Sophie Williams 

Inherently symbolic by nature, the built institution is the physical embodiment of its attitudes. Parliament by nature is symbolic of the attitude of the nation, a philosophy called into question frequently during the lifetime of its host. Yet its basic form and the rituals guided by this remain unchanged.

With the £6bn restoration of the Houses of Parliament looming, poised to preserve its centuries old rituals yet again, is it right that we continue to shoehorn a modern day parliament into a Victorian building?

‘We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum.’ - Tony Benn

Parliament is falling 

The roof is leaking, the stone is rotting, and with it our entire British political system will inevitably crumble. This is the viewpoint of those fervently fighting for the restoration and preservation the Palace of Westminster. The organisational and physical embodiment of institutions have in the past been seen as inextricably linked, but as their technological, economic and urban contexts have evolved, this relationship has become more slippery. The resilient responsiveness of institutions to the turning tides of their environment has proven that perhaps the relationship between their physical and organisational bodies need not be so intimate. This will to adapt can be observed in the evolution of many institutions, yet in the architecture of parliamentary congregation, we are met with a more stubborn entity.

Parliaments are seen as heavily loaded symbols of a country’s unique national identity. However, the spaces in which their politics take shape use only four basic typologies, the hemicycle, opposing benches, the horseshoe and the tribune. This has remained unchanged for over a century.

In Churchill’s speech regarding the configuration of the Commons Chamber in 1943, he attributes hefty influence to its opposing benches on upholding the adversarial party system practiced in the UK, ‘its shape should be oblong and not semi-circular. Here is a very potent factor in our political life. The semi-circular assembly, which appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or every group to move round the centre, adopting various shades of pink according as the weather changes. I am a convinced supporter of the party system in preference to the group system. The party system is much favoured by the oblong form of Chamber.’[1] He famously proclaims in this speech that ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’.[2] However, British political practice was heavily shaped by the chapel adapted to form the first official Commons Chamber.

The first permanent host of the Commons was St Stephens Chapel. Built in 1184, it was the private chapel of the King in the old Palace of Westminster. In 1547, Edward VI granted the Commons the use of the chapel as its debating chamber. When the MPs moved in they found the pews, the alter and a screen towards one end of the chapel had been left in place. The members rotated the pews to form rows of opposing benches from which they made speeches to each other across the aisle of the chapel. In place of the alter they positioned the speakers chair. The screen at the end of the chapel was used by members to register their vote, those voting in favour of a motion would pass through its right-hand door and those voting against would pass through its left. Remnants of this configuration and the rituals it constructed have left an enduring mark on the parliamentary practice of today.

The Chamber still retains its oblong form with banks of opposing benches either side of a central aisle. This adversarial seating typology upholds the party system in use in the UK, the government sitting to the speaker’s right and its opposition on the left. During a sitting of the house, only those facing the aisle are permitted to debate. Voting practice in the Commons has remained almost unaltered. A ‘division’ is called, hundreds of bells sound out across Westminster, throughout the Parliamentary Estate and favoured nearby watering holes. All 500 ring for 8 minutes, during which time all members must reach the voting lobbies before the bells go silent and the lobby doors are locked; some members have been known to carry trainers. As the votes are counted, the ‘Ayes’ process anti-clockwise through the west lobby and the ‘Noes’ clockwise through the east.

The Palace of Westminster has experienced moments of significant disaster in both the 19th and 20th centuries. Both times, its rituals were rigorously preserved through the design for the configuration for the House of Commons.

In 1834 a fire swept through the old Palace of Westminster razing it almost entirely to the ground, only Westminster Hall survives. A committee called to discuss the running of Parliament before Charles Barry designed the current palace, agreed upon the way their new bespoke Chamber would be run. The principles of the current voting system stem directly from a report written by the Select Committee on Divisions of Session 1835.  [3] This was the moment the rituals of Parliament were indelibly inscribed into architecture of the Commons Chamber.

During the nights of the 10th and 11th of May 1941, the Commons Chamber was devastated once again. The incendiary bombs which fell during these nights of the Blitz left it no more than an ashen shell by the morning of the 12th. From June 1941 until October 1950, the Commons met in the Lords Chamber. In 1943 Churchill made a speech regarding the rebuilding of the Commons. As well as advocating the preservation  of its opposing benches, he ardently sought to maintain its size. ‘The second characteristic of the Chamber is that it should not be big enough to contain all its members at once without over-crowding and that there should be no question of every member having a separate seat reserved for him. The essence of good House of Commons speaking is the conversational style, the facility for quick, informal interruptions and interchanges. Harangues from a rostrum would be a bad substitute for the conversational style in which so much of our business is done. But the conversational style requires a fairly small space, and there should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency.

The Palace’s present day trauma is that it’s literally rotting away, and without imminent intervention will decay beyond repair. ‘Inside the Palace of Westminster there is concerning tale of decay, disrepair and dilapidation.’[5] In recent years, tens millions of pounds have been spent on stalling its journey to ruin, and it is about to undergo a restoration which will cost the taxpayer billions of pounds. Yet objectively, the Palace’s function as a parliament is obsolete.

As a global emblem of modern functioning democracy, the British seat of government is a space intended to provide every constituency with equal representation through the advocacy of their respective MP. By Churchill’s authority, the Commons Chamber provides seats for 427 members, as of the 2015 general election there are 650 MPs. When the House is sitting, if there are no more seats in the Chamber, members must find space in the gallery above. From this position members are prohibited from partaking in debate unless they are called upon personally by the speaker, an incredibly rare occurrence. Although the current size of the Chamber does indeed provide the intimacy to promote informal debate, it seems futile if only two thirds of the country can be represented at any one time. If we unshackle the palace from its heritage and symbolism, we find ourselves in a situation where we are about to spend billions of pounds on restoring a parliament that is too small to represent the entirety of its population, ‘If the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild’.[6]

The rituals of parliament have been allowed to proliferate unaltered for centuries by way of fervently protecting the built form that guides them. Tony Benn once said, ‘We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum.’[7] Is a space whose configurational principles find their origins in a medieval chapel an appropriate arena for the practice of modern day politics? Are these traditions, which are held so dear, genuinely productive or just a performance?


1.     House of Commons Chamber, UK Parliament, 2008.
2.    Eskine May book of Parliamentary Practice. Malcolm Jack, 2011.
3.    Painting of St Stephen’s Chapel, 1710.
4.    Seating Typologies, clockwise from top-left: Hemicycle, Opposing Benches, Horseshoe, Tribune.
5.    Markers showing position of Mace and Specker’s Chair in original Commons Chamber. St Stephen’s Hall, Houses of Parliamnet.
6.    Division bell, Houses of Parliament.


1.    Hansard: House of Commons Rebuilding. 28th October 1943.
2.    Ibid.
3.    Factsheet P9 Procedure Series, House of Commons Information Office: Divisions. October 2003.
4.    Hansard: House of Commons Rebuilding, 28th October 1943.
5.    Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster: First Report Session 2016-17. September 2016.
6.    Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster: Pre-feasibility Study. October 2012.
7.    Hansrd: House of Commons. 22nd March 2001.