Assistant Professor Political History
“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us”, as the well-known aphorism of Winston S. Churchill goes. Traditionally, the study of political architecture has put a lot of effort in understanding the way architects and their commissioners have shaped parliament buildings in order to express ideas about the body politic, political culture and (national) identity.
Inspired by the cultural and spatial turn in humanities, political historians in recent years have been shifting their attention to the latter part of Churchills quote, puzzled by the question how parliament buildings and housing of other representative bodies actually affect. How do representative buildings shape concepts of democracy and political culture and how do they influence political attitudes (of both citizens and representatives)? Can architecture in this sense presents itself as an autonomous force?
In this paper, I will try to address these questions by examining the debates around the rebuilding of the Dutch parliamentary headquarters in The Hague. Ardently taking issue with Habermas’s assumption that the French Revolution marked the end of spectacular and ceremonial aspects of political rule and the advent of rationality, I will show that modern representative democracies have a visual communicative programme of their own. The layout, architecture and decoration scheme of parliamentary buildings, the externals of parliamentary activities, the material culture of parliament: all these tangible aspects of parliamentary assemblies reveal forms of visual and metaphysical legitimization and expression.
I intend to open the paper with a historiographical argument about recent trends in the study of parliamentary architecture. The premises of Dutch parliament then serve as a case to demonstrate what representative buildings – also the less lavish ones – communicate. First, I will map the well-curated spatial arrangement of the Parliament’s interior and exterior. Second, I will discuss the emotional grammar inscribed into the parliament building, tracking changes through time, for instance by exploring the discussions about the effects of the introduction of tv cameras. Finally, I will address the debate about the alleged influence of the design and construction of a complete new parliamentary hall in the 1990s on Dutch debating culture and parliamentary practice.