In so many ways the cold, metal and glass structure of Portcullis House, where MPs now have their offices is an affront to all that Augustus Pugin stood for. The author of “Contrasts”, where he argued for a return to the Gothic in architecture, was the man who designed the inside of Sir Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament, after the ancient building was destroyed by fire. He saw in his work the opportunity to reassert mediaevalism and the sublime beauty of the Gothic.
As one walks around the Victorian interior of the cockpit of our democracy, one can gain an impression of the complicated and reserved character of Pugin, the Roman Catholic draughtsman of French descent (whose family had escaped the brutal Jacobin revolution). There is such intricacy to the design and so many historical references. Everything is full of meaning and emphasises tradition and history. For a nation with no written constitution, where precedent and convention shape our government, this emphasis is so important.
Walter Bagehot spoke of the dignified and efficient parts of the English constitution, where the efficient was the democratic workings of real government and the dignified part that which gave our government its aura of ancient legitimacy. Thus the Monarchy is the apogee of the dignified side of the constitution, with all its ritual and ceremony, while the real political power is exercised by the democratically-elected politicians who are the efficient part of the constitution. Bagehot termed the phrase “veiled republic” for our system of government. Pugin, through his work, ensured that veil was indeed intricate and beautiful. It surely not only gives a greater sense of history to our democratic proceedings, but also sends a message to politicians that they are the transient part of a longstanding institution. By making the Palace itself intricate and awe-inspiring, the politicians are forever reminded of their own smallness in history. No wonder so many career politicians prefer being able to swagger through the emptiness of Portcullis House, our generation’s answer to Pugin’s skill and vision!
Perhaps the key point about Augustus Pugin’s and Sir Charles Barry’s combined effort is that they turned to the Gothic rather than the Classical style. Whereas the Gothic with its vaulting arches looks to the Divine and the Ancient of Days, the Classical it seems to me puts man himself at the centre. In a classical setting politicians would be tempted to see themselves as modern-day Ciceros, rather than heirs to the Christian Anglo-Saxons and Mediaeval Catholic Kings. So there is something that informs the atmosphere of our Parliamentary building that requires the residents to look up to God and back to history, rather than to look to themselves as the centre of it all. Surely for a Christian society it is more inspiring to have a feel of the church about our legislature rather than to look to the Romans and Greeks, whose peccable gods showed all the foibles of corrupt human nature?
There is so much of the detail in Pugin’s work that can be missed. Some little detail may suddenly be spotted, such a small-stained glass window or the coat hooks and ink wells in the House of Lords. It is rather like a metaphor for old precedents or ancient rights that MPs stumble across as they endlessly churn out new laws.
Portcullis House on the other hand seems not to look to any era at all. It is the structure of a hubristic, secular age, with man at the centre. We no longer even claim that the gods are simply like us. In Portcullis House the politicians are at the centre, tradition and ritual is cast aside and hubristically politicians can strut the stage, asserting that all that went before no longer matters; this is their day and they are not bound by what went before. Tony Blair was the nadir of this sort of politician – a man who did not understand history and therefore treated so much of our constitution with contempt.
Of course, not all politicians are of this ilk. The decent type that springs to mind are those MPs, including a majority of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, who voted against Nick Clegg’s vandalising plans for the House of Lords. Some politicians do live up to the architecture all around them!
Portcullis House is suited to the modern, career-politician, who is removed from tradition. For this is a political class where the Speaker dispenses with the trappings of office thus diminishing the office and aggrandising himself. This is a political class that follows the shibboleth of “modernisation” because by throwing out the old means that what you are doing is far more important.
A salutary parable against this modernisation could perhaps be the cause of the fire that led to Sir Charles Barry’s and Augustus Pugin’s commission. The tidying up exercise of the tallies from a different era led to the conflagration that destroyed everything bar Westminster Hall. The lesson being that throwing away what no longer seems necessary can lead to unforeseen and disastrous consequences!
Pugin was worried about the paganism of the classical. I am sure he would be even more concerned about the atheism of modern architecture. Whereas the Gothic teaches us to look to the heavens, today’s architecture tells us we are at the pinnacle of nature and not bound by the old or the religious. The contrast between the Palace of Westminster and Portcullis House speaks loudly of the difference between Pugin’s ideals and today’s political class.