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Last edited 29 Dec 2020
Redesigning parliament to help end the Brexit deadlock
|Collaborative, open-plan spaces where MPs work together for the greater good – what politics in the UK could look like. Aerial overview of the Westminster site, showing the transparent roof of the Central Assembly Hall, public entrance and public space, with raised walkway and visibility into each component of the new site. Image by Axiom Architects.|
This clever series of concept designs has been created by the architectural practice Axiom Architects, which believes tackling the confrontational design of Westminster itself could help politicians break the current deadlock over our EU departure. The images visualise a Palace of Westminster redesign that embraces openness and collaboration. The practice wonders whether the architecture of Parliament is still fit for purpose and could even be to blame for our fractured politics.
Axiom Architects has reimagined the Palace of Westminster – adding a new central debating assembly and proposing alternative uses for the existing buildings. The designs are in direct contrast to the existing adversarial setup of Parliament. The current debating chamber is configured with opposing sides facing one another; the building uses dark timber panelling and has no natural light or views to the outside.
The new Central Assembly Hall is large and circular, promoting collaborative rather than confrontational debate. Big Ben has been repurposed as a modern communication tower, with digital screens displaying news updates about what is going on inside Westminster. The design would enable correspondents to report from directly inside the tower, emphasising the focus on open communication. Victoria Tower – currently the Queen’s entrance – has been repurposed into flexible co-working and co-living spaces for the media and MPs to use. On the north side there are flexible offices leading out to the Thames. Each tower has an inclusive, flexible working environment. There are also garden public amenity areas – quieter quads for times of reflection and smaller group meetings.
Axiom Architects’ partner James Mitchell said: “At the moment, the buildings are shrouded by high walls and are totally impenetrable. Our designs seek to make the buildings as permeable and accessible as possible. We want to encourage collaboration and openness, rather than division and conflict – which are exactly the qualities we need in this increasingly uncertain political climate.
“We feel that our modern definition of democracy is not reflected in the current architecture of London’s parliament buildings. There is no doubt that the built environment affects the culture of a society, so the architecture of Westminster surely sets the tone for our nation’s politics. With its nooks, crannies and antagonistic layout for debate, Westminster encourages secrecy, tension and conflict in politics. “We are not saying that changing the architecture of Westminster will resolve Brexit overnight, but embracing a more democratic style of architecture could help promote more productive political discourse.”
Commenting on the current layout of Westminster, Mitchell added: “Our reimagining of Parliament is a response to the archaic arrangement of the current buildings and spaces – an attempt to burst the Westminster bubble. There is a reason people call it a bubble and we believe the architecture is part of the problem.
“Our designs are in total contrast to the rigid solid walls of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, with no natural light and huge impenetrable doors. These buildings obviously served a purpose at one point, but do they now encourage the transparency we need in Government?”
 Technology and materials
The Houses of Parliament is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an iconic architectural monument loved by millions of people around the world. It is still a functioning parliament, but one which is in desperate disrepair. With leaking roofs, terrible plumbing, crumbling foundations, the building is fundamentally unsafe, and not fit for purpose. The Palace of Westminster is due to undergo a refurbishment project from 2025, and is set to cost at least £3.5bn. This will see MPs relocated for at least six years.
Respecting the gothic structure and building is fundamental to the philosophy of the new design. The new central debating assembly uses a lightweight tension structure, spanning the old structural walls, with glass forming the enclosure. Intermediate spaces in the roof are connected with a lightweight transparent membrane. The use of a lightweight structure enables large parts of the existing structure to be retained.
Responding to the concept, trying to create transparency and volume is a fundamental theme through the design. Intervening in the external envelope through a series of structural steel columns and beams, while retaining the existing buttresses, the ‘doorways’ are replaced with glass. Beyond the new public space, looking towards the proposed assembly, large spans enable sight lines and create a visual relationship with the public and politicians debating in the chamber.
This technique can also be seen in the British Museum and King’s Cross Railway Station. It is a way of bringing the outside in using glass and lightweight structures to promote transparency. Lines of sight, large windows, thoughtful lighting, and accommodating spaces are all techniques known to make built environments safer and more collaborative. Most assembly buildings are designed with circular debating chambers that encourage positive collaboration and openness. This form – also known as a ‘hemicycle’ – is used in the European and Scottish Parliaments, the Welsh Assembly and even City Hall in London. The syntax of Parliament – e.g. ‘houses’, ‘chambers’ – has impersonal and traditional connotations. In contrast, the definition of assembly – “a group of people gathered together in one place for a common purpose” – suggests collaboration and democracy.
 About this article
This article was written by Axiom Architects and originally titled 'Could rethinking the architecture of Parliament help end the current political Brexit deadlock?' It was previously published in CIAT’s AT Journal, No. 130, Summer 2019 and can be accessed HERE.
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