Parliament Buildings: Reflecting on St Stephen's in Context

Created on Wednesday 9th December 2020 by:
Kirsty Wright

The Bartlett and European Institute at UCL's Parliament Buildings conference was held online last month, bringing together architects, political scientists, historians and anthropologists united by a common interest in the relationship between parliament buildings and political culture. The second half of the conference will take place on 18-19 February 2021 where we will be presenting our research on the Auditor and Speaker’s House at St Stephen’s. Our joint paper will form part of the ‘Innovation and Adaptation at Westminster’ panel alongside Kathryn Rix and Robin Eagles from the History of Parliament Trust. Our paper will examine parliamentary buildings as inherited space through a case study of the changing function and style of the house at St Stephen's from the sixteenth century through to the nineteenth. As we look forward to giving our paper in the new year this post reflects on the November event and the range of interdisciplinary perspectives that can be used to explore parliamentary space. 

The great value of the “Parliament Buildings” conference was its interdisciplinarity. The diverse range of speakers brought a great variety of methodologies and perspectives, encouraging different ways of analysing and interrogating political buildings. Nevertheless, the question which most resonated with my own research was the age-old problem of style. One of my key objectives is to situate the Speaker’s House within the broader context of the Gothic Revival, so Dr Alexandra Meakin’s paper on emotional responses to the new Palace of Westminster was of particular interest to me. 

Meakin quoted the former Labour politician Lord Blunkett describing the awe and reverence which the new Palace inspired among his colleagues when he arrived as a new MP in 1987. The “history, majesty, and the pride they felt at being there”, said Blunkett, were “almost too much to take…It was as though a spell had been cast on them”. This emotionally-charged response surely reflects A. W. N. Pugin’s contribution. As Rosemary Hill put it, Pugin saw Gothic as ‘a sacred style’, and his interiors for the Palace are infused with his intense Catholic faith.1 Hence, it is not surprising that the building can provoke quasi-religious awe in those who enter it. 

The House of Lords, 1808 © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 1180

Yet whilst the new Palace was extensively analysed during the conference, the impact of the Gothic Revival on the old Palace of Westminster is barely remembered. From 1802, James Wyatt undertook substantial alterations to both the Speaker’s House and the House of Lords, including the refacing of both buildings with castellated Gothic facades.  Wyatt turned out many Gothic buildings in his later years, often to great critical acclaim; but his work at Westminster received a scathing reception. MPs slammed his House of Lords façade (picture) as “shameful” and “miserable”; “Mad Jack” Fuller even compared it to a gentleman’s lavatory.2  Meanwhile, his work at the Speaker’s House was subjected to a hostile review from his longstanding adversary, the prominent architectural commentator John Carter. 

To date, these critical voices have dominated historical accounts of Wyatt’s work at Westminster. I suggest that it is time to consider these projects more objectively; and in order to do so, we need to understand the original intentions of Wyatt and his clients. At the turn of the nineteenth century the Gothic style was politically contested. For Tories, it symbolised the traditional authority of church and state; for the Whigs, it was a symbol of ancient “Saxon liberties” which served as a check on monarchical power.  Which, if any, of these ideas did the Speaker and the Lords want Wyatt to embody in their new buildings? What kind of emotional response, if any, did they provoke?

My research into these questions is ongoing, but the Political Buildings conference has given me much food for thought.   

My research background is in ecclesiastical buildings and since starting my PhD my experience of parliament buildings has largely been limited to Westminster, so I was keen to use the conference to learn about other parliament buildings and approaches to their study. I wasn’t disappointed! The conference featured a huge range of papers covering parliament buildings across the world from various disciplinary perspectives. The first presentation by David Mulder of XML Architects set the tone for the conference, discussing typologies of parliamentary buildings based on breath-taking comparative research into the 193 parliament buildings of the United Nations member states. His discussion of different chamber designs (horseshoe, classroom, circular and more) was reminiscent of the St Stephen’s project’s investigation of the influence of the converted chapel space on the proceedings of the Commons. The global comparisons of different parliament designs, in the context of the wider building and its impact on identity and action, provided lots of food for my own work on early modern Westminster. 

The themes discussed by the ‘Rhythms of Space and Time’ panel were particularly resonant with my research. The papers discussed movement through parliamentary space with Philip Norton, Lord Norton of Louth, concluding that ‘there is more to a Parliament than what happens in the chamber and committee rooms.’ This panel was striking in the way that the papers breathed life into the buildings they described through emphasis on movement, bodies, emotion and sociability. This kind of architectural research is of particular interest to me. Emma Crewe’s paper took an anthropological approach to consider rhythms of interaction in space and time at Westminster. While Lord Norton addressed informal spaces in parliamentary buildings, arguing that informal gatherings can have significant political influence. 

My work on the Auditor’s house draws on similar themes by concentrating on the movement of Receipt officers through the Palace and the informal spaces of their homes at St Stephen’s to identify connections and alternative sites of political activity in the palace. A particularly interesting proposition from Lord Norton was his comment that the restriction of informal space serves to strengthen the executive as it limits information sharing. He cited the present pandemic as an example of this, as all serendipitous informal mixing is disabled by the shift to virtual meetings. This is an interesting thought in the context of the Exchequer, particularly in moments of disruption such as plague and civil war, when it was displaced from Westminster so that the houses at St Stephen’s lay largely disused. The reorganisation of administrative space - such as when the Exchequer was transplanted to Hertford Castle in times of plague or during the English Civil War - and its impact on administration and government, have been little studied. The effect of this on administration and the reorganisation of formal and informal spaces will deepen our understanding of the relationship between the Exchequer and space. I hope to address some of these ideas further in our paper in February!