Architecture of the Houses of Parliament

Today we’re discussing the architecture of the Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster.

Article By: Francesca Burke
Last Update: September 2019

Origins of the Houses of Parliament

King Canute, a Norse ruler whose kingdom covered England, Denmark and Norway, was the first monarch to use Westminster as a royal residence in the 11th century. That being said, there’s been a building on the site since the eighth century.

Buildings were added as the Palace evolved from a royal residence into the seat of government. Parliament changed along with society: after the Reformation, wall paintings were whitewashed and stained glass windows replaced with plain glass in keeping with Protestantism.

Sir Christopher Wren redesigned Parliament’s Chapel in 1692, adding classical wall galleries and lowering the ceiling to improve acoustics. Following the British union with Scotland in 1707, Wren widened his galleries to accommodate 45 more MPs.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 took advantage of Parliament’s warren of buildings. Robert Catesby and his co-conspirators rented an undercroft, or cellar, directly underneath the House of Lords. They installed 36 barrels of gunpowder and planned to detonate them during the State Opening of Parliament. The group was only narrowly discovered; consequently, the cellars beneath Westminster are still searched before every State Opening of Parliament.

Great Fire of 1834

In 1834, the Exchequer needed to dispose of wooden tally sticks used in an old accounting system. Officials decided to burn the sticks in underfloor stoves in the basement of the House of Lords. Despite smoke seeping through the floor of the House of Lords while the wood was burning, workman finished the job. Later that evening, a devastating fire spread from the House of Lords throughout the Houses of Parliament. Despite the efforts of firefighters and a fortunate change in wind direction, the majority of Parliament was destroyed.

Architecture of the Houses of Parliament

Palace of Westminster before the 1834 fire

The Contest to Rebuild Parliament

After the fire, Parliament held a competition to redesign Westminster in either the Gothic style or neo-classical style. Both were popular but while neo-classical buildings (such as the White House) were associated with republicanism and revolution, Gothic buildings were seen to embody conservative values. Architect Charles Barry won the contest with a Gothic-style design in keeping with existing buildings.

Interestingly, Barry favoured a classical style and employed the classical principle of symmetry in his design, also adding continuous bands of panelling, high turrets and steep roofs. Fellow architect Augustus Pugin assisted Barry with his drawings. In fact, Pugin is chiefly responsible for many of the Gothic interior details. There is great debate over whether Pugin deserves more credit for Parliament’s overall design.

Construction was estimated at around six years and £725,00. Ultimately it took over three decades, at a cost of around £5 million (roughly £3 billion in today’s money!). Neither Barry nor Pugin lived to see their work completed. Both men experienced great anxiety over the enormity of their project; Pugin suffered a breakdown in 1852.

Architecture of the Houses of Parliament

Additions to Parliament

Victoria Tower, completed in 1860, was for years the tallest, largest stone square tower in the world. Originally a royal entrance and records repository, it now houses Parliamentary Archives. Barry’s clock tower was named Elizabeth Tower to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. The bell inside the clock, of course, is called Big Ben.

Bomb damage destroyed the Commons during World War II; restoration was completed in 1950. Winston Churchill kept the adversarial rectangular design of the Commons, in which opposing parties face each other directly, as he felt it fit with Britain’s two-party political system (many other legislative buildings favour a horseshoe arrangement).

Architecture of the Houses of Parliament

Note Victoria Tower on the left and the Elizabeth Tower on the bottom right

Have you found this article interesting? Learn more about the Houses of Parliament on the official Parliament website. If you have any stories about Parliament then leave a comment!

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