What’s Wrong With Politics? Let’s Start With the Benches
It’s ironic, really. Citizens have never been more distrustful of government, yet to alter certain sacred spaces would be considered sacrilege. We wouldn’t dare tamper with the chambers of Capitol Hill, for example … but what if we did?
The form of just about every other institutional building type has evolved noticeably.
Even hospitals, the most complex of building types with perhaps the most constraints on design, code and form, are experimenting with human-centered alternatives.
Of course, not all schools, corporations and hospitals have undergone these sorts of transformations. (And the need for improving the environments for low- and middle-income students, workers and patients is fodder for several more articles.) But the fact that many of these institutions have shown a willingness to ask how their spaces can be more efficient, pleasant and sustainable, suggests an openness to change — a recognition that as practices and processes evolve, the spaces they take place within might need to evolve, too.
Then there’s government, specifically legislative buildings, the spaces where politics take shape — say, the House of Commons or the Capitol or the United Nations.
The architecture of political congregation is not only an abstract expression of a political culture, it also shapes that culture. In such a tumultuous period, shouldn’t we be questioning whether these spaces are working? Yes, there are far graver issues to consider about our political process, but perhaps the physical spaces of politics provide a well-defined place within which we can start tackling the system’s shortcomings.
In their new book, “Parliament,” the partners in XML, a creative agency in Amsterdam focusing on architecture, urbanism and research, compared 193 different legislative buildings. Despite major differences among countries and cultures, the authors were able to sort the design of parliamentary structures into five typologies: the opposing benches, derived from the medieval royal court; the neo-Classicist semicircle of 19th-century European nation-states; the horseshoe, a hybrid of the previous two; the circle (rarest of all); and the classroom (commonly found in authoritarian countries).
This relative homogeneity, the architects observe, suggests a systematic lack of innovation. The three dominant typologies (opposing benches, classroom and semicircle) were developed for the most part between 1800 and 1850, and remain mostly unchanged. The XML principal David Mulder (one of the authors, with Max Cohen de Lara, of “Parliament”), said in our recent interview:, “They are fixed in time. That’s crazy. The world has changed enormously.”
建筑师们认为，这种相对的同质性反映出系统性的缺乏革新。三种主要类型（面对面型、教室型和半圆型）主要都是在1800年到1850年之间发展起来的，之后就基本没有发生过变化。XML的负责人大卫·马尔德（David Mulder，《议会》作者之一，另一位是马克斯·科恩·德拉拉[Max Cohen de Lara]），近期接受我们的采访时说：“它们完全没有随时间而改变。这真是不正常。这个世界已经发生了那么大的变化。”
Today’s legislative buildings are responding to that change from a context that, in the case of the British Parliament, dates from 1215 when Magna Carta formalized an agreement between the king and his subordinates. The “opposing benches” typology emerged from this; early meetings took place in the nave of St. Stephen’s Chapel, creating the archetype of two long oppositional rows.
研究今日的立法机构建筑需要应对的变化，也要了解它们的历史背景。以英国议会来说，它的历史可以追溯到1215年，当时《自由大宪章》把国王与臣民之间的协议正式确立下来。“面对面型议员席”就是在这种背景下产生的；英国议会的早期会议在圣史蒂芬礼拜堂(St. Stephen’s Chapel)的正厅举行，为这种长长两排面对面的席位创造了原型。
These typologies persist in an inward orientation despite the huge changes in governing, from the emergence of global convenings and agreements to the hyperlocal decision making seen at the grass roots level. Voting can be done by machine. Developments in mass media from radio to Twitter have extended and transformed the space of politics outward. Yet in the room where it happens (to steal one of Aaron Burr’s lines from “Hamilton”), the process and physical space remain frozen in time.
Could architecture help shift parliamentary politics into a new era? Mr. Mulder points out that opportunity for change may be imminent: Because so many Parliament buildings were constructed around the same time, they tend to go through similar renovation cycles. In Europe alone, the buildings in Austria, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Norway are all due for an update. Usually governments incline to preservation and restoration, but this time around a few are revealing an openness to change.
The architecture firm Gensler has drawn up plans for Project Poseidon, a floating modular building on the Thames to house Parliament while its meeting place, the Palace of Westminster, is being refurbished (expected around 2020) — an idea that it claims could save British taxpayers more than $2.3 billion over plans to move the body into separate, existing buildings elsewhere. The red and green benches in the Commons and the Lords would be relocated to the temporary building but would be housed under a dramatic glass ceiling.
“The Palace of Westminster is one of the most important symbols of democracy in the world,” said Ian Mulcahey, Gensler’s managing director. “We thought, ‘Why not create a temporary Parliament on the river and give a sense of continuity for the government, rather than having one house in a bunker somewhere and another in a courtyard somewhere else?’” The Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has said the idea “should be looked at.” (Nine firms have submitted bids for the palace renovation; a decision will be made by the end of the year.)
“威斯敏斯特宫是世界上最重要的民主象征之一，”晋思董事总经理伊恩·马尔卡赫(Ian Mulcahey)说。“我们想，‘为什么不在河面上造一座临时议会，为政府带来一种延续性呢，这不是比把一个议会搬到什么堡垒里的房间，另一个议会搬到什么庭院里要好吗？’”工党领袖杰里米·科尔宾(Jeremy Corbyn)说，这个方案“值得一看”（目前一共有九家公司投标宫殿翻修方案；决定将在今年年底做出。）
George Ferguson, the mayor of Bristol, goes even further: His idea is to move Parliament to his city, in part to provoke debate around the growing economic and social disparity between London and the rest of Britain. In response, the London-based Studio Egret West envisions a temporary building designed to promote greater accountability, transparency and connection between politicians and people.
布里斯托尔市市长乔治·弗格森(George Ferguson)走得更远：他的意见是，把议会搬到布里斯托尔市来，部分原因是为了激发人们就增长的经济，以及伦敦和英国其他地方之间的巨大社会差异做出讨论。作为回应，伦敦的艾格雷特·韦斯特工作室(Studio Egret West)构想出一座临时建筑，是为了增进政府的问责可靠性和透明度，以及政治人士与民众的联系。
Moving the seat of government into a new city is certainly a way to shake up the structures of power. The rotating presidency of the European Union — the member states take six-month turns as president of the European Council — provides near continuous opportunity.
XML and Jurgen Bey were commissioned to design four spaces for the European Council in Brussels for the Dutch presidency in the first half of 2016. For the meeting hall, they created an informal space from 28 blue-gray interlocking furniture pieces representing the European Union’s 28 members, echoing the body’s motto of “united in diversity.” At the end of the presidency, each of the 28 members was presented with one of the unique pieces of furniture.
“We combined two archetypes,” Mr. Mulder said. “The opposing benches and the semicircle combined in one space. The space that resulted is one in which people literally have to position themselves: Where you sit is where you stand.”
XML pushed these ideas even further with the installation of a European water bar in the main lobby of the Council building. The bar offered 28 water bottles, each filled with water originating from one of the member states. Which country’s water would the leaders choose? Their own, their allies’, their antagonists’? This symbolic choice, the architects suggest, contributes to a dialogue about differences between countries and shared identity. Why would you prefer water from your own country? What do you do if the bottle with water from your country is empty? (I am imagining how this might play out in the United States in light of the news about the poisoning of water in Flint, Mich.)
The European Council’s building is where the political leaders of the 28 member states make decisions affecting the lives of 500 million Europeans. “Paradoxically,” Mr. Mulder said, “the building is not open to the public. This is why our design connects the administrative reality inside with the reality of Europe outside of its walls.”
XML’s experimentation presented a series of spirited explorations into the way architecture can shape political culture. This project was part of a larger Dutch initiative, Europe by People, that turned the brief Dutch presidency into a series of creative experiments in participatory democracy.
XML的实验象征着一系列建筑塑造政治文化的热情探索。这个项目属于一个名为“人民治理欧洲”(Europe by People)的大型动议，它把荷兰的欧洲理事会主席的短暂任期变成了一系列参与式民主制的创造性实验。
Can other countries follow the creative lead of the Netherlands? I hope so. An effort like XML’s shows how playing with the architecture upends stability and routine — and might just change the status quo.