It’s a fact that spatial design affects psychology. We can design offices to fuel creativity, hospitals to promote healing, and airports to soothe travel-related stress. But what about the little-explored relationship between architecture and the political process? In a new book called Parliament, the Dutch architecture firm XML aims to answer the question.
The firm embarked on a research project in 2010 that involved examining floorplans from as many of the 193 United Nations member states as they could–and visiting 15 of them in person. Several essential patterns in the structures’ layout began to emerge as they developed a spatial taxonomy for the book. Many of the convening spaces were organized like classrooms with rows of seats facing forward; or other typical patterns included horseshoes,opposing benches, semi-circles, or like a theater in the round. Each design is painstakingly documented–you can even explore 360 video inside the parliament rooms on the project’s website.
But in addition to documenting parliamentary architecture all over the world, the authors also categorized governments based on the Economist‘s Democracy Index–full democracy, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. They found that while governmental systems differed across the board, and their architectural pedigree may differ, what rarely changed was the configuration of assembly halls over time. Architectural tradition is rarely altered–and yet, it has the power to influence governments.
“The architecture of parliaments does not only represent a political culture, it also shapes them,” Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt, co-founders of XML, write via email. “Parliament is the space where politics literally takes shape, as it is here that different political actors are organized in space through architecture. Whether the members of parliament are positioned ‘at arm’s length’ from each other–as with the United Kingdom–or in comfortable chairs–as with the Netherlands–in each instance, the debate will evolve in a totally different atmosphere.”
In American political rhetoric, “reaching across the aisle” is an all too cliche statement that speaks to the philosophical and physical separation of bipartisanship. What if the aisle was abolished all together and Congress was forced to sit in a circle, kumbaya-style?
Cohen de Lara and Mulder van der Vegt believe the design of parliamentary structures changes so rarely for a couple of reasons. “First of all, politicians seem to be hesitant to change the status quo, possibly because they are afraid it might undermine their own legitimacy,” the architects say. “Secondly, architecture has become less of a public instrument and has become more and more part of private agendas, be it individual or corporate. Once built, parliaments are locked in time, whereas political systems can and should adapt to what is changing in the world. It is necessary to rethink our models for collective decision-making but it seems to be incredible difficult. Architecture can be one of the ways to work and experiment with it.”
In fact, XML is no stranger to architectural experimentation in government buildings. When the firm worked with designer Jurgen Bey to renovate a room inside the European Council building in Brussels, they opted for movable, interlocking furniture cushions that could be reconfigured depending on the type of conversation or activity the politicians would like to have.
Could forcing two partisan groups to sit in arrangements that promote collaboration have an effect on political gridlock? What about chairs that emphasize teamwork? Perhaps designing new ways for the public to observe the process would make it more transparent and help rebuild trust between the government and constituents. Just maybe.
But how much power could design really have over social interaction amongst these politics? Historically, experimental architecture hasn’t necessarily paved the way for more the most progressive governments. Bangladesh–whose House of Parliament is located in a Louis Kahn building from 1982–ranks 86th out of 167 in the Economist‘s Democracy Index. Brazil–which convenes in an Oscar Niemeyer building from the 1960s, ranks 51st; its senate impeached President Dilma Rousseff last month. India, with its Le Corbusier design, ranks 35th.
Still, XML views the book as a tool for governments who want to shake up the way they operate. “The book reveals a systemic lack of innovation in the architecture of spaces of political congregation,” the architects say. “Most of today’s parliaments were created in the 19th century and have hardly changed ever since. At a time in which democracy is under pressure in many parts of the world we hope the book helps to rethink the architecture of assembly.” While XML’s book doesn’t state proposals for the the ideal assembly hall, the duo believe that a spatial shake-up might just help the wheels of democracy spin a little faster.
[All Photos: XML]