The Palace of Westminster is tumbling down.
Alert Scots will have noticed the pillars of the British establishment slyly slip a whopping big reconstruction bill into a week’s busy news for at least £5 billion pounds (at the last estimate) from the public purse to save the House of Commons from crumbling into dust.
To my mind they should sell the place to Best Western Hotels, or use it as a transit camp for illegal immigrants, which as far as swagger mouth Nigel Farage is concerned is anybody who pronounces ‘Prince Harry’ without dropping the ‘H’.
Scotland’s Parliament Spanish style
Scotland’s Parliament over-spent £350 million. Construction of the Palace of Westminster costs a lot more, but more on that later. The blame for much of Holyrood’s runaway costs can be laid at the door of the Parliaments inaugural First Minister, Donald Dewar.
He was hell-bent on choosing a parcel of land far too small for his chosen architect’s plans. He was warned of the need to increase the building’s size to accommodate MSP’s offices, short-term accommodation, and a car park. He ignored all advice.
Spaniard Enrico Miralles was his choice of architect and his alone. He was not to know Miralles was going to die within months, but then, he ignored all submissions from distinguished Scots and English architects. There was no discernible process of selection.
Miralles saw the parliament as his destiny. For Dewar and Miralles it was a case of where egos dare. Plans began with a novel concept of three giant upturned boats and ended with a mishmash of buildings squashed together. The inside is all weird angles, complex cross beams, and corridors narrowing to a point.
Sticking to Miralles’ concept determined the large Leith site – offered free by Leith Ports Authority – was the place to build and regenerate Leith. Dewar wanted his parliament to sit opposite Holyrood Palace, non-Scottish architecture next to ancient Scottish.
The exterior is a catastrophe of silly windows like swinging fairground gondolas, nonsense black screens, and faux wooden spars, a last minute addition to defeat terrorist attacks from lovers of good aesthetics.
Miralles was determined to create a vanity project. He stated the only art in the building was to be his and he designed interiors to exclude art.
The ‘great exterior public meeting place,’ a large plaza, envisaged as a place to debate issues of the day where the public could congregate or protest, the same Miralles considered inseparable from a ‘seat of democracy’, never stood a chance of surviving.
A deathly task
Miralles died before the building was barely above the foundations leaving others to interpret his ideas – a fantasy self-serving brief – ideas he had never actually written down or sketched. The presiding architectural company, seeing large amounts of dosh vanishing into the distance, asserted they could implement everything that was in his head.
In the event, it was his wife who stepped in to ensure his fee notes were issued regularly. Donald Dewar died not long afterwards, his historical role fulfilled.
We have our parliament now and must live with it.
Incidentally, the V&A’s new waterside museum in Dundee is also modelled on a ship, and alarmingly, like dough rising visibly in an oven, it also doubled costs. Being an English institution the Scottish press have kept silent. Again, like Holyrood, the architect is not Scottish. When it comes to important new buildings Scots are not the chosen ones.
The House of Gothic Horrors
How long did it take to build the Palace of Westminster, and was it on budget? This comes from the official House of Commons history:
“The construction of the new Palace began in 1840. While architect Charles Barry estimated a construction time of six years, at an estimated cost of £724,986, the project in fact took more than 30 years, at a cost of over £2 million.”
By the time all the extra buildings were finished, Big Ben too, it ran over budget massively. If we include the rebuilding of the House of Lords after fire destroyed it, (1834) then in today’s values it all cost about £1.3 billion.
Holyrood’s costs are a skateboard park in comparison.
The speaker of the House, John Bercow has a lovely euphemism for the cost of renewing the cast iron roof, leaking crumbling lime stonework, and getting rid of the asbestos. He calls it “Not inconsequential.” It makes renewing Trident a ‘tidy sum,’ and the cost of the war in Afghanistan a ‘sizeable amount.’
In English architectural folklore the chief place for the defence of the realm is considered to be a ‘stunning example of the neo-Gothic style.’ It is, in reality, a rabbit warren of hideous corridors and back stairs no one would want to inhabit, a nightmare to modernise. On my one visit there I couldn’t leave fast enough, but then I am no lover of the Gothic style – too oppressive and over-ornate for my taste. It reminded me of a disused Victorian railway station. I half-expected John Betjeman to appear from behind a marble statue waxing in gentle doggerel about vaulted ceilings and sensuous pilasters.
The palace was hit by Nazi bombs on 14 occasions during the second world war. When one destroyed the Commons chamber completely MPs simply used other rooms in the Palace to continue the business of delusion and muddle and outrage.
A common use for the Commons
When you think about it, Westminster really ought to be a museum. School children could visit it to see how a small nation concentrated power in one place for three hundred years, where people talk bollocks most of the day, verbally abusing each other, and then get drunk in the House’s many bars.
I haven’t touched upon the decrepit unelected House of Lords, a place that resembles a the holding pens of a slaughter house, but let the grotesque Westminster fall into the Thames where it belongs. It has become an anachronism, a notional democracy, a ‘pretendy’ parliament.
I’ll happily live with Scotland’s Parliament, a mess of a design if ever there was one.