A new Parliament! But who will design it?
The House of Commons is in desperate need of a revamp. John Bercow and chums should take inspiration from Google's hip new offices and go for secret booths, snugs and hi-tech Hobbit holes,suggests John Walsh
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Tuesday 28 August 2012
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 that's hidden behind, above and beneath them. Decades of rumbling Tube trains have left cracks in Westminster's noble plaster. Drilling into the underground car park has caused the Commons to subside. Big Ben's bell tower now leans, Pisanly, 18in from the perpendicular. There are problems with the wiring, the electrics, the boilers, the plumbing. If our honourable friends don't succumb to the fire risks, it'll only be because the asbestos gets them first.
Things have got so bad that the 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 it is refurbished – or selling the old Palace and finding a new home for the nation's lawmakers.
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 currently being championed by Facebook, Apple and Google?
Mark Zuckerberg of the 800 million-strong social network has just signed up Frank Gehry, the 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. 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, approved by Steve Jobs, is a bloody great black ring, a huge, tinted-glass doughnut enclosing and surrounded by trees. Jobs boasted that there wouldn't be a straight piece of glass in the whole building, which would obviously suit a small army of expenses-loving British MPs. They may, however, be dismayed by the prospect of the canteen, that can hold 3,000 staff. 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 the Commons 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 those bracing, one-to-one encounters with the Chief Whip. There's a "Hobbit Hole" seating area that's ideal for You-know-who. Secret booths on the roof garden offer healthy alfresco tête-à-têtes for chronic schemers and intriguers. Best of all is the "velourumptious snug", whose seating and walls echo the Common's present button-back green leather, only in more softly padded suede.
This is surely the future of Parliament – no longer an arena of cut-and-thrust rhetoric, 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.
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