18, 5) The Times (26 September 2015) 29

Professor James Stevens Curl is an architectural historian

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