The Palace of Westminster and the Reichstag Building: Spatial Form and Political Culture
The Palace of Westminster (left) and the Reichstag Building (right), image source: authors.

Sophia Psarra
Professor of Architecture and Spatial Design
The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

Gustavo Maldonado
Architect and Spatial Data Researcher
MSc Space Syntax: Architecture and Cities, UCL

The overwhelming responses to our conference call on Parliament Buildings by scholars from different disciplines confirms that there is an untapped interest in the relationship between space and politics in legislatures. However, while space, power and politics has been widely explored in buildings, cities and urban areas, research focusing specifically on the architecture of parliaments and the embodied political life taking place inside these buildings is fundamentally lacking. How does the spatial organisation of parliament buildings simultaneously shape political practices and become shaped by political practices and traditions?

This paper examines these questions in the context of the UK Houses of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster and the German Bundestag in the Reichstag Building. Set in the context of two distinctly different historical and political paths, the two buildings characterise two quite different approaches to political ideology and parliamentary architecture. The UK Palace of Westminster is an early Victorian pastiche building hosting a political system with a long constitutional history, evolving incrementally through what appears to be an informal, consensual and benign process. The Reichstag on the other hand, is a recently remodelled building founded on a post-war ideal that equates an open society with a transparent one, and a democratically elected parliament with an accessible one, exemplified in its performance and architecture. The questions we address here are: how do the ways in which the Palace of Westminster and the Reichstag building are organised internally relate to these distinctive political cultures? How do they respond to the everyday practices of political debate, parliamentary scrutiny and the passing of legislation? If a stable democracy requires a minimum level of public engagement with the political process, how do these parliamentary spaces facilitate public accessibility and engagement with the parliamentary process?

This research analyses the internal spatial organisation and the architectural mechanisms of expression of the two buildings. This analysis is further enriched by interviews with parliamentarians on the performance of the physical and the hybrid legislatures before and during the coronavirus pandemic. It argues that the Palace of Westminster embodies political culture as an adaptive process, seeking stability between the formal and informal practices of interaction concerning three parts of the political system (Monarchy, Parliament and the public), akin to the incremental development of British democracy and its institutions. The Reichstag on the other hand, expresses politics as a process of staging the relationship between the parliament and the public, posing the plenary chamber as the symbolic core of the parliament and the state. These different political cultures operate in these distinct ways at different scales, from the building as a whole to the scale of their plenary spaces. The paper offers benefits to the current Restoration and Renewal Programme at Westminster and the future of public engagement with parliaments through a comparative study of how architecture shapes and is shaped by political culture. 

October 8, 2020