When the Palace of Westminster went up in flames on 16 October 1834, spawning the kind of dramatic blaze the capital hadn’t witnessed since the Great Fire of 1666, the crowds that gathered cheered as the medieval royal residence was swallowed up by the inferno; their numbers were so great they even hindered the efforts of the London Fire Engine Establishment to put out the fire, though the eleventh century splendour of Westminster Hall was mercifully saved. Were the same kind of event to occur to the architectural masterpiece that superseded the old building today, it’s feasible to suggest a similar reaction from onlookers would greet the sight. It’s impossible to separate the Palace of Westminster from its function, and that function is so despised by so many that its aesthetic prestige as perhaps the apex of Victorian Gothic architecture is secondary to what it represents.
We’ve been hearing for a long time that the building is in a dire state of disrepair, but the odd slab of crumbling stonework falling onto an MPs car is merely the tip of the iceberg. Deep in the bowels of the Palace, basements reliant on decaying nineteenth century pipe-work keeping the Thames at bay are in permanent danger of being awash with sewage. Bearing in mind what became of the Palace’s predecessor, fire is another constant source of worry, though warnings over potential disasters have fallen on deaf ears for decades because, again, of what the building represents. It has been the epicentre of British political power for almost 200 years, and its residents are reluctant to vacate it for fear that their power will be diminished, deprived of the symbolic iconography Barry and Pugin’s awesome creation radiates.
Maintenance is largely a rush job dipped in and out of during Parliamentary recess periods, but it’s a case of papering over cracks rather than giving the grand old lady the comprehensive facelift she desperately requires. It seems the Commons and Lords would have to move out for at least a couple of years if this was to be achieved, yet resistance from those for whom the Palace is a workplace is hindering such a plan. The cost of a full repair is never anything less than astronomical on paper, and MPs are concerned that their constituents will not look favourably upon them if they agree to avoid cutting corners and go for the whole restoration, regardless of the price. They’ve evidently not realised their constituents don’t look favourably upon them as it is.
There are many who say the degeneration of the Palace of Westminster can be viewed as a metaphor for the state of British politics and its sloth-like capacity for changing with the times. Some advocate a whole-scale evacuation of the location and – inevitably – a move to the sort of bland glass cathedral that litters every metropolis in England because that will allegedly encourage a less elite approach to politics, as if the Palace of Westminster not resembling a nondescript modern office block is somehow so intimidating that it stifles progression, viewed almost as an aid to eternal filibustering.
It goes without saying that London-phobic professional northerners reckon a temporary replacement should be situated in (yawn) Manchester; after all, the BBC’s relocation to Swinging Salford has immeasurably improved the Corporation’s output. But these suggestions are simply another factor in a debate that has dragged on without resolution for years, the political equivalent of a couch potato intending to clamber off the sofa and head for the loo before he pisses his pants, yet forever putting it off.
The agony recently expressed by some Honourable Members over the fact that Big Ben’s bongs are to be silenced for repair work perhaps emphasises the Westminster mindset that is incomprehensible to outsiders; this can be extended to the Palace of Westminster itself, generating a cynical response to any concerns for the condition of the building, once more seeing it as a symbol of a system that maintains the cosseted lifestyles of the powers-that-be rather than one of the nineteenth century’s great contributions to the London skyline. Of course, this is unavoidable; the Palace of Westminster was designed for a specific purpose, and that purpose experiences perennial crises when those entrusted to serve the nation appear more interested in serving themselves. It is also redolent of archaic imperial grandeur at a moment in this country’s history when such a thing couldn’t be more unfashionable; the capital is already swamped with ghastly Dubai skyscrapers courtesy of Ken and Boris cosying-up to property developers, so why not add another to house Parliament?
Words such as ‘heritage’ and ‘history’ are seemingly fine to evoke whenever there’s a royal occasion that enables the nation’s drones to enjoy a day-off from the grind of cold-calling; apply it anywhere else and you’re in deep water. From silly sods in the Grauniad calling for the demolition of Nelson’s Column because our greatest naval hero was a ‘white supremacist’ to scholars demanding our leading universities remove the majority of the country’s finest novelists from the academic syllabus for the unforgivable crime of being male and white, we currently appear to be at a cultural crossroads whereby we’re in danger of eradicating everything that made us who we are.
Architecture is as crucial to this under-fire identity as the written word, and if we’re not careful we’ll eventually end up living in a hideous parody of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where nothing has a vintage of longer than a decade and those who are oppressed today will still be oppressed tomorrow, regardless of how they mistakenly believe replacing something old with something superficially new will somehow change ‘hearts and minds’.
© The Editor