(From the archives: September 2006)
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As Winston Churchill was well aware, a little theatre never hurt the political process. When Westminster was rebuilt after the Blitz, he insisted on a design for the Commons chamber that was too small for every member to get a seat at the same time. It was nothing to do with nostalgia for Pugin’s gargoyles. The decision was the product of an entirely contemporary set of political calculations.
Churchill wanted Westminster to look important. Restrict the number of seats, and you stop the place from looking yawningly empty when nothing much is happening, which is most of the time. Cram the members into every available perch and gangway for the Budget, and you get a real sense of occasion. Above all, Churchill, last of the great actor-managers of British politics, knew that democracy in action can look stupefyingly dull unless it is given a bit of help. Of course it was architectural spin-doctoring on a grand scale. But it was done long enough ago not to look too cynically manipulative.
Municipal politics in the raw still looks about as interesting as a reading from the telephone directory. There are endless procedural discussions, nit-picking points of order and for most of the day people sit in rooms, shuffle paper, talk on the phone and check their emails as if they were in a call centre.
The struggle to make something out of this deeply unpromising material is the real story of the design of London’s new City Hall.
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