Paul Finch Letter From London: 26 May

NEXTMINSTER: an idea looking for a venue other than Venice

Going to the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this week was bound to be a bitter-sweet experience for anyone, other than the winners, who submitted an entry to design it. I entered (for the first time), with my World Architecture Festival colleague Jeremy Melvin, and that font of design and ideas, Nigel Coates.

It was Nigel who came up with the name for our proposal, NEXTMINSTER, sub-headed ‘Parliament, architecture and democracy in the 21st century’. The concept arose as a result of the impending multi-billion pound retrofit of the Palace of Westminster, and included the following note:

‘Creating, revising and reconstituting parliaments is an on-going aspect of British political and social history, just as designing buildings for them is an index of British architectural history. The future of the UK Parliament and the Palace of Westminster, whether separate or linked, extends this dialogue.

‘That linkage stems largely from Charles Barry’s plan, which evolved from the post-fire 1835 design competition. It set in stone, literally and metaphorically, relationships between Lords and Commons, Parliament and sovereign, people and rulers; the skyline ensured the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ would be world’s most visually recognisable seat of government.

‘The symbolism and operational methods embodied in the Barry and Pugin collaboration continue today, despite an expanded electorate, the departure of most of Ireland from the UK, reform of the House of Lords (incomplete more than 100 years after it started), and the transference of powers to Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and the EU. Rogers Stirk Harbour and Enric Miralles explored corollaries of this process in Wales and Scotland; that with the EU has yet to represented architecturally.

‘Our proposal focuses on what might happen to the UK parliament, and the building with which it has been associated, as a prism for exploring generic relationships between architecture and democracy.’

We had a lively team assembled, comprising AOC, Ben Page (Ipsos Mori), Ian Ritchie, Maria Smith, Tony Travers (LSE) and Sarah Wigglesworth. The task was to design a series of ‘rooms’ in the pavilion, on the following themes:

  1. Westminster. A simulacrum of the House of Commons oppositional debating chamber for an introduction to the challenges faced. Be an MP for five minutes!
  2. Nonminister. Where should a Pop-up Parliament go? (NB Egret West are exploring the idea of locating it in Bristol). Parliament moved during the Civil War, the Great Fire, the Great Stink, and during World War II.
  3. Townminster. Meanwhile, what is happening to local and regional democracy? What does a sectional diagram of democratic representation look like, from citizen to EU via local/mayoral/regional/national bodies?
  4. Exminster. What was the architectural response to devolution in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? What precedents are there in Commonwealth and EU countries?
  5. Funminster. What would happen if we were happy with a relocated Parliament, and decided to do something else with the Palace of Westminster? What could it become?
  6. Nextminster. And finally some general propositions about the relationship between democracy and buildings (or indeed 650 laptops), peripatetic parliaments, permanent relocation, the upper house and so on. And a chance to vote, tweet, comment.

It was great fun devising the programme, and we had high hopes of at least getting an interview as one of the final four entrants. After all, the Palace of Westminster retrofit will be one of the biggest projects in Europe, and anything the Mother of Parliaments does has a wide general interest.

Alas, we weren’t chosen for interview. The British Council and its former director never did announce who, apart from the winners, did get interviewed. Transparency has rarely been a characteristic of British public institutions. 

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