Every one of the United Nations’ 193 member states has a legislature — and each has a plenary hall for its meetings. How does the architecture of these assembly spaces structure the way that legislature makes decisions?
We found a clear pattern. Although each of the 193 United Nations member states has a parliament of some kind — albeit with varying degrees of democracy — their plenary chambers have a very limited number of shapes. Most surprisingly, these buildings have hardly changed since the 19th century.
This shape made its neoclassical comeback with the French Revolution, which gave birth to its national assembly and took over the Palais Bourbon for its meetings. Its typology is particularly common in Europe, where, during the 19th century, newly forming nation-states adopted the semicircular shape for their legislatures. The semicircle fuses the members of parliament into a single entity.
Nevertheless, while the Greek semicircle assemblies had been accessible to all its citizens in a direct democracy, in the newly formed European nation states the architecture was used to foster consensus among a group of representative elites. Also the chambers of Senate and House on Capitol Hill convene in a semicircular setting.
2) Opposing benches
A second, distinctly different, type is the combative British model of opposing benches, which encourages two parties to see themselves in distinct opposition to one another. It dates back to the pews of St. Stephen’s chapel in the 13th century, where the English king called a form of parliament for the first time.
The setting of two sides that confront each other provokes a more heated debate than the single body that is created in the semicircular setting of most continental parliaments. Because of its historical ties with Britain, the typology of opposing benches is also found in Commonwealth countries. Le Corbusier used it, for example, in the plenary chamber of the regional parliament building in Chandigarh, the capital of two Indian states, Haryana and Punjab.
A third type is a hybrid of the previous two, in which the opposing benches bend toward each other on one side of the room to form a horseshoe. This emerges in many Commonwealth countries, including Australia, Malaysia and South Africa. One of the most beautiful parliament buildings in the world, the Jatiyo Sangshad in Bangladesh designed by the architect Louis Kahn, meets in a horseshoe setting.
A fourth, rarer type, is the circle. Only nine parliaments in the world meet in this setting.
Inspired by the Icelandic Althing of the 8th century, the reintroduction of the circle as a political space can be attributed primarily to the German architect Günther Behnisch, who in the 1980s introduced a radical new circular design for the plenary chamber for the West German parliament in Bonn. In postwar Germany, the circle was intended to represent democratic equality. However, Behnisch’s design was hardly used after Germany’s reunification, when the parliament moved to Berlin. In the renovated Reichstag building, architect Norman Foster created a new meeting hall in a semicircular setting.
As you can see below, another circular parliament is the Landtag in Düsseldorf, the regional parliament of Nordrhein Westphalia in Germany.
The fifth and final type is the classroom, where members of parliament sit in regimented rows focused on a single speaker in the hall. This typology is particularly common in countries with a low rank on the Economist’s Democracy Index. For instance, the parliaments of Russia, China and North Korea all meet in a classroom setting, where they can be lectured by the leader.
A comparison of the size of assembly halls also reveals that — ironically — the scale of the assembly halls seems to be inversely proportional to the country’s rank on the Democracy Index. Parliaments in the least democratic countries convene in the largest hall.
Why stop at five?
While the world outside the walls of these parliaments changed beyond recognition, parliaments are responding to these changes from a 19th century setting.
Architecture sets the stage for our lives; it creates the world we inhabit and shapes how we relate to one another. In a time in which democracy is under increasing pressure in different parts of the world, it is time to rethink the architecture of assembly. Once built, parliaments are locked in time. But political systems can and should adapt to what is changing in the world. Since architecture gives shape to ideas, it can be a powerful tool to rethink our models for collective decision-making. It can be one way to reshape our deliberative bodies and experiment with new models that are more attuned to contemporary life and to the challenges that we are facing today.
Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt are the founders of XML, an Amsterdam-based architecture office. The office has won numerous awards and competitions, including two European Awards for emerging European architects and a selection as finalist for the Prix de Rome. Between 2014 and 2016, XML directed the interdisciplinary research program “Designing Democracy” at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam.