Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Paul Seaward, Do our buildings shape us?

Last month our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, spoke at our ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar on ‘Do our buildings shape us? On oblongs, hemicycles, and the style of British politics.’ Here he reports back on his paper…

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than 40 years in the late Chamber, and having derived fiery great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity. [HC Deb 28 October 1943 vol 393 c403]

Winston Churchill’s remark is probably the second most famous about the Westminster Parliament. It was famously delivered during the debate on 28 October 1943 on a motion to establish a select committee to report on rebuilding the chamber of the House of Commons following its destruction by bombing two and a half years before. There were two characteristics of the old chamber that Churchill specifically wanted to defend, that would ‘command the approval and the support of reflective and experienced Members’. The first of them was ‘that its shape should be oblong and not semi-circular’. Churchill regarded the semi-circular chamber, or ‘hemicycle’, common to very many continental parliaments, as redolent of a system – the ‘group system’, he called it – of PR-fuelled coalitions, a world, he thought, of backroom deals and murky party allegiances. The second was that the chamber ‘should not be big enough to contain all its Members at once without over-crowding and that there should be no question of every Member having a separate seat reserved for him’. The alternative would be, he argued, that for nine-tenths of the time, debates would be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of a half-empty chamber.

Churchill’s view, and his preferred manner of constructing a parliamentary chamber, has been deeply influential in Britain. Many have repeated and even strengthened the point to claim that the style of the House of Commons, with its benches ranged against each other, mirrors and entrenches the British political system, with its majoritarian first-past-the-post electoral structure ensuring that political ideas strongly contrasted and contested, rather than wishy-washy compromise and negotiation. Their opponents have often, conversely, regarded the arrangement of the chamber as a badge of all that they dislike about British politics: confrontational, name-calling, a childish game of yah-boo, rather than a mature, deliberate process of debate and negotiation.

But a moment’s thought suggests that this is overblown: there are plenty of semi-circular chambers where politics can get far more confrontational than at Westminster; there are countries with first-past-the-post electoral systems which have semi-circular parliamentary chambers. Is there any truth in the idea that the form of the House of Commons has shaped our politics? Or is it more that we have come conveniently to attach certain ideas about the nature of our politics to the shape of the chamber?

Deliberative chambers before the eighteenth century tended to be in square or rectangular rooms: Vitruvius, in the little he said on the subject, seems to have regarded this as the only option for a senate house, and the surviving Roman senate house, the Curia Julia, is an oblong in shape, and pictures of early modern chambers usually show oblongs or squares. But not always: the fourteenth century House of Commons met at least sometimes in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey, an octagonal room; and a picture of the Council of Trent in session in 1566 shows that the hemicycle was not an eighteenth century invention. When the Irish Parliament was rebuilt in 1727 a remarkable octagonal design was chosen, by Edward Lovett Pearce, who argued that it was best for audibility and sightlines. When in 1739 William Kent was planning a massive new palace to hold Parliament he went through a series of designs, including circular and elliptical chambers – though, of course, the chamber was not rebuilt until after the fire of 1834.

The Revolution in France from 1789 resulted in the creation of the new National Assembly. Given the huge political pressures to which it and its successors were subjected over the next decade, let alone the cost, it would struggle to find a suitable chamber. Its temporary locations at Versailles, a riding school and then a theatre at the Tuileries palace in Paris, were all hopeless acoustically and in many other respects: these were the locations in which the Assembly and Convention met during the most dramatic moments of the Revolution, including the Terror. But though initially a new building was regarded as too expensive, much thought went into establishing the best form for an alternative, and French architects turned to the recently-built school of Surgery, with its raked seats, set out in amphitheatre style. This would eventually be the style adopted for the new chamber, constructed in the Palais Bourbon for the Council of Five Hundred, established under the post-Terror Directory and the Constitution of Year III. The Council sat there for the first time in 1798, and the chamber is still the site of the French National Assembly.

It probably had some influence too over the construction of the House of Representatives in Washington, whose painful gestation from the amateurish plans submitted initially in 1792 for a competition to design the new national ‘Capitol’ would take nearly three decades (not helped by the destruction of the building by the British in 1814). The House of Representatives finally sat for the first time in its new chamber in 1819: while it was widely admired, its acoustics left much to be desired.

Some British commentators were now profoundly jealous of these new, purpose-built legislative chambers, with their semi-circular style. The journalist and reformer William Cobbett argued as early as 1822 that Britain needed to look towards the United States, not only in the architecture of their building but also in the working environment it creates. He contrasted the working spaces of the American assemblies –both states and federal – with the chamber of the House of Commons, ‘a place for doing little business, and that little not well.’ But the problem by now was that the idea of reconfiguring the chamber had become deeply tainted by these other spaces: republican, democratic, and, to British eyes, deeply disorderly. The worst innovation in the French and US examples had been a big public gallery – a space from which, during the French Revolution, thousands had watched, commented, shouted, catcalled, and from which they had occasionally descended to participate directly in the proceedings on the floor (including the grisly murder of one unfortunate conventionel). Furthermore, these new chambers had been constructed on a model – the ancient amphitheatre, seen through the prism of the Paris school of surgery, which assumed a single speaker addressing an audience, rather than a debate between numerous speakers. What made this particularly difficult to take was that the speaker was supposed to address not only his colleagues, facing him in the chamber, but also the serried ranks of the public, sitting in the gallery (or tribune) above and behind them.

Reformers managed to secure the appointment of select committees in 1831 and 1833 which would review proposals for rebuilding the chamber. But in both cases, while they could conclude that the current House was scarcely fit for purpose, their findings were shot down by those who were dead set against any imitation of ‘the new—and he might add vulgar—legislative assemblies on the other side of the Atlantic’, and profoundly attached to (as Peel put it) ‘the same House where Chatham, and Pitt, and Fox, and Wyndham, had made their greatest and most splendid orations’. As Sir Robert Inglis said

They would not like to convert a forum to which the greatest men who ever lived had imparted a lustre by their presence, and which they had enlightened with their eloquence—into a degraded Council Chamber unworthy of the Legislature of such a country as this.


Join us tonight for the final Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar of term when Alan Macdonald (University of Dundee) will speak on ‘The rhetoric of representation: Scottish parliamentary commissions 1638-41’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s