Palace of Westminster
Jeremy Melvin, 20 May 2020
Anyone with little more than a cursory knowledge of British history might think that the British state is defined and shaped by ancient traditions, writes Jeremy Melvin.
Our monarchy, its Church, its parliament and its legal and educational systems all seem to have origins in the mists of time. The truth is more prosaic. Many of the ‘ancient’ traditions were actually invented in the 19th century, as the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and his collaborator Terence Ranger showed in the book they edited, The Invention of Tradition (CUP 1983). In seven essays the contributors, who include representatives from the other side of the political divide (such as Hugh Trevor-Roper), show how apparently age-old phenomena, such as Scottish tartan and ruling the colonies, were defined to give that impression in the 19th century.
Much of the blame for this can be ascribed to public figures like Benjamin Disraeli, who appropriated the title ‘Empress of India’ for Queen Victoria; and arguably the greatest showman among the viceroys of that jewel in the Imperial crown, George Nathaniel Curzon.
He was, as the rhyme from his alma mater, Balliol College Oxford, has it, ‘A most superior person’1. So superior was he that, on his proconsular appointment, he had a replica of his English country house built outside the then capital, Calcutta. All this was part of an extraordinary sleight of hand whereby much of the world was duped into believing that Britain always had and always would have the right to rule much of the rest of the world.
Echoes of this can be traced in the story of the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster (to give the Houses of Parliament its correct name) after a catastrophic fire in 1834, to designs by Charles Barry with important contributions from AWN Pugin.
Place of the Palace of Westminster just before the fire of 1834. Note the scale of Westminster Hall (Soane's law courts just below it), and the House of Commons chamber in the former St Stephen's Chapel at right angles both to the hall and House of Lords.
It is partially covered in one of the Hobsbawm book’s seven essays, ‘The context, meaning and performance of ritual’ involving the monarchy between 1820 (death of George III) and 1977 (Silver Jubilee of the present Queen), by the great cartographer of English social history, David Cannadine. The first part of this period more or less coincides with Barry’s and Pugin’s endeavours, and the building became and remains one of the most significant stages where these invented rituals are enacted.
Perhaps because the Houses of Parliament were quickly recognised as an ‘unsatisfactory’ model for the ongoing Gothic Revival – ‘Grecian, all Grecian’ lamented Pugin to a friend – the design’s contribution to inventing ritual has often been overlooked. The building is now under scrutiny, as MPs review the plans for its £3.5bn refurbishment, which will finally rid it of asbestos and safeguard its inhabitants against fire. The plan also involves the construction of a temporary chamber for the House of Commons and the decanting of the House of Lords into the nearby Queen Elizabeth Convention Centre. This is in the context of the British parliament trying, with mixed success, to introduce electronic debating and voting as part of its social distancing strategy against Covid 19. The relationship between historic ritual and the Barry and Pugin design has new relevance – especially since it is perhaps the clearest statement of the constitution of the United Kingdom.
The pre-1834 palace had grown up since the late 11th century in a piecemeal way. Originally it was a royal residence centred on a magnificent hall, where kings from William Rufus (son of William the Conqueror of 1066 fame) onwards literally held court. The complex underwent piecemeal conversion into a parliamentary building, with contributions from architects as distinguished as Christopher Wren and John Soane. Wren adapted the former St Stephen’s Chapel, originally built in the 14th century as England’s answer to the Royal chapel of St Chapelle in Paris, into a chamber for the House of Commons, just after the new constitutional settlement of 1689, which established the primacy of parliament over monarchy.
Soane added a library for the House of Lords, as well as a suite of law courts and a royal entrance around the hall. Their destruction to prevent the fire spreading to the hall remains one of the greatest losses in British architectural history. Soane’s involvement in proposals for the complex extensive: in 1831 he told a ‘select committee’ of Members of Parliament investigating improvements to the then highly unsatisfactory House of Commons – essentially too small and too smelly – that he had designed a new version in 1792. His thinking about the ideal shape and size of a new chamber had some impact on Barry’s thinking.
It is Barry’s plan that best expresses the constitution. After being shown around the finished complex by the architect, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia called the building ‘un reve en pierre’ (a dream in stone). Someone with a more acute sensibility to constitutional niceties might have recognised it as ‘a constitution in stone’.
The plan radically breaks with the pre-fire version in many ways. The new building encroaches on the marshy riverbank (resulting in extraordinary constructional complexity), but also allowed the Houses of Lords and Commons to face each other along an extensive axis. In the previous building they had been at right angles, but in Barry’s formulation their constitutional ‘equality’ (at least in the mid-19th century) is given architectural expression. Such a long a main axis invites a cross axis: Barry takes advantage of this to establish a public entrance to the Palace, leading to the lobby which marks the point where the axes conjoin. Here, the public can meet, mingle and ‘lobby’ their elected representatives. This right is expressed in the plan.
The axiality and near symmetry caused Barry's collaborator Pugin to complain that it was 'all Grecian' (i.e. classical), but adopting this mode allowed Barry to lay out the constitution's main principles with the relationship between Commons, Lords and monarch at its core (the sovereign body of the United Kingdom is 'the King in Parliament', Thomas Cromwell's skilful formulation to allow Henry VIII to enact his own divorce), as well as the integration of the UK's constituent nations.
The right-angled meeting of two axes creates four points of entrance. Each of these was conceived as an analogue of the United Kingdom’s four constituent parts, England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland (since 1922 Northern Ireland), through representative decoration, most powerfully in their patron saints, respectively George, David, Andrew and Patrick. Here, conceptually, the United Kingdom comes together and its peoples can engage with their rulers.
Disguised by skilful chamfering of the corners and lavish decoration, the western portal through which the public enters, is actually slightly off 90 degrees. This is because the route to it follows the line of St Stephen’s Chapel. This anomaly could be read as a subtle but insistent reminder that no constitutional settlement is perfect. All need to cater for variation.
If the principal and secondary axes reveal the relationships between Lords and Commons and Parliament and People, the continuation of the main axis beyond the two chambers expresses the constitutional role of the monarch and of the Speaker of the Commons. Their seats (throne for the monarch, chair for the speaker) face each other along the main axis, confirming their status as mirror images of each other, one the nation’s most senior individual, the other the nation’s leading commoner. Behind the Speaker’s chair is a short route to the Speaker’s residence, passing their administrative offices.
Behind the throne is an altogether more elaborate route. It is the ceremonial way the monarch takes for the state opening of parliament, before reading the speech which sets out the government’s legislative programme for the coming year. After arriving and ascending the steps at the Victoria Tower, the monarch dons ceremonial attire and crown, before walking through the Royal Gallery, between dignitaries such foreign ambassadors, to the throne of the House of Lords, where Queen or King appears amid the glitter and glory of Pugin’s gilded confection.
The effect is represented in Handel’s great coronation anthem – performed at every such ritual since George II was crowned in 1727 – ‘Zadok the Priest’. The procession echoes the quiet repeated motive of the anthem’s introduction, before exploding in choral unison with the words reinforced by drum beat, ‘Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king/ and the people rejoiced and said/ God save the king/ long live the king/ may the king live forever/ alleluia amen’. Though the monarch’s speech rarely calls forth such emotion with its prosaic refrain, ‘My government will legislate to reduce the impact of tariffs on the kelp-weaving industry…’ (or whatever), the effect that Barry and Pugin orchestrated has a clear implication that survives even the dryest parliamentary programme.
The other piece of genius in Barry’s plan involves the arrangements for voting. Trials during the Covid-19 lockdown of electronic voting suggested that some MPs were unable to recognise the right buttons to press, and voted against party instructions by accident. At the time of writing, the House of Commons has followed the advice of its leader, Jacob Rees Mogg, uncharitably known as the honourable member for the 18th century, in voting to end the ‘virtual’ parliament and return to its physical form.
So it will continue to vote in the traditional way, of the House ‘dividing’ into ‘Aye’ and ‘No’ lobbies (respectively for and against the motion to be decided). Members have physically to rise from the chamber’s benches (or their offices or local pubs within the ‘Division Bell’ area, where bells are wrung to alert toping members to an imminent vote), and enter the lobby, which is locked shortly after the vote being called. Then the vote is taken by counting the members as they file back into the chamber. What is significant about this ancient and cumbersome procedure is that it involves physical presence, and therefore recognition (though electronic voting need not be anonymous).
Barry did not invent this method of voting. But what he did do was to provide within the plan adequate spaces for it to take place, quite unlike the previous chamber, where Wren ended up creating unsatisfactory lobbies within the existing footprint and fabric. How to deal with this problem was one of the major issues in the attempts to improve or rebuild the chamber just before the 19th century fire, which had increased in importance with the expansion of the House due to the Acts of Union with Scotland in 1707 but more recently Ireland in 1801. Each brought about 100 new members.
Like so much of the British constitution, the Palace of Westminster, despite its present fabric dating almost entirely from the 19th century, embodies almost 1000 years of evolution of governance, where each iteration incorporates workable tradition and gently excises anomalies. This recognises that no constitution, still less any single government or membership of either House can be perfect.
In this sense it is not just a constitution represented in architecture, but shows the potential of architecture as a medium to frame a constitution in a more significant way than words, which have the characteristic of appearing to offer objectivity but actually – as Derrida has showed – embody ambiguity and confusion.
1 My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim twice a week.