‘You don’t walk past this building saying, “That’s a big impressive building, that’s a parliament.” You walk past saying, “Why?”’

Posted on October 11th, 2017 by Cristina Leston-Bandeira

As part of our week of blogs on the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal project, David Judge and Cristina Leston-Bandeira discuss the symbolic importance of parliamentary buildings.

National parliamentary buildings throughout the world serve as powerful symbols as to what parliaments are and what their occupants claim to do in relation to citizens and state. The design of parliamentary buildings provides architectural cues as to their political importance, for, as John Parkinson argues, they are designed with ‘symbolic intent’. Yet, symbolic representation is not merely the preserve of parliamentary institutions themselves and their architects, it is equally concerned with the interpretation of symbols by those who make claims about ‘symbolic intent’ and by the people – the audiences – who judge those claims. For, as Parkinson goes on to argue, the fact that a building was constructed for a given symbolic purpose, tells us relatively little about how it is actually seen and used … [c]ontext is what determines how a symbol is received’. The UK, with its multi-layered representative systems and with parliaments at sub-state, state and supra-state levels, provides a suitable case-study with which to examine this contention.

The Westminster parliament illustrates this point vividly. Its rebuilding after 1834 and the choice of the Gothic style – prescribed by a Royal Commission and realised by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin – was both a practical design solution as it allowed for the incorporation of surviving medieval structures whilst conveying a ‘profoundly conservative, hierarchical and anti-democratic’ symbolic intent (Cannadine 2004:7). Yet, the interpretation of the Westminster Palace’s symbolism changed rapidly in the 19th century and came to signify something quite different to the original intent of its designers. This was the symbolic intent invoked by Churchill in 1943 in his claim that Westminster was the gothic architectural embodiment of the ‘most powerful assembly in the whole world’. Indeed, in the 1940s, there was a strong conviction among MPs that ‘the nineteenth-century House of Parliament was the ultimate architectural manifestation of representative democracy’ (Shenton 2016:4). Some 70 years later, however, the crumbling edifice and outmoded interior of Westminster provide profoundly negative cues to MPs and a less deferential and more cynical public audience. In this context, calls for a new 21st century parliament building designed to symbolise new ways of doing politics have become ever more strident and persistent. Indeed, the degree of conceptual travel from the original mid-19th century symbolic intent of Westminster to the interpretation of that intent nearly two centuries later bears testament to Göran Therborn’s (2014:335) observation that there are multiple ways of seeing and reading any given symbol.

Similarly, the symbolic intent of the Scottish parliament’s design has been open to contrasting interpretations in its relatively short life. The architects, led by Enric Miralles, made clear in their design portfolio the political implications inherent within their design: ‘The crucial idea that sustains it is that: Parliament sits in the land because it belongs to the Scottish land. This is our goal … we don’t want to forget that the Scottish Parliament will be in Edinburgh, but will belong to Scotland, to the Scottish land’. Despite the building winning numerous architectural awards, its political signposts have been interpreted negatively by some MSPs, and by sections of expert and lay publics alike. As one MSP commented: ‘You don’t walk past this building saying, “That’s a big impressive building, that’s a parliament.” You walk past saying, “Why?”’. Moreover, the intricacies of Holyrood’s architectural design, subsequent problems with construction, cost-overrun and maintenance, have often served as a metaphor for the inherent deficiencies of the institutional design of devolution.

European Parliament at Strasbourg

Image courtesy of David Iliff CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the case of the European Parliament, its buildings do not represent the unifying core of a state, nation or nation-state. Instead, the geographical dispersion of parliamentary buildings has been portrayed as a representation of EU governance itself. The symbolism of the EU’s institutions, captured in their spatial dispersion and architectural design, has evolved and mutated overtime: from an initial stealth design to minimise the appearance of concentration of power (McNamara 2015:106) whereby Brussels became the informal EU capital; through to more ambitious design strategies from the late-1980s onwards and the emergence of a new EU institutional complex in Brussels, which symbolised the integrationist intent and upward power-flows codified in a succession of EU treaties. The architects of the EP’s Weiss hemicycle, built in Strasbourg in the late-1990s, envisaged the parliamentary building to be an expression of the culture of democratic openness in Europe and its history: ‘The architecture of the European Parliament … is also representative of … the democratic institution behind the building: … It is a contextual building in the broad sense of the word. It embodies the strength of unity and the openness of democracy’. Whereas the architects sought to symbolise the transition of centralised state power to the openness of European democracy, their work has been interpreted differently when refracted through eurosceptic ideational lenses. MEPs of a Eurosceptic persuasion, such as Daniel Hannan, claim an alternative ‘symbolic intent’ to that proposed by the architects: ‘The European Parliament, in short, is the European Union’s objective correlative: the thing that expresses, in physical form, the project’s abstract flaws. Prodigal, labyrinthine, constantly expanding, and wanting any sense of proportion, it is the perfect symbol of the whole Euro-racket’.

So, the take home message from this brief discussion is simply that the cueing effect of architectural symbols is not intrinsic but is interpreted. In this specific process of interpretation, and in processes of institutional representation more generally, the making of claims – of providing institutional meaning – are of vital significance, as we argue more fully in our article published in Political Studies.



David Judge is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde. Find out more about him here.







Cristina Leston-Bandeira is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds. Find out more about her here, and follow her on Twitter at @estrangeirada

Notes: this article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog series please contact crick@sheffield.ac.uk

Creative Commons license