To build between Norman Shaw and Sir C. Barry working with A. W. N. Pugin was not the easiest task in the world. The parliamentary bank of the Thames must be one of the most photographed riversides in the world. Making an addition to it was clearly one of the most worrisome tasks in modern architecture. Scale, materials, and that old fashioned attribute, aspect, were all extremely problematic. And so was working for a committee of Members of Parliament, who are doubtless not the easiest of clients.
So far, press and public opinion have not been entirely kind to the Hopkins' new Parliamentary Building. 'Heavy' and 'ugly' are adjectives often applied -- but they were as well to both the Houses of Parliament, and Shaw's New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, once described as a 'very constabulary kind of building'. Charles Barry's design for the Houses of Parliament was selected largely because it provided 'an extended river facade of uniform character', a decision attacked equally by the Neo-Classicists, who wanted a proper building with the complete works of the Orders, and by the rising Neo-Goth school for whom the relative symmetry and regularity of the front were anathema. Even Pugin, Barry's partner who did all the Gothic detailing, was worried about the result; on a boat travelling down from Chelsea, he waved at the great building then emerging (without, as yet, its picturesque towers) and exclaimed to a friend 'All Grecian, Sir; Tudor details on a classic body'.  I thin k that, eventually, the new Hopkins building will seem to settle into its context as assuredly as its once controversial neighbours, leaving Big Ben's tower to dominate the whole composition.
The new building is made with great sensitivity for both site and users. The latter are 210 MPs and their staff--overflowing from the Neo-Gothic building across Bridge Street, in which they had become dreadfully cramped, as the population of the House grew with the elaboration of democracy and the colossal explosion of communications. Portcullis House (not perhaps the happiest of names) is a key link in what the architects call a 'Parliamentary campus', which runs from the Shaw buildings and further south to the Commons Chamber.  Corridors and tunnels (the main one under Bridge Street) allow MPs to get from their rooms to the great space in time to vote when the division bell rings.
A court surrounded by a wall of individual rooms was the generating idea of the building. It was derived equally from the archetypal form of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and from the new eco-thinking which comes largely from Germany, where thin plan forms are welcomed because they allow daylight to reduce need for artificial illumination, and where individual offices are required by management and unions alike. The parti of the building emerges from complex intercourse between urban, social and ecological ideals.
In conventional urban analysis, the building could not be bettered, It has shops at street level, a piano nobile on the first floor, where there are committee and meeting rooms, intermediate levels of MPs' offices, and an attic which contains climate control services and a few very lucky MPs, who have the most exquisite views. It fits into Bridge Street with a grain similar to the jumbly Classicism of the area. And it faces the river with the same strategy, in which individual rooms are the generator of the scale of the elevations -- not very different from that of the Palace of Westminster itself. Each MP's office has an oriel window, in which its tenant can calmly sit and look over the river, or Pugin, or Shaw or the endlessly changing pantomime of life in Whitehall.
The rectangular wall of rooms surrounds a central court that cannot be seen from the outside. Here, a glass roof is supported on American oak members flitched and bolted together with stainless steel. A grove of clipped trees is intended to evoke academe. It is hoped to generate casual conversation, occasional meetings, to be a forum of the whole campus: gossip, wit and other chatter are supposed to enliven the scene. Would Pitt, or Gladstone or Attlee have been happy in the place? You can certainly see Churchill strolling down the avenue puffing his cigar (would he be allowed to smoke nowadays?); the shade of Disraeli doing deals dodges about behind the trees; and Peel in his top hat would clearly be at home, inventing his coppers, who ended up in Norman Shaw's building next door. Parliamentarians of all times are bred out of the same stuff: they want to strut and they want to talk.
The glass roof is carried on props which fan from six main nodes that emerge here as columns. No site can have been more complex to organize. Two underground railway lines run under it at different angles. The architects were responsible for the very complex Piranesian tube station underneath the building (AR June 2000), the complications of which meant that the weight of most of the upper structure had to be carried down on just six points. Loads of the perimeter walls are taken down through their stone structure, but those from the inner court are borne by the columns, to which weight is carried by stone arches.
Walls are piers of Derbyshire gritstone, which gradually become more slender storey by storey as they go up, reflecting their load pattern. Between the stone strips are bronze window frames and spandrels. These are all materials chosen to last, and to relate the Neo-Gothic pile across Bridge Street. As well as being load-bearing, the piers are part of an elaborate climate control system. They form ducts which draw out exhaust air and replace it with fresh. The most controversial and dramatic elements of the building, the 14 thermal chimneys. are clearly related to the pilaster-like piers by patinated aluminium bronze plate ducts which run slantwise across the roof slope. Precedents for the chimneys are to be found in Barry and Pugin's building, where a ventilation expert Dr Reid, required large vertical ducts that Pugin used as opportunities to make the central fleche and what Pevsner called pretty turrets.  Pevsner thought that these late-added elements delighted Pugin, enabling him to make the silhouette more picturesque and romantic.
The Hopkins flues are not pretty -- picturesque yes, but rather severe, like a conclave of tall dark chefs' hats or BashiBazouks' headdresses. They very much resemble the chimneys on the Imperial kitchens of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Cynics call them monuments to the hot air generated by the politicians within. Certainly, they signal meeting and appear to natter to each other, and to Shaw's monumental chimneys of New Scotland Yard. They contain complicated mechanisms whereby exhaust air is thrown out at the top, after passing through a heat exchanger. Fresh air is drawn in at the bases of the contraptions, modified by the temperature of the expelled gases, processed and filtered in the attic, and then led down ducts parallel to the exhaust ones into the plenum floors of the offices. From these, it is fed into the individual rooms at low velocity from near the inner walls. Stale air is drawn out over the oriel windows to go back up to the chimneys. Users (staff and MPs) can modify the air supply, just as th ey can manipulate lighting levels by adjusting artificial lighting and the solar blinds. Special radiant heaters warm MPs lolling on the sofas in the oriels. Amazingly, these places are quiet. Heavy glazing almost totally reduces the racket of the surrounding roads. Street-facing rooms have fixed windows; those overlooking the court can be opened.
Fixed horizontal prismatic louvres above the oriels both shade the windows from the sun, and serve to reflect daylight up to the soffits of the perfectly formed precast vaults which calmly ceil each room. Luminance is warmed by the English oak of the doors and furniture, elsewhere, everything is extremely simple: partitions, soft grey ceilings and grey carpet. Clerestories over the bookcases of the inner wall allow light to seep from the ceilings of the offices into the corridors, so the normally dull and forbidding doublebanked plan is actually rather cheerful -- but still inevitably institutional.
Usually, MPs' rooms are grouped in pairs. with a room between for secretarial staff who (significantly perhaps) do not enjoy an oriel window. This evocation of the good old early twentieth-century pattern of work arrangements, typified in Wright's Larkin building where a secretary sat between each pair of executives, was requested by most MPs. But there are a good many different configurations, both of individual rooms and suites.
You would have to be a very ungrateful MP indeed if you took exception to what we, the taxpayers, have provided. Portcullis House is grand (in a quiet way), comfortable and convenient, both private and public, and it's built to last. The politicians had better get on and show that they are worthy of the place, and that they can do better because they have it.
1 Ferrey, Benjamin, Recollections of Pugin, reprint by the Scnolar Press, London 1978, p241.
2 Ibid, p248.
3 Rebuilt by Giles Gilbert Scott, after war-time bombing, in a modified form of Puginism.
4 Pevsner, Nikolaus, London, Volume One (revised by Bridget Cherry), Penguir, Harmondsworth, third edition, 1973, p.523.
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|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2001|
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