The Houses of Parliament
The current structure for Westminster Palace sits majestically by the Thames for all to admire and see. It looks as if it has been there for many hundreds of years when it has in fact has been there for only 149 years old. Tsar Nicholas II described it as ‘a Dream in stone’ and is ranked as number three of 940 London attractions by Trip advisor in London. However, what is its story? In part one we learnt all about the original Westminster Palace, part two will look at its reincarnation into the Houses of Parliament.
After the fire destroyed the Palace in 1834, Prince Albert set up a Fine Arts Committee to fine an architect to design and rebuild the Palace. Their vision was to combine the fine arts and sculpture with the buildings architecture. There was much debate about what style should be used for the new build. A discussion was had about neo classical style, which was used for the White House in America, but it was felt that this design was associated with revolution and republicanism so another style was chosen – Gothic Revival.
At the time, gothic style architecture was seen as an English style, which was also picturesque and romantic. Characteristics of the style include pointed arches, sloping roof, and ornamental patterns. The style was coming back into trend in many churches. The earliest document example in a residential property is that of Strawberry hill.
In 1836, a public competition was held for architects across the country to design a new palace. 97 entries were received, all identities withheld from the judges, the deigns were finally whittled down until one was left, a design which incorporated the emblem of the Portcullis. The portcullis being symbol of strength and security and crown is symbol of royal power, which is given to parliament by the monarch. This emblem was used by both houses and is still done so today. The architects name was Charles Barry.
Part of Barry’s design was to incorporate the old remaining parts of Westminster Palace but to have a completely new layout. It combined classical planning and picturesque outline. “The buildings regular bays, with identical pavilions projecting ast north and south ends are broken up by three asymmetrically placed towers.” (The Palace of Westminster pg 72) Much of his inspiration would come from Henry VIII chapel over the road in Westminster Abbey along with the Gothic revival style.
Construction would begin in 1840 with end date of six years (which actually would be 30 years and costing over 2 million). Barry however would spend 20 years on the Palace as he died when it was still being built. His third son Edward was chosen to complete his father’s work.
Barry was already a famous architect having built several churches and winning a number of competitions. Nevertheless, his style was more classical than gothic. He would turn to a man named Augustus Wilby Pugin to help him design the Gothic Palace. Pugin was a young catholic architect whose passion was in the gothic architecture style. Barry would pay him £400 for his assistance in the drawings and would contuse to use his help in the construction and interior design of the Place. Although he was not happy with the Palace, which he had helped create. Pugin too would not live to see the Palace completed, due to the long hours and endless worry, Pugin’s health was soon affected, and he was committed to Bedlam for a short time before his death in 1852. The Palace of Westminster was completed in 1870.
There are a number of rooms and pieces within the Palace, which hold a particular function or role. The most iconic would be the Elizabeth Tower, often referred to at Big Ben, which is in fact the name of the bell inside the tower. Pugin’s drawing for this tower would be the last work he did for Barry. The tower stands at 316 ft in height. I will be exploring this tower more in a separate blog.
Along with the Elizabeth tower there is the Victoria Tower, which at 323 ft in height makes it the tallest secular building in the world. It is home to the parliament records. The third and final tower is the Central tower, which is immediately above the central lobby. Octagonal in shape it is the shortest of the three at 330 ft. It has a spire and contains the largest known gothic vault without a central pillar.
The largest room in the Palace is the Royal Gallery, which is designed to be imposing to those who enter it and walks its 110 ft length. The paintings in the gallery were meant to show the military history and glory of the country but only two were ever completed. They would be the largest work commission for the entire palace.
The Lords Chamber is the grandest room and is decorated as such. It is where the pillars of Britain’s society come together – monarch, church, and parliament. It leads onto the Central lobby, which marks the central part of the whole building.
The fire in 134 would be the Palaces biggest disaster but not its last. In 1885 two fenians bombs were planted and detonated in the commons chamber and the chapel of St Mary Undercroft, no one was killed and four injured.
Then during the blitz in World War Two, bombs were dropped on the historic building. One landed though the roof and into the House of Lords, luckily it did not explode. The same cold not be said for the next bomb which struck. On the night of 10.5.1941, a bomb hit the House of Commons and destroyed it. It could have been saved but it was decided to save Westminster Hall instead as that too had been hit. Giles Gilbert Scott would re build it in very sedate fashion when compared to the rest of the Palace and reopened in 1950.
Today the Houses of Parliament is owned by the State and is home to the British government. It can be visited by members of the public. For more information on how to book please head over to the following link:
It is currently undergoing a huge restoration project due to the condition and safety of parts of the building. The renovation is believed to take 6 years to complete and means that the whole of parliament will move out of the Palace for the first time since the Second World War.
Inside the Palace, there are crumbling walls, leaking pipes, collapsing roofs and many issues, which one would associate with an old building including a number of fire risks.
The Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster said: “The Palace of Westminster, a masterpiece of Victorian and medieval architecture and engineering, faces an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore.
It is believed the project will cost around six million and is due to start in 2025. Let us hope it is enough to save this historic and iconic building before it goes beyond repair.
Part 3 and the last part of this blog will be called Ceremony and Art and will look at Westminster Palace as a place of British ceremony and being a home to a large art collection – coming soon.
Anon (2012) The palace of
Westminster: The official guide. House of Commons: London
Alder Kroll, A (nd) What does gothic revival mean. Available from: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/what-does-gothic-revival-mean. [Accessed 20/04/2019]
Anon (2017) Gothic Revival. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/art/Gothic-Revival [Accessed 20/04/2019]
Anon (2016) Style guide: Gothic Revival. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/style-guide-gothic-revival/ [Accessed 20/04/2019]