Let's have the Mother of all Parliaments

A revamped House should copy Google's offices with padded cells and snugs, says John Walsh

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The Independent Online

This Parliament, it seems, is in a shocking condition – not the quality of the debate or the shortcomings of the Coalition, but the walls and ceilings and floors of Sir Charles Barry's mid-19th century palace, and everything behind, above and beneath. Decades of rumbling Tube trains have left cracks. Drilling has caused the Commons to subside. Big Ben's belltower now leans, Pisanly, 18 inches from the perpendicular. There are problems with the wiring, the electrics, the boilers, the plumbing.

Speaker John Bercow has commissioned a study of the feasibility of moving out all the MPs and Lords to an underground "replica chamber" for five years while the place is refurbished – or selling the old Palace and finding a new home for law-makers.

A new Parliament! But who will design it? Will they choose a safe, neo-Victorian Gothic pastiche of the old one – or will they strike out on a bright and trendy note, and emulate the edgy new styles being championed by the online titans, Facebook, Apple and Google?

Mark Zuckerberg of the 800 million-strong social network has just signed up Frank Gehry, the veteran architect behind the Guggenheim Museum, to mastermind a new building for 3,400 Facebook engineers. The beauty of Gehry's design is that everyone works underground in a single room, "the largest open-floor plan in the world but [with] plenty of private, quiet spaces as well". All that passers-by will see is a long, tree-filled roof garden ("From the outside it will appear as if you're looking at a hill in nature," as Zuckerberg quaintly puts it.) It's rather piquant to think of our 600-odd MPs as subterranean Morlocks or troglodytes, lurking together in a kind of open-plan Middle Earth, presided over by the Hobbit-like Bercow.

A Lord of the Rings quality also clings to Apple's new HQ in Cupertino, California, due to be completed in 2014. The design is a huge, tinted-glass doughnut. MPs may be dismayed by the prospect of a canteen that holds 3,000. It's not Annie's Bar, is it? It sadly lacks that snug quality that's apparently essential to the drafting of legislation about constituency boundaries. You can, however, hear the displaced Parliamentarians gleefully crying "Call off the search!" when they study Google's new London offices. The building could have been designed with them in mind: so much chintz, so much candlewick, such conflations of the comfy and the collegiate. The Lala Library features a giant, semi-circular white sofa, perfect for relaxed Steering Committee hearings (come back Louise Mensch!). "Padded Cell" meeting rooms are equipped with soft foam walls, for one-to-one encounters with the Chief Whip. This is surely the future of Parliament – no longer an arena of anger, grandstanding and name-calling, but a temperature-controlled chill-out region, where all arguments can be softly resolved, and all ideas reduced to the dimensions of a Wikipedia entry.