The Design of Parliaments Has a Funkadelic Impact on Politics
At first glance, the meeting halls of Russia’s and Botswana’s parliaments could not look more different.
Russia’s 616-member parliament makes policy decisions in a large room with gray carpet, fluorescent-lit chandelier lamps, and row upon row of pale wooden desks rigged with screens and microphones. Look at a photo of this room and you can practically hear the thrum of an air conditioner.
Botswana’s parliament, in contrast, manages national affairs in an open-air pavilion with a thatched roof, a few wooden benches, and exactly 36 chairs. It looks like the common space at wellness retreat.
But these two sites are more alike than they seem. In fact, they share architectural DNA. Both have a classroom layout, with members of parliament sitting in rows facing a speaker. “It’s obviously a very practical shape if you want to focus all the attention in the front,” says David Mulder van der Vegt, a partner at Amsterdam creative agency XML. “It’s popular in non-democratic regimes.”
For the past five years van der Vegt and Max Cohen de Lara, his partner at XML, have studied the halls of parliament of all 193 United Nations member states. In a new book, Parliament, the duo elegantly connects architecture to the political process.
XML identified just five typologies for parliament buildings. The “opposing benches” layout is most useful for heated debate between two distinct parties. XML
The majority of the world’s parliament assembly halls follow the “semicircle” layout. Like a good concert hall, a semicircle parliament room affords more people a decent view, creating a stronger sense of egalitarianism among its members. Democracies often meet and operate in this layout.XML
The “horseshoe” layout is something of a hybrid of the “opposing benches” and “semicircle” typologies. There are two phsyical arrangements here: tête-à-tête confrontation and side-by-side alignment. Former British colonies like Australia, South Africa and Bangladesh meet in horseshoe rooms.XML
The “circle” typology is the newest of the five. XML’s research found that it’s based on the 10th century room used for Iceland’s parliament, but only reemerged as a modern space in the 1980s. Only 11 parliaments around the world use this typology, but it’s thought to be the most democratic of them all, because it totally eschews a front and central dominant figure. XML
Favored by non-democratic, authoritarian, Communist regimes, the “classroom” layouts transfers a ton of power to the person at the front. Imagine the way ideas might flow between a single professor and an entire class—the group might contribute, but one person is the leader.XML
All 193 assembly halls fall into one of five organizational layouts: “semicircle,” “horseshoe,” “opposing benches,” “circle,” and “classroom.” And these layouts make a difference. If you can imagine how debating with someone seated beside you might feel different from arguing with someone standing at a pulpit, you can appreciate the impact.
The United Kingdom House of Commons
The UK’s House of Commons, for example, meets in the Palace of Westminster, in a room modeled after an opposing-bench configuration. Designed by architects Charles Barry, Augustus Pugin, and Giles Gilbert Scott in 1950, the parliament room places the two main political parties face-to-face. This typology allows for clear delineation between the ruling party and the shadow party.
Bombs destroyed the previous parliament hall in World War II. When Winston Churchill ordered it rebuilt, he asked Barry, Pugin, and Gilbert Scott to design the room to the same specifications as its predecessor, even though the number of parliament members had swelled.
Van der Vegt says those tight quarters actually help politicians do their jobs. “It’s too small, so not everyone has a seat, so you automatically have a more intense debate,” he says. “But also, through these opposing benches, you immediately understand the positions of the debate.”
Norman Foster, the British architect behind the Gherkin and London’s City Hall, designed the German parliament building in 1999 as part of renovations to the Reichstag. Like most other European countries, Germany’s assembly hall follows the semicircle plan.
The fan-shaped layout is neoclassical in origin; Ancient Greek and Roman theaters were the first to use amphitheater seating to give audience members better views and acoustics. “The reference to antiquity was to give the new state’s assemblies an aura of gravitas and ancient anchoring,” van der Vegt and Cohen de Lara write in the introduction to Parliament. The seating also places parliament members beside each other, eliminating visual signs of power. “Unlike the opposing benches, the semicircle fuses the members of parliament into a single entity.”
Brazil’s Câmara dos Deputados
The Federal Government of Brazil, the União, operates according to a three-branch, democratic system. But you’d never know it looking at the Câmara dos Deputados. Oscar Niemeyer designed it, and the famed modernist architect was an affiliate of the Brazilian Communist Party. He built the parliament hall in the classroom style, with the black leather Eames-ian task chairs all dutifully facing the lectern in front. Even with the room’s oblong shape and gently tapered rows, the structure more closely resembles the parliament halls of Russia, North Korea, and China than any others.
These configurations affect the way their legislative bodies function—or don’t. “The architecture of Parliament is one of the fields in which innovation is really necessary,” van der Vegt says, noting that all five typologies are rooted in architectural styles predating the 19th Century. Governments operate differently today than they did hundreds of years ago, and assembly halls have failed to keep pace with change. New designs could include, say, flexible seating that adapts to changing political dynamics.
For now, though, almost every parliamentary building still plays the hits.