At the ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar on 7 November 2017 Dr Henrik Schoenefeldt (University of Kent) spoke on ‘The challenges of designing the House of Lords’ nineteenth-century ventilation system – A study of a political design process, 1840-47.’ Here he gives us an overview of his paper…
The earliest set of architectural drawings for the House of Lords were produced in Charles Barry’s office between 1836 and 1839. Starting in 1840, however, the plans had to be significantly modified to accommodate a new scheme for ventilation and climate control proposed by the physician David Boswell Reid. As the requirements of this system had not been anticipated in the earlier stages Barry’s team had to adapt their existing architectural plans. This was a complex, often challenging, process that led to serious delays. The delays were not the result of the immediate technical difficulties alone. The challenges of designing a ventilation system were further accentuated by the difficulties with successfully integrating the specialist skills and knowledge of a doctor within a process involving a large team of engineers, architects and draughtsman. Numerous studies have attributed the delays to insufficient cooperation between Barry and Reid and have dismissed the ventilation scheme as a failed endeavour. In his talk Dr. Schoenefeldt challenged this claim by retracing the evolution of their working relationship and its impact on the final design for the House of Lords, completed in 1847.
Combining the study of archival material, (e.g. original letters, drawings, sketches and diaries) with detailed building surveys inside the House of Lords, his research has allowed him to reconstruct the House of Lords’s original ventilation system and to uncover the extent of Barry and Reid’s respective contributions to its development. The original letters reveal that the pressure to reduce the risk of further delays, drove Barry and the Commissioners of Woods and Forests to trial new, more collaborative modes of working. These trials were based on the belief that Reid’s relative inexperience with engineering and architectural design could be compensated through a closer partnership between him and Barry’s team. Members of the House of Lords were also directly involved in the process of resolving the problems. The impact of Reid’s involvement on the design process became the subject of extensive reviews, conducted by several Select Committees and independent expert panels appointed by the Lords between 1843 and 1846. Neither the nature of the practical design challenges of incorporating the system within the architectural plans nor the role of Barry’s team in assisting in its development, have been investigated by historians in any depth before. This, however, is critical to fully understand the inherently political nature of the design process.
The talk is based on research conducted in conjunction with his current project within the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme, which is entitled ‘Between Heritage and Sustainability – Restoring the Palace of Westminster’s nineteenth-.century ventilation system‘ and is funded through a grant from the AHRC. Henrik’s recent publications include ‘ The Lost (First) Chamber of the House of Commons’, AA files, 72 (June 2016), pp. 161-173.