The New Statesman Essay - Stop building these grand palaces

The world is littered with useless new parliamentary buildings. Now the British are putting up even

Members of parliament may have less power than at any time in recent history. They may fill their working hours with glorified social work. They may feel heart-sore and vote-sore. The new Labour benches may feel insulted by Nick Cohen's Cruel Britannia, which describes them as filled with "the prim shapes of professional pols, place-seekers, flatterers, gutless wonks and Stepford wives". But hip, hip, hooray: Michael Hopkins, architect of the new Glyndebourne opera house, a much praised Lord's stand and (to come down a cultural rung or two) the vast Inland Revenue offices at Nottingham, has designed a £235 million aluminium-bronze palace for them (above), just across the street from Big Ben. Or, at least, for the 205 MPs who will be allotted offices when they are ready next year.

Here, if you are one of those lucky 205, the bustling assistants on cost-free secondment from American universities will have elbow room to send out faxes to the local newspaper, listing your weekly achievements. Television researchers may, if you're lucky, drop in to chat about the pet subject you've ferreted out to give you an air of expertise in the chamber and a possible way on to a select committee if all other preferment fails.

As it happens, this is the direst building currently under construction in central London. Once again, "artist's impressions" - the kind of thing committees use to help them in their decisions - gave no clear evidence of the horrendous outcome. It was supposed to fit in with Barry and Pugin's Victorian masterpiece. In fact it competes, like an ugly sister trying to get invited to the ball. It is too big and too heavy. The row of black chimneys on the roof - ventilation pipes, really - evokes a concentration camp. They were intended to echo the style of the Gothic pinnacles opposite. Instead they shout them down. You can only hope that the entire building soon falls into the tunnels of the new Jubilee Line extension underneath: a risk that has already caused much delay.

Style is not, however, the point. You could imagine a perfectly good building being constructed on this site in any imaginable style, modern, postmodern, neomodern, neoclassical, neo-Gothic. The point is: what is it being built for, anyway? For 300 years, till the old Palace of Westminster burnt down in 1832, the House of Commons sat in a converted chapel. (To reproduce the effect, for its forthcoming film of the best-selling Longitude, Granada constructed a replica within the nave of Hawksmoor's baroque masterpiece, Christ Church, Spitalfields.) Cramped as they were, those MPs somehow managed to acquire Britain's first empire; then lose it, in the American war of independence; but successfully begin on a new, even grander one.

The great Hopkins disaster is the latest symptom of a late-20th-century disease. You might call it parliamentitis. It is the frenzied construction of new, overweeningly grand homes for legislatures, in the hope that no one will ask whether they are at all necessary. By giving their inhabitants a puffed-up sense of their own importance, they may even be counterproductive. The airtime that television stations give to parliamentary coverage has steadily dropped, according to new research, ever since it was introduced in the Commons ten years ago. This is no surprise. Who wants to watch platitudes exchanged against a backdrop of empty green benches? (The MPs are in their offices, thinking important thoughts.) The turnout at elections also falls. (Never mind. We have our Hopkins building, which is much better to look out of than to look at.)

The members of the European Parliament have gone one better. Or, to be more precise, two. It would take a heart of stone - as Oscar Wilde said of the death of Little Nell - not to laugh at the opening, a fortnight ago, of the European Parliament's second home, in Strasbourg. It contains 1,113 offices, 29 conference rooms, four bars and three restaurants, with seating for 1,200 people. A lobbyist's dream - except that the 626 MEPs, elected under such low turnouts last month, will spend only about 30 days a year in Strasbourg. Now you see them; now you don't.

The Strasbourg palace is a trade-off, won by the French in the bargaining at the Edinburgh EU summit seven years ago. Belgium, they were determined, should not get all the prizes. Yet the gargantuan number-one parliamentary block was already under construction in Brussels. This looks like an out-of-town shopping mall, but less fun. MEPs are not short of space or money; they are just short of things to do. The Brussels corridors are so long that one Dutch MEP took his bicycle to work, to get along them faster. All MEPs' offices had a £7,000 fitted shower, though no one was allowed to stay in a room overnight, for security reasons .

C Northcote Parkinson laid it down, as an immutable law of business, that an early sign of disaster was when a firm started spending money on a splendid new headquarters. (If he'd lived to see parliamentitis in full spate, he might have added a new law: all work expands to fill the space available.) When the TVam breakfast station was launched, its first chairman and chief executive, Peter Jay - for all his economics expertise - disregarded Parkinson's law. Terry Farrell was invited in, to perform a postmodern architectural tour de force. TVam was rescued by the more down-to-earth Roland Rat. Again - as between Sky and its satellite rival - you could predict Murdoch's victory when you found he was running things from a grotty shed on a west London trading estate.

The modern constructors of parliaments have forgotten all this. Admittedly they are playing with public money, which is not the same thing. In Cardiff there is a fine potential building for the new Welsh Assembly, the old city hall. Instead a new debating chamber is to be built, down in the Cardiff docklands, well away from passing voters. Cost: £12.5 million, plus £5 million or so for associated works. When I asked a senior Welsh Office civil servant why the choice hadn't fallen on city hall, I was told: "That is yesterday. This is tomorrow." Today even civil servants talk like public relations people.

More extraordinarily, in Edinburgh Donald Dewar rejected the Royal High School on Carlton Hill - made ready 20 years ago for re-use as a Scottish parliament. I think he was terrified that it was too obvious a symbol of Scottish nationhood, up there among a skyline clutch of other romantic monuments. He plumped for on an old brewery site at the bottom end of the old town. At the incredible cost of £109 million, he intends to erect his very own monument. Meanwhile members of the Scottish Parliament are housed very happily in the vast Church of Scotland Assembly Hall, looking out over Princes Street, used, otherwise, hardly at all, except when the church holds its one-week annual conclave.

Parliaments have not always behaved like this. In the past most decided that the symbolism of continuity was more important than the symbolism of novelty. (Wisely: if you want to be a successful revolutionary, polish your shoes and wear a grey suit. This also gives you time to work out what you really want.) The French national assembly still sits in the old mansion of Louis XIV's daughter, the Duchesse de Bourbon; the senate meets in that of Henri IV's queen, in the Luxembourg Gardens. You may say that all power in the Fifth Republic lies with the president or, if he is weak (as now), with the prime minister. No matter: the president's Elysee palace was built in 1718 for the Comte d'Evreux, before becoming the lodgings of Madame de Pompadour. The prime minister's Hotel Matignon is only three years younger; Talleyrand was one of the previous tenants.

Nor are the French unusual. The Italian parliament sits in a Bernini palace. In Dublin the two houses of parliament don't jib at occupying the former town house of the Duke of Leinster. The Irish senate meets in an old drawing room, the Dail in an old lecture theatre. Taking this modesty to extremes, the German federal parliament in Bonn met, for more than 40 years, in a pre-war teacher training college. From there, the MPs and the chancellors built up a state from the ruins of 1945 and created the biggest economy in Europe. Tall oaks from little acorns grow. In the great glass greenhouses of the new parliaments, I fear that growth will shrivel.

The architectural cant speaks of "transparency". To be fair, architects caught the cliche from the politicians. I heard Stephen Byers using it the other day about some more than usually obscure Department of Trade initiative. But the metaphor of all-round visibility has been taken all too literally. The Strasbourg designers say that light, space and glass promote "openness and transparency". It is presumably a happy accident that glass is many architects' stylistic enclosure of preference. Everyone else knows that it allows too much light to come in and too much heat to go out. Nor, except in artists' impressions, is glass especially transparent. Externally, from most angles, it has a greenish tinge - grey-green if it isn't kept spotlessly clean all the time. (Thus, for example, Richard Rogers's proposed "Crystal Palace" wavy roof for the South Bank would have looked, most of the time, as crystalline as the roof of a train shed.)

Norman Foster has already radically reshaped his glassy scheme for a new Greater London Authority building, down by Tower Bridge. The redesign louvres the glass windows against too much sun. It also echoes the dome of his much-praised Reichstag conversion. (On this, the jury is still out. But it has become a tourist attraction.) At the municipal level, this still leaves open the same question: why build it till you know what the authority decides it needs, before you even know what authority the authority will have? The most powerful London body ever known, the old London County Council, managed in temporary premises off Trafalgar Square for 33 years. In 1922 it began to move into County Hall. The full LCC complex was finished in 1963, two years before the council was abolished and replaced by the short-lived Greater London Council.

With the interminable creation of new states, the world is littered with useless new parliament buildings. The worst occur when a state shifts the capital to some godforsaken new site, hoping to keep politicians under closer control. Pakistan's invention of Islamabad is a prime example: the capital was moved away from the internationalist taint of Karachi. Brazil led the third world way, inventing Brasilia in 1956 and giving Oscar Niemeyer the chance to design a surreal shrine to a democracy that seldom functioned. In Dhaka, originally for the eastern province of Pakistan, but then for the new state of Bangladesh, the American Louis Kahn - a progenitor of brutalism - built a grandiose new parliament. But Bangladesh, like Pakistan, from which it split in 1971, is a nation whose army is entwined in politics.

Kahn gives a clue to this misplaced passion for new construction. He loved America as perhaps only an immigrant can. The conceptual model for all such parliaments is the Capitol in Washington. It was built out of nothing, in a brand new city, for good political reasons. But for at least a century Washington's windy grandeur was a standing joke. Only when the United States became a world power did anyone look at Washington and say, "if we do likewise, we can share the dream". But it wasn't the Capitol that made America great. It was the eventual greatness of America that made its symbols so powerful. Even the Capitol, it is worth noting, followed European models of what an important building should look like - more specifically French neoclassical models, in a city laid out by a Frenchman, Pierre-Charles L'Enfant.

Much of what is being built in Britain, Brussels and Strasbourg is being built only because the money is available. In the arts sudden public lavishness has nearly wrecked several institutions: Sadler's Wells, the Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, to name but three. Nor, looking back, can you argue that Northern Ireland, by contrast with the South, gained anything from commissioning Stormont as a marmoreal seat of Protestant power.

We should learn from all this and strangle parliamentitis before it gets any further. We could start by returning the Scottish, Welsh and London designs to the library shelves and selling the Hopkins space as a hotel. In Brussels and Strasbourg the task is of a different order of magnitude. But both blocks would make excellent hothouses.

The writer is a senior fellow, Institute of Community Studies

Paul Barker is group automotive editor at

This article first appeared in the 02 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, America says: never again!