Parliament design: The shape of debate to come

Leading architects argue parliaments can change

ARCHITECTS behind two of the world’s newest legislative assemblies say it is time to consider debating the design of spaces for political discourse.

The territory of Nunavut’s consensus government and circular legislature and the National Assembly for Wales’ similar arrangement of members represent two of the most modern attempts at debating chambers.

Lead architects from both projects said the traditional British Westminster approach of two opposing sides of a chamber now had room for change and variation.

Bruce Allan, senior partner with The Arcop Group1 based in Montreal, was lead architect behind the Nunavut Legislative Building in Iqaluit and is involved in the ongoing renovation of the West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa2.

He said the unique circular design was essential to the Inuit tradition of decisions by consensus, incorporated into the form of the Nunavut Legislature.

“Their tradition,” he said, “doesn’t require the official opposition, the ‘official disagreers’, to be defined. With the southern system, the moment you’re a member of the opposition, you’re duty bound to disagree with the government whether or not you really disagree with them, you’re there as a check and balance.

“With the smaller number of members in the Inuit [legislature], disagreements can be raised by anyone and there isn’t the party discipline issue that frustrates our MPs in Ottawa.”

[Tweet “”You’re duty bound to disagree with the government whether or not you really disagree with them””]Ivan Harbour, partner in Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners3, said the same problems with Westminster’s confrontational design in London, England, that prompted the alternative circular Welsh layout in the capital Cardiff, are still present.

With the UK’s first coalition government in decades, Mr Harbour said it was worth a public debate about the space in which politicians argue and reach consensus, and that there was room within Westminster to create a new space, if politicians and the public decided something new was needed.

Mr Harbour, director in charge of the team behind the Assembly, warned against the “auditorium” style of the European Parliament’s hemicycle4 which more for presentations than debate.

He said: “There is a debate that should be had about the way our parliament works or how the place influences parliamentary behaviours.

“There have been a lot of criticism about it for a very long time and we should always have the debate.

“We should not just accept that Westminster is the right answer. It might be the right answer. Even though it’s historic, it does allow a dynamic parliament.

“But we should have the debate and get politicians to recognise that architecture can help shape environments.

“It’s very difficult to get politicians to say a space works well because it’s well conceived.”


The Nunavut assembly building, as well as various government buildings and housing projects around the polar region, were built in the run up to the territory’s formal inauguration in April 1999. With a population of less than 32,0005 spread across almost 2 million square kilometres, there are just 19 elected members of the legislature. They, in turn, are surrounded by their “upper house” of community elders imparting wisdom to the members of the legislative assembly when needed.

Mr Allan, 65, said: “The Inuit are very respectful of the elders who carry the knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation. In place of a House of Lords or a senate as we have in the south, the elders sit in an outer circle and participate in the debates as and when’s necessary. So it’s really a two-tier circle. Their system works for them.

“And here’s Canada with five parties and because of the changing proportions the actual idea that the government’s on one side and the opposition’s on the other doesn’t really work any more. Maybe two thirds of one side are the government and the remaining third is part of the opposition in the present situation.

“It’s a model that, perhaps, doesn’t really lend itself to more than two parties but has managed to do so. And in the case of the semi-circular plan in Scotland, the sides can shift back and forth according to circumstances on the day.”

The Scottish Parliament’s chamber design, by the late Enric Miralles6, was, like the Welsh approach, intended to “encourage more constructive working” amongst politicians7.

Mr Harbour, who cut his teeth on the design of the European Court of Human Rights and Bordeaux Law Courts, said the public were “more ambivalent than we ought to be” about how parliament is run.

Mr Harbour said the Welsh Assembly’s circle design could thought of as two straight lines bent to touch at either end, so superficially it starts as a Westminster design and gets drawn together.

He argued that some of the leading legislation passed in Wales and Scotland since devolution in 1999 and then taken up by Westminster for England might suggest those bodies are functioning better.

“A good place to start would be comparisons with devolved parliaments around the UK,” said Mr Harbour.

“As a starting point, you could compare and contrast and ask what do you get from the politics in those places?

“We are not all doing it the same.”

Former UK prime minister Jim Callaghan8 chaired the design panel for the Welsh Assembly, which ran significantly over budget 9, as did Scotland’s parliament.

Mr Harbour added: “Jim Callaghan was very specific about Westminster being confrontational as a place sitting across the floor, and he wanted something that was the antithesis of that.

“The design panel wanted an environment about co-operation not confrontation. We just drew it as a circle and coloured it red.”

Canada’s temporary House of Commons

Arcop have designed a glass roof to cover the courtyard of the West Block which will become home to the House of Commons from 201710 for several years while the Centre Block original gets a massive overhaul.

Mr Allan said committee rooms have evolved considerably in Ottawa, even as the Westminster style remains a constant in the House of Commons and Senate.

He said: “The containment of the government in any location could vary. There are lots of ways of debating and it’s all in the end just throwing words into the ether and letting people discuss and think about them.

[Tweet “”There are lots of ways of debating and it’s all in the end just throwing words into the ether””]”In the new temporary House [of Commons], we’re going through a rather interesting challenge because in some way, it’s an open space like a big amphitheatre inside a glass-roofed courtyard, a bit like the British Museum.

“And the idea of a big amphitheatre-type form – a hockey arena if you want, in a Canadian way – was simply because the House had grown so big that to put it inside a box, which was our original concept, left the courtyard in which it would be situated, very congested.

“So the decision was taken to just open it up to the sky, so to speak. Except, once you go through that simple concept of an open-to-sky debating chamber, then the TV and media people come along and say, ‘We we can’t have any direct sunlight, and we have to have perfect acoustics’ and all this sort of stuff. So while the pattern of the House is the same as the original, the ceiling and container is very contemporary and very different.”

He added: “We have windows in the Iqaluit parliament so the government can be seen, whereas there would be great resistance to that in the south because of security or light control.”

‘Zero’ chance of cooperation

The premier of Nunavut, Eva Aariak, was not available to comment for this story on how the legislature works with its design.

But Graham White, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, Mississauga11, explained that while Nunavut has a circular design, there is a clear divide between the cabinet and other MLAs.

But, in an email, he said there was “pretty much zero” chance of more co-operative behaviour in Canadian legislatures. And he put the differences in approach in legislatures such as Wales and Scotland more down to mixed electoral systems, not just first-past-the-post.

He said: “Unquestionably the opposing rows of benches in standard Westminster parliaments reinforces the adversarial nature of the place; for my students I liken it to opposing armies or sports teams squaring off. At the same time, I see seating arrangements as very much secondary to underlying political culture and prevailing political norms.

“The Manitoba [legislature], which is semi-circular, has exceedingly nasty, adversarial partisan politics, and the US Congress these days is hardly a paragon of non-partisanship.

“Consensus government may work – not everyone would agree it does – when you have 19 MLAs, but when you’re talking of dozens or hundreds, it’s difficult to imagine it.”

The Nunavut legislature was initially viewed as being in a temporary location in the centre of Iqaluit, but it has become a point of pride for the community, said Mr Allan.

“You’re trying to blend tradition with contemporary design and thought,” he said. “You try for, in our Canadian context, openness as much as is possible. So how do you shape a place of government so that you can achieve the openness, balancing the formality of tradition with the informality of our current culture.

“Westminster is seen as the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’. Physically everybody thinks of Westminster as the way a parliament should be if you’re of British roots.”

“The great thing about having to design these things from scratch,” said Mr Harbour, “is you can get these things right. I think the Senedd12 has worked very well.

“I’m sure there could be space within Westminster to make a place that would work, if it was felt the chamber was no longer doing the job.

“A good place to start is asking how many of us watch Westminster on TV. Any way to improve the way parliament is produced and perceived on TV is good. It should respond to the dynamics of the debate.

“In a funny way, one of the advantages of not having enough space is it makes it more dynamic.”


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No relevant issues on principles 1, 2, 3 , 4, 5, 7, 8 or 9.
6. A duty to openness: UK parliaments, both national and regional, all openly provide images of legislative chambers on flickr pages; there is no equivalent for Canadian assemblies, images of which were obtained from Wikimedia Commons or through legislative libraries. British Columbia was asked for an image but did not provide one. Images supplied by Saskatchewan and the Yukon were too small to use and alternatives were found.
10. Educate and entertain: Detailed explanation of theories behind design of both Nunavut and Welsh legislative assemblies, and comprehensive image gallery of 21 different legislative chambers.
11. Promote responsible debate and mediation: Interviewees cited place for debate on architecture and politics, and encouraged public interest in the subject.

  2. May 2012 statement on contract for Parliament Hill renovation.
  5. Stats Canada figures.
  6. Spanish Catalan architect, February 25, 1955 – July 3, 2000. The parliament was unfinished when he died.
  7. Scottish Parliament document on the design.
  8. Prime minister from April 5, 1976 to May 4, 1979.
  9. The initial price limit of £12 million (CA$18.9m; US$18.6m; EU15.4m; INR1.0bn) climbed to £67 million (CA$105.8m; US$104.0m; EU85.8m; INR5.8bn). Conversions as of July 23, 2012 on with conversions for British pound, Canadian and US dollars, the euro and Indian rupee.
  10. An unnamed spokesperson for Travaux Publics et Services gouvernementaux Canada/Public Works and Government Services Canada said an image of what the temporary chamber could not be provided and they would not provide a previous photo, used in this piece in 2011. They stated: “The rehabilitation of the West Block is scheduled to be completed in 2017 and the temporary Chamber located in the West Block will be used once the House of Commons has moved in the building.”
  12. The Welsh word for parliament or senate. Basic details of the Assembly can be found here.

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