The Architecture of Parliaments Around the World
Parliament is a historic space for debate, collective decision-making and politics. The term can be understood as a symbolic notion where parliament is a political abstract place, or as a physical notion where parliament is an architectural and functional space. In the first case, parliament is a symbolic concept that represents the political power and system in place by being the guarantor of legislative power. In the second case, parliament is a defined and designed place where elected representatives sit and where debates take place. In the broadest sense, parliament is the space where politics take shape.
During the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Dutch architecture agency XML presented its ongoing research on “theatres of democracy”. For two years they have visited, photographed, drawn and documented parliaments architecture around the world. In this way, they listed the places of political congregation in the 193 member states of the United Nations. During the exhibition they analysed how the representatives of today’s democracy mainly gathered in a semicircular typological space inherited from the architecture of the Greek theatre of Syracuse. Many parliaments built during the last two centuries are inspired by an ancient architectural structure, which remains a dominant model for contemporary political regimes. Both in the physical architectural sense and in the symbolic sense.
Typologies of democracy
The result of this research is now available in a book, “Parliament“, in which they are reviewed according to 5 typologies. The study is also questionning about the influence of the parliaments architecture on the holding of debates, or even, according to certain patterns, on the level of democracy in the country. Whether they are placed face to face as in the United Kingdom, or seated side by side in large armchairs, the atmosphere of the debates is different and therefore, may in some way, influence the legislation.
These typologies are often inspired by ancient influences and most of them have not changed since the 19th century. This can be observed in the majority of countries, regardless of their level of democracy. But the question remaining is, how architecture could shape political culture?
The first typology is the semicircle, or hemicycle, inspired by antiquity. This is the most common typology of parliament. Following the French Revolution, and the formation of the Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly), the neoclassical expression made a comeback and spread throughout the world’s parliaments. The borrowing of ancient symbols also gives a certain aura and grandeur to the parliament. European parliaments (in Brussels and Strasbourg) also use this pattern.
The second typology, which is quite different, is the British model. The two benches are opposed, with the majority on the right and the opposition members on the left. This binary model is inherited from an anti-democratic disposition. The assembly that advised the king opposed two bodies, the nobles in front of the clergy. This model persisted and spread mainly to the states colonized by the United Kingdom.
The third typology is a hybridization of the first two. The two opposing benches meet at the end of the hall forming a horseshoe. It is found in Commonwealth countries such as Australia, South Africa or Malaysia. One of the world’s most architecturally recognized parliaments is of this type. It is the parliament of Bangladesh, the Jatiya Sangsad, designed by Louis Khan.
The fourth typology is a little-used typology. It is the circle parliament, which is only used in 9 states of the world. This circular form is intended to represent an idea of equity among members of parliament.
The fifth and final typology is a pattern called classroom. It shows all the elected officials in rows, side by side, facing a speaker. This typology is mainly found in countries with a discussed democratic regime, or even in communist-inspired dictatorships. Moreover, an observation is made regarding the inversely proportional relationship between the number of members of parliament and the level of effective democracy in the country. Russia, China or North Korea use this model in their parliaments.
More Architecture of Parliaments
The XML website is the virtual counterpart of the 448 pages book. It presents other parliaments architecture classified by typology, regime, size and period with photos and texts. The Parliament book can also be purchased via their site.