Friday, 12 April 2013

Preview: The Houses of Parliament

On the 16th of October, 1834, Parliament was burning. It was nothing to do with Guy Fawkes and his Gunpowder Plot - that had been over 200 years earlier and had failed. And although Ireland and its incorporation into the United Kingdom was a source of tension and even violence - the IRA would set off a bomb at the corner of Westminster Hall almost a century-and-a-half later - it was unconnected with this 1834 fire. No, the fire in 1834 was caused by wooden sticks. Tally sticks - an obsolete means of debt collection - had been building up, and for some time had been used as firewood in the House of Lords' furnace. That afternoon a particularly large pile was loaded, just to get rid of the damn things really - and the sooty flues and chimneys of the venerable building couldn't cope. By 6pm, fire was raging, and by 3am it was all gone. Some over-zealous burning of sticks in a dirty furnace did what terrorism could only dream of.

There that evening to watch Parliament burn, along with half of London, were two men: Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. In the Hollywood film of their lives, at some point while watching the fire one would have accidentally brushed past the other, both would have excused themselves, and a riveting gentleman's conversation would have begun. At the very least, they would have stood near each other for a convenient single camera shot, their faces lit up orange by the burning building. The reality though is that there is no evidence nor indication that the two men had yet met; they were just two men of a large crowd gathered to watch the show. But less than a year later, they would be working together to not only rebuild it, but to entirely redefine it, and make the Houses of Parliament the grand, ornate, and immediately recogisable edifice the world knows today.

In fact, the destruction of the government's seat of power was seen as no great loss by its very members. The old building had been a shabby, broken, unsuitable building for the hundreds of MPs and Lords to gather; cramped, hot, sticky, and absolutely reeking from the stench of the River Thames, there had been many attempts to patch it up over the preceding decades but nothing but a comprehensive overhaul would suffice. The fire was a blessing. Despite its devastation, there had been no fatalities, and only a handful of people injured, including one being run over by a fire engine attending the scene. Westminster Hall, the oldest and most historic part of the complex, originally dating from 1097 and which had seen the likes of William Wallace put on trial and Oliver Cromwell's head stuck on a pole, had been saved by the firemen - but all the rest had to be more-or-less rebuilt from scratch. Five months after the fire, a committee was formed with this aim, deciding the new building should be either Gothic or Elizabethan style, and setting a competition for the design. Of 97 entries, Charles Barry's Gothic submission was the easy winner.

Cost soon became an issue. One thing the committee failed to ask for during the competition process, somewhat crazily, was an estimate of how much it would all cost. They believed it would slow the process. And so only after Barry's elaborate design was accepted, did they take another look and rather offhandedly profess that it was also one of the most economical, coming up with a suspiciously precise figure of £707,104, and a six-year timescale. Thirty years later, when Charles Barry died, and Augustus Pugin dead for eight years, the building was still unfinished, and costs had run to over £2.4 million - something like £250 million in today's money.

This brings up an intriguing "what if" alternative history. What if, knowing the eventual cost and duration to build Barry's design, the Committee had instead opted for King William IV's offer? Upon the disastrous blaze and Parliament being made homeless, William had offered them one of his many palaces - this one only recently converted from a smaller house. It was the perfect size, and a great location, but the Committee decided it would be too costly to convert it for their use. A new building at the old site of Westminster would be easier and cheaper. Just a few years later, William was dead and his 18-year-old niece, Victoria, was Queen - and she made Buckingham Palace her principle royal residence.

But be glad that the Committee didn't have the gift of hindsight, for while Buckingham Palace might be a London landmark, but it's not exactly sublime - the BBC wrote an excellent article on it last year: Is Buckingham Palace ugly?. Far better that Charles Barry, one of the leading architects of his day, and his maverick but genius designer Augustus Pugin were allowed to get their teeth into a new building using the traditions of old. As the architect, Barry was in charge of the overall picture. The Perpendicular Gothic style that defines the Houses of Parliament is due to him - that's the ornate, decorative look characterised by an emphasis on the vertical lines. The layout, although his hand was forced to some degree by Westminster Hall and a few other structures, is Barry's, covering 8 acres, with eleven courtyards, and over a thousand rooms, in a rough symmetry. But the details belong to Pugin. After initially providing drawings for Barry's competition entry, he was brought back on board when the workload began to get too much for Barry alone. The interiors are his - the glass, metalwork, wood carvings, furnishings - exquisite masterpieces of intricacy and invention. He also designed Big Ben, or more precisely the clock tower (recently named Elizabeth Tower) that holds the bell of the same name.

It was his last act before descending into a madness that killed him. Every Wonder has its victims, and Pugin was the Houses of Parliament's most high profile. Always known for being temperamental, he worked himself into a state of exhaustion before catching an eye disease. This physical decline exacerbated his mental condition, and after a spell in a home for the insane, in 1852 he died aged 40. Charles Barry fared better. Despite construction dragging on, and being subjected to endless committee meetings and a lot of pressure, even to resign, as the various parts of the building opened he received increasing appreciation. The House of Lords was opened in 1847 to great fanfare, with the House of Commons following in 1852, the same year he was awarded a knighthood. Although there was still a decade of work ahead when he died from a sudden heart attack in 1860, age 64, the most important work had been completed. 
In the 150 years since many changes have been made - including a total rebuilding of the House of Commons following bomb damage in World War 2 - but basically what we see now is still the efforts of Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. Flanked by the Clock Tower of Big Ben and the marginally taller Victoria Tower, the Houses of Parliament - more properly known as the Palace of Westminster for it has been an official royal palace since Edward the Confessor in the 11th Century - is perhaps London's most recognisable landmark. I would tie it with Tower Bridge in this regard, but put it ahead of St Paul's Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, and the new kids on the block, the Gherkin and the Shard. Big Ben itself is a defining image of London, and rare is an American film featuring the city that can resist the temptation to drive a red double-decker bus in front of it (packed full of bowler-hatted men).

Although some may disagree, I particularly like the fact that British government seats itself in a grand, imposing, and possibly over-the-top building that has become a tourist attraction as much for its visual appeal as for its historic and political significance. In fact, I'd bet a large number of tourists who pass by and take enthusiastic photos of themselves leaping and grinning don't really care that inside the vast structure is where the fate of the nation often hinges. No, they simply see a grand-looking building that they vaguely recognise - quick, jump in unison and get a picture. At the root of all Wonders, that's important: regardless of its significance and history, it has to look impressive. The Houses of Parliament certainly do - and that it continues to be relevant in modern life after centuries of use gives it a huge depth of appeal.

The Houses of Parliament are a rarity for such a high-profile attraction in that they barely cater for the tourist at all. Thus a visit takes quite some planning, and involves the assistance of my local MP. Happily, this has been given, and I'm due to have a tour on the 26th June this year, with hopefully (as yet unconfirmed) a visitor's seat to watch Prime Minister's Question Time following. I will be binding and gagging and possibly chloroforming Danielle prior to this - she is not as politically nonchalant as me. Unfortunately, a tour of Big Ben wasn't possible at the same time, so I'm going to try and get one later in the year. Following that, which I think will total up to be a pretty comprehensive visit of the building, my full review will follow, with a fuller history of the building, as well as my own thoughts on it.


  1. When I lived in London I always enjoyed strolling past the Houses of Parliament (being a fan of gothic and neo-gothic architecture). I vaguely recall reading somewhere that the choice of architectural style was in opposition to that of the government buildings in Washington DC; whereas the Americans opted for neo-classical architecture in order to show their attachment to the ideals of (Roman) republicanism and (Greek) democracy, the British wanted their building to reflect tradition (and hence attachment to monarchy), and so the neo-gothic style was chosen. I'll have to find out where I read this and check if it's true.

    Oh and Buckingham Palace, if not ugly, is certainly bland and uninteresting in my opinion.

  2. I've read the same myself, it's definitely true. Neo-classical was all the rage, and the choice for Elizabethan or Gothic was quite out of step with the trends of the day.

    If you want to see an alternative Neo-classical reality for the Houses of Parliament, check out Joseph Gandy's "New Senate House":


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