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Why Parliament Ought To Be Grand

18/06/2013 14:46 BST | Updated 18/08/2013 10:12 BST

Russell Brand got something wrong. In a recent column about Parliament, he wrote: 'the green, leather benches, the relentless oak panelling, the Hogwarts fugue all look the same as the halls and chambers of Oxford University. Or Cambridge. Or Eton. These great monuments to privilege and power all deploy a consistent design and symbology.'

Except, of course, that they do not. All those institutions might be equally intimidating or elitist, but they certainly do not have a 'consistent design'. Some are Gothic, some Baroque, some classical, some Victorian, some modernist. The Palace of Westminster itself is an odd fusion of the classical and the Gothic, peculiar not to posh institutions universally but to the trends in architectural design of the mid 19th century.

Brand's comment is not an unfamiliar one - even it is unusually pithy. Many take it as evident that the Houses of Parliament are built to comfort the privileged with familiar surroundings and to alienate the rest of us with their grandeur. Another commentator recently proposed demolishing it 'to build something more suitable for a modern democracy', describing it as 'fetishising' a gilded past. A recent feasibility report noted that the building's repairs were so expensive that, were it not listed, it would be advisable to demolish.

Of course, architecture can exclude and intimidate, segregate and divide, or it can do the reverse. But it is a mistake to assume that whether a building looks old or imposing makes the difference.

Grand architecture does not have to exclude. Some of Britain's most imposing buildings are railway stations, thriving concourses used by people from a broad sweep of society. London Paddington, Liverpool Lime Street and Newcastle Central are all magnificent buildings. Their grandeur does not separate the haves from the have-nots - they want all of us to be equally impressed by the city into which we are arriving.

To this list could be added many public libraries, museums, galleries, bus terminals, concert halls, bandstands and even swimming pools. Edinburgh's Portobello Swim Centre, Henry Tate's south London libraries or Brighton's bandstand are handsome civic structures. Building grand public buildings is a public good, which acclaims the importance of the activities they contain. Reading, exercise, art and music are elevated by their surroundings.

This is even true of Brand's examples. The antiquarian style used for the Palace of Westminster was intended to apply the weight of history to decision making, making politicians of any background conscious of the burden of their responsibility and the example of their forebears. In the 19th century, the most important ethos for politicians to emulate was from Britain's medieval past. This might be romantic or fanciful (goodness knows there are plenty of bad examples from history worth avoiding), but it is a worthy intention. Architecture does change the way we think.

Public spaces today might have a new vocabulary and new design techniques, but many deserve the cynicism they receive, rarely achieving the kind of vibrant social lives that their developers' computer generated proposals suggest. There is still much that works in ancient buildings, indeed, that's usually the reason they have survived so long. Oxbridge halls are built for communal eating; courtyards are for social mixing; Westminster Hall is open to the public; while the Lobby, where parliamentarians meet their constituents, is at the symbolic heart of the building.

The answer is not to replace old, splendid buildings with new ones, but to demystify them. Assuming that government buildings look the same as Eton, when they do not, or 'fetishise' the past, when it is being used judiciously, can quickly become self-fulfilling. There is a real danger that, for example, promising students or potential politicos are put off, while new builds with slick 'public spirited' PR campaigns get an easy ride.

When journalists or celebrities lump grand institutions together it does us no favours, instead it creates and reinforces the impression that exclusion is written into their built fabric when it is not. Politicians and educators, both inside and outside those institutions, need to shake off this mind-set too. Parliament should feel no less impressive than a great railway station but no more exclusory either.

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