Parliament House was supposed to be a powerful symbol of democracy, but gradually citizens were kept apart from the people who represent them.

Some years ago, I wrote a book about the physical, spatial needs of democracy, comparing parliamentary and city layouts in 11 cities around the world. I praised the Canadian parliament on a number of grounds, primarily because of its openness: protests are allowed on the lawn, members regularly meet constituents inside the buildings, and Canada Day celebrations occur all around the precinct. It was, to some extent at least, the people’s building, because they performed their own everyday civic rituals in it. I also applauded the flexible redesign of its committee and other meeting rooms, which made them less intimidating and made them function better as deliberative spaces.

Now the precinct’s iconic Centre Block is about to close for at least a decade, for rehabilitation. Senators and members of Parliament will relocate to two different buildings in downtown Ottawa that will be outfitted with temporary chambers.

The experience of Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra, which was lauded by its designers when it opened in 1988 as being a powerful symbol of democracy, offers a cautionary tale for those overseeing the Canadian project.

Parliament House is set on a hill top and, until about 10 years ago when changes to public access were introduced, you could walk over the top of the grass slopes and enjoy the sensation (all-too-brief) of having your elected representatives under your feet. If you chose to go inside the building, you could penetrate right to its very heart ─ a gallery overlooking a reflective pool located between the Senate and the House of Representatives and where, the designers hoped, members would stop, discuss weighty matters and, well, reflect.

Of course, they do no such thing. The gallery overhangs the chamber floor beneath, and if members wish to walk from one side to another, they can get there without being seen. But they don’t even have to do that. Members have their own, private, swipe-card-accessed “rat runs” through the building. Ministers also have their own routes, and they don’t even need to encounter backbenchers if they do not want to. There is also an issue with the scale of the new building: the chambers are too big, the members too remote, for effective “whites of their eyes” engagement, as former MP Barry Jones once put it.

The public has access to none of this and is confined to public halls and corridors, into which no member ever strays. No one meets their MP in the building, let alone uses it for another other civic purpose. And now they can’t even walk over the grounds. Now, with the post-9/11 paranoia, which seems to be deliberately stoked for political gain, barriers have been erected around and across the top of the hill; the “Authorised Assembly Area” for protest is a postage-stamp-sized patch of grass that is well away from the members’ entrances, invisible even from the public entrance at the front. It is a far cry from the old parliament, which was further down the hill and had one major entrance, one common lobby, and was a place where people could, and did, bump into the prime minister as he bustled out of the chamber.

The main foyer of Parliament House in Canberra. Shutterstock, by Phonepaseth Keosomsak.

The whole is an increasingly securitized bunker and resembles nothing so much as it does a prison, with its heavily armed guards and CCTV. As if that is not bad enough, it is in an isolated area in Canberra. It is not a building one happens upon while going for a lunch-time walk, and Canberra itself is remote from the major population centres of Melbourne and Sydney. It is full of symbols of openness and accessibility, but isn’t actually open and accessible, and is thus the most misleading parliament in a democratic country that I know, with the possible exception of the US Congress.

The Congress Building is misleading for a different reason: almost no daily political work goes on in it. Senators’ and representatives’ offices have steadily been moved out of the building over the last century, and committee work along with them, so that it has been “historicized,” turned into an icon of the U.S. Capitol and America’s civil religion (as described by sociologist Robert Bellah, where even the Visitor Centre’s online promotional puffery calls it a “symbol” of democracy, not a site of it).

The work that goes on in a building matters, because, as architecture scholars as different as Wolfgang Sonne and Amos Rapaport have argued in their work, it has a huge impact on what a building comes to mean. A working building certainly needs private spaces: no member would come near it if they couldn’t be assured that they could work in it. That work requires engagement with the public, spaces for semi-private conversations for thrashing out problems, and offices for answering correspondence, and so on. The fact that the Canadian Parliament has traditionally put that work front and centre is a good thing: it reinforces the fact that representative democracy entails relationships with citizens as well as those across political divides. Without enabling that work, that access, a building is turned into a citadel, a refuge for encouraging attitudes of “Them against Us.”

The designers ought to remember that the plenary chamber matters less than we think. There is a tendency to think that politics is what happens in the monkey cage of plenary debating chambers, thus the frequent belief that changing the layout of those chambers will change the behaviour within them. This idea is encouraged by architects and planners, who love to think that good design has the power to cure disease, promote learning and foster community harmony. For some issues, and for some kinds of human behaviour, in some contexts, they are correct: people recuperate better in hospitals that feel homely, not institutional; people are more likely to take the stairs than the escalators if the stairs are painted to look like a giant piano keyboard, as the managers of Stockholm’s metro found out.

But political contestation is not the same as getting from a subway to the street. Going from one level to another does not involve a direct clash of ideologies or interests; it does not require you to listen to challenges of long-held beliefs; it does not require you to balance commitments to local constituents with national priorities. And so, while it’s often asserted that semi-circular debating chambers are more collegial than adversarial ones, for instance, the empirical evidence is that (1) parliamentary punch-ups happen in chamber designs that are supposed to encourage consensus, and (2) forcing politicians to sit with other politicians not of their party leads them not to talk to each other, but rather to sit in sullen silence, as the South Africans found when they tried this in the National Council of the Provinces. Politics that is in front of television cameras is always going to be a blood sport, no matter how you arrange the chairs, as one British MP put it to me.

Interior of the House of Representatives Chamber in Parliament House, in Canberra, Australia. Shutterstock/By EQRoy.

Nonetheless, design does matter, in part for reasons I have already alluded to. Not all democratic action is contestation. Some of it involves sitting down with opponents, interest group representatives, and citizens, trying to thrash out agreements across the gaps that divide us. Parliamentary design matters in all sorts of ways, because different approaches cue different symbolic associations, depending on the context. In the United States, for instance, committee rooms are hierarchical, even inquisitorial, featuring raised, closed platforms with witnesses seated in a pit before the judges pronouncing sentence. In Britain, the Clerks’ office has gone to a great deal of effort to make committee rooms more business-like, more deliberative, putting tables for everyone at the same level, improving accessibility and lowering the pressure for witnesses and petitioners.

Parliamentary space can also be gendered, as political scientists Shirin Rai and Carole Spary have argued in their studies of the Indian parliament, in Delhi. That makes me wonder whether anyone is asking Canada’s First Nations what would make them feel included in their country’s parliament. When I visited, not even French Canadian, Outaouais symbolism was much in evidence in this thoroughly Anglo-Gothic building.

Above all, however, the design of the new Centre Block should be the result of open public discussion; it should not be left to building managers, security specialists and architects in private. Otherwise the risk is that our leaders will be allowed to seal themselves off from us and each other, with empty gestures to openness and not much else. This cannot be allowed to happen in Canada, the home of what has been one of the most open parliaments in the world.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Taras Vyshnya.


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