Democracy by Glass and Concrete? The Architecture of German State Parliaments
Image source: Julia Schwanholz.

Patrick Theiner
Senior Teaching Fellow
University of Edinburgh

Julia Schwanholz
Political Scientist and Senior Lecturer
University of Duisburg

What can architecture communicate about a political system? Political science has tended to regard architecture merely as a backdrop, yet the ways in which political systems manifest themselves in their physical structures provide a rarely used opportunity to investigate how institutions see themselves and their relationship with citizens. This has only become more relevant in times of diminishing trust in representative institutions and fundamental questions about the legitimacy of political decisions. It is no accident that recent decades have seen many parliaments and seats of government turn towards using glass to signify transparency, eliminating classroom-style plenary halls in favor of circular arrangements, or opening their houses to visitors and the wider public. These efforts to make democratic representation tangible and visible are a reaction to changing public demands for accountability and openness.

We investigate this nexus of political architecture and democratic representation for the 16 German state parliaments (‘Landtage’), based on a newly published edited volume in which we assemble the first comprehensive comparative case study on the history, function, and political processes leading to these buildings. Germany presents a particularly intriguing case: it had to rebuild its democratic institutions after World War II both figuratively and literally; it was divided for more than 40 years into radically different political systems, with some of today’s Länder being relegated to mere administrative districts; and its political culture tends to be divided along two clear fault lines – East-West and North-South. Taken together, this would lead us to expect a diverse parliamentary architecture representing local historical pathways and political cultures.

In reality, German state parliaments have opted either for modestly retooled historical buildings, or for modern but mostly unspectacular functional houses – both a far cry from ‘palaces of democracy’ such as the French National Assembly. Importantly, this means that almost all parliament buildings lack any genuine democratic history. We hypothesize that as a result, parliaments try to ‘build into existence’ participation, legitimation, and public approval, which leads to them sharing more architectural similarities than dissimilarities. The architectural modes linked to a ‘modern’ German state parliament aim to enhance public access through larger viewing galleries; express transparency through the use of glass; increase cross-party cooperation through circular seating; emphasize circumspection through the avoidance of opulence; and communicate modernity through aesthetic choices such as clean lines, neutral colors, and natural materials.

We argue that trying to convey democratic qualities through architecture is an understandable strategy for state parliaments, but that such measures are moderately effective at best for three main reasons: First, decisions on parliamentary architecture are often made away from the public eye, by Councils of Elders or building commissions. Second, state parliaments remain buildings primarily designed for the needs of parliamentarians, rather than their constituents. And third, even the most transparent and open architecture can only ever make visible select aspects of a political system: ‘politics as decision-making’, but not ‘politics as administration’.

October 9, 2020