‘Even Big Ben has outlived its use’: Cedric Price and the Pop-Up Parliament

Posted on October 13th, 2017 by Stephen Thornton

As part of our blog series on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, Dr Stephen Thornton, Cardiff University, discusses controversial proposals to rebuild Parliament in the 1960s: Cedric Price’s plan for the “Pop-Up Parliament”.

The Palace of Westminster is, as the cliché goes, ‘one of the most iconic buildings in the world’ (1). A Grade 1 listed building and part of World Heritage site, at no point during the current restoration and renewal programme has the idea that the edifice be demolished and replaced with a modern, more efficient, more flexible structure been seriously considered. As this idea seems almost unthinkable in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, an era still seemingly gripped by – to use David Lowenthal’s term –  the ‘cult of heritage’ (2), it is necessary to look to history for a proposal for Parliament’s renewal that looked wholeheartedly to the future rather than gloried in the past.

In the mid-1960s, an era which hazily promised a New Britain forged through the ‘White Heat’ of a scientific and technological revolution, unabashedly modern plans were laid reconstruct the architecture of power in London. With the backing of both Conservative and Labour parties, architect Leslie Martin –  in collaboration with traffic expert Colin Buchanan – had the idea to demolish the historic nineteenth century palaces that constituted Whitehall and replace them with a concrete megastructure comprising stepped-section slab blocks (3). ‘Ziggurats for bureaucrats’ as one contemporary journalist put it. In Martin’s plan, which was published in July 1965, Westminster itself was to remain largely untouched – as his brief from the government dictated – but the whole area from Downing Street to Parliament Square, and St James’ Park to the Thames would have been transformed.

Taking Martin’s scheme as inspiration, but going much further, was the idea of the Pop-Up Parliament. It was the brainchild of Cedric Price (1934-2003), an iconoclastic architect then in the early years of a career in which little that he designed was actually built – the Snowden Aviary at London Zoo with Frank Newby a rare example – but whose ideas have proved provocatively influential. Amongst the most significant of his ideas was his disregard for the permanence of buildings, with a particular distaste for grand, monumental edifices. Price regarded them unfavourably as a means of consolidating power and keeping the public at bay. Hence Price’s proposals tended towards structures that were temporary, changeable, and fun. These themes are developed most fully in his celebrated designs for a multi-functional ‘Fun Palace’ by the banks of the Thames and the ‘Potteries Thinkbelt’, a mobile university based on stretch of disused railway. Indeed, Price generally distrusted the notion of creation of permanent structure as a solution to any problem, famously remarking that: ‘Few have ever wanted a bridge; they have only wished to get to the other side’ (4).

Price’s distrust of permanence is fully evident in ‘Pop-Up Parliament’, an article Price, with Paul Barker and Anthony Colbert, wrote and illustrated for the culturally influential New Society magazine (5). The piece begins:

If we want an efficient parliament, let’s give it a whole, efficient building to work in: not just the extension proposed by Sir Leslie Martin. Replace the present historic monument by an up-to-date structure – flexible, accessible and dispensable.

Developing the theme of, as Price would see it, misplaced reverence for tradition, the piece daringly argues that:

Even Big Ben has outlived its use. People nowadays no longer need that to tell the time: they all have watches on their wrists and Greenwich pips on their transistors. Nor should a new Palace retain Big Ben cocooned within it […] or try to echo it in a similar vertical feature. The point about such features is not so much Freudian as historical: we associate them with order and permanence, churches and town halls. And permanence isn’t the thing to symbolise in an era of throwaway Pentel pens and planned obsolescence.

By obliterating the outmoded, Price was trying to use fresh architecture as a means to encourage public participation. As pointed out in the article:

Arousing people’s serious involvement with parliament must, in fact, be one of the main starting points of a new design for the Palace of Westminster. At the moment parliament is too often ignored or ridiculed or (worst of all) gazed at as soulfully as if it were a Crown Jewel.

Price’s actual design incorporating these ideas was rather sketchy – as Paul Barker later remarked the purpose of Pop-Up Parliament was ‘essentially a critique of the relationship between what went on in Westminster and what went on in the country’ (6) – but the main idea was to replace the Palace with an interactive arena, made up of flexible and dispensable modules. Large screens and loudspeakers would transmit Parliamentary proceedings to an enlarged Parliament Square, and moving-walkway ramps would allow the public ready access. ‘Parliament should not be insulated’ it was suggested (7).

Price’s design for, as he called it, ‘a supermarket of democracy’ also included ideas such as heli- and hover-ports, pontoons on the Thames to use as temporary exhibition spaces, a new computerised library, and disposable prefabricated ‘cells’ for MPs. The materials used would have been glass, steel, and concrete, but ‘only as durable as 50-year obsolescence required, and air ducts and cables would be left exposed (though painted bright).’

Price’s ideas did not stray far beyond small group of like-minded intellectuals, but – with Martin’s scheme – they do expose a view prevalent at the time keen to promote a technological future rather than look back on their tarnished imperial past. Price took this idea further than most, regarding stuffy, monumental architecture as lacking dialogue with the future and, in the case of the Palace of Westminster, causing damage to democracy itself. Over fifty years later, the craving to preserve symbols of the past is more potent than ever, but, as Price would have argued, this can only be achieved at the cost of distorting one of humanity’s main attributes, ‘the desire for change’, a condition that can lead to ‘a stagnation of both spirit and sensibility’ (8). At the very least Pop-Up Parliament should remind those involved in the Westminster restoration project that people and their interactions are more important than the containers in which they operate, no matter how venerable or symbolic.

Big Ben, mid-20th century. Image courtesy of Leonard Bentley, via Flickr. CC by SA 2.0

References

  1. House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts (2017), Delivering Restoration and Renewal, 45th Report of Session 2016-17, HC 1005.
  2. David Lowenthal (1996), Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, New York: Free Press.
  3. Adam Sharr and Stephen Thornton (2013), Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin, Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat, Farnham: Ashgate.
  4. Cedric Price (2003), RE:CP, ed. Hans Ulrich Obrist, Boston & Berlin: Birkhauser Basel.
  5. Paul Barker, Anthony Colbert and Cedric Price (1965), ‘Pop-Up Parliament’, New Society, 29 July 1965.
  6. Paul Barker quoted in Samantha Hardingham and Kester Rattenbury (2007), Supercrit #1 Cedric Price Potteries Thinkbelt, Abingdon: Routledge.
  7. Paul Barker et al (1965), ‘Pop-Up Parliament’.
  8. Cedric Price (2003), RE:CP.

Biography

Stephen Thornton is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Cardiff University. His latest book (co-written with Adam Sharr) is entitled Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat, which closely examined plans in the 1960s to bulldoze Victorian administrative palaces such as the Foreign Office and replace them with a concrete, ziggurat-structure megastructure. And what’s not to like about that idea?  He is currently making the most of Cardiff University Research Leave Fellowship which, inter alia, has allowed him to go to India – with indologist Dr James Hegarty of Cardiff University and architect Professor Adam Sharr of Newcastle University – to study various buildings and the political, architectural and cultural stories attached to them.

Notes

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre; the Designing for Democracy project; or the Understanding Politics blog series. 

To write for the Understanding Politics blog series please contact crick@sheffield.ac.uk

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