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 Were the same kind of event to occur to the architectural masterpiece that superseded the old building today, it’s feasible to suggest a similar reaction from onlookers would greet the sight.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


  1. Although I never venture into London since the Congestion Charge, I’m quite fond of the old Houses of Parliament building. It looks the part and many millions of tourist snaps and trivial tat would be much the poorer every year for its loss.
    However, when the refurbishment estimates start in the billions (and will surely finish at many more, as invariably happens with all government projects – see 2012 Olympics for scale), it would be wrong not to question both the wisdom and method of its repair.
    I know little about architecture or building engineering, but I suspect it could be somewhat cheaper and more future-proof to demolish the whole thing, build an entirely new place using modern layouts, methods and materials, then ‘clad’ it in an external facade to replicate the original. All the benefits but none of the downsides.

    Any major programme will take a few years, so maybe our 650 precious representatives should take a leaf out of the EU’s Brussels/Strasbourg book and go ‘on the road’, spending a year at a time in different locations around the UK. That would at least show them that there is some sort of intelligent life outside the M25 and maybe, just maybe, some of the wealth of their travelling circus would be left behind with their slimy snail-trail through Bolton, Birmingham, Bradford and Belfast etc.

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  2. “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.”,,, Aah, back to your best form!

    Nice OMD reference too!

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    1. Have to admit the title is now also forever linked with Alan Partridge, following the playing of ‘Joan of Arc’ on his radio show by inviting callers to discuss either architecture OR morality – ‘two differently-shaped but equally hot potatoes’!


  3. Architecture is important. Paris has always been one of the most beautiful cities, for a number of reasons. Partly French sensibility, partly the grand vision of baron George Eugene Haussman who reconfigured the city in the 19th Century, and partly because the Germans did not flatten large parts of it in WW2. The centre is beautifiul, but take a step back and one finds looming over it the Montparnasse Tower. This monumental ghastly pile of shit is the epitome of postmodernism. It stands like some 8 foot tall malevolent soviet weightlifter gazing with filthy lust over the shoulder of a beautiful young woman. This is the perfect expression of postmodernism; ugly, soulless, oppressive, grim, a not so subconscious assault on anything good about the human spirit. This postmodernism has created environments which torture souls and breed crime. Vast concrete estates which won prizes for the intellectuals who designed them but who would never live in them; it is thus no surprise that this is but a part of the Cultural Marxist movement which hates every aspect of Christian Western civilisation and strives at every turn to “deconstruct” it; meaning tear it down, vandalise and shut it down. It is a curious feature of the modern Left how it worships ugliness, violence and intolerence, and calls these things “progress”, “anti fascism” and diversity. I read a quote from Confucius this week (although some people attribute it to Socrates): “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” Exactly so; the sophistry is modern politics does exactly the opposite.

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    1. Many years ago, I was struck by the huge difference in vistas between the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower (all classical buildings, spacious tree-lined avenues, the river etc) and that from the top of the London Post Office Tower (all shop and office-block roof-lines, the detritus of commerce, congestion etc).

      Much of that quality was clearly down to Haussman’s layout, along with the Parisian social approach of shovelling all the poor folk out from the centre to the far-distant suburbs, whereas London tried (some would say failed) to maintain a mixed environment near to the core.

      I’ve no plans ever to re-visit London but Paris still maintains its allure.

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