Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Architecture and Procedure as Influences on Parliamentary Rhetoric

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Architecture and Procedure as Influences on Parliamentary Rhetoric

Article excerpt

Peter Stevens graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1997. He is a former Premier of the British Columbia Youth Parliament and has participated in numerous Youth Parliaments.

The word "parliament" derives from the French verb parler (to talk, to speak), and according to the Oxford Universal Dictionary, refers to "the action of speaking; a `bout' of speaking; a speech; a colloquy; a discussion or debate" Political debate, it seems, is the raison d'etre of Parliament. Both the physical structure of the House of Commons and parliamentary practices exist solely to facilitate the exchange of political ideas. Yet the Parliament Buildings are not simply a venue for debate. In fact, the buildings themselves actually influence parliamentary rhetoric. This paper argues that both the architecture and the rules influence individuals subliminally. They ensure that members present their political ideas in "parliamentary" fashion and that the House of Commons is not home to a legislative free-for-all, but is instead a forum for orderly, civilized political expression.

To fully appreciate the influence of the Parliament Buildings on rhetoric, one requires a brief description of the Buildings and their history. The current Parliament Buildings opened in 1920, four years after a fire destroyed the original buildings. (1) Sitting atop Parliament Hill and overlooking the Ottawa River, the Buildings feature stonework and ornate detailing which draws upon the gothic architectural tradition. The Gothic influence was fitting for a variety of reasons:

Not only did the Gothic style reflect the origins of Parliament in the Middle Ages, but it was ideally suited to local materials and the rugged, natural site. An organic style, with shapes and motifs derived from nature, Gothic captured the spirit of the Canadian wilderness and the aspirations of a young nation. So many distinctively Canadian symbols, figures, and emblems have been incorporated into the buildings that their architecture is perhaps more accurately called Canadian Gothic. (2)

Gothic architecture was designed to evoke the awe and admiration of citizens, for its majesty symbolized the authority of the medieval ruling elite:

Gothic architecture must... be seen as a product of a caste system, in which each man had his specific place and function. The Church or the monastic orders built cathedrals, abbeys, and parish churches. The aristocracy built manors and castles... The merchants, the burghers and the guilds built the towns. The power of these chartered corporations was of tremendous importance. Cloth halls, guild halls, warehouses and big gables market squares show that long before the Middle Ages came to an end, fine building was not just a function of the Church but also a symbol of worldly success. (3)

The Canadian Parliament Buildings, while not representing religious or monetary authority, do symbolize political authority. Thus, though the gothic aspects of the Parliament Buildings do not reflect a social hierarchy, they do nevertheless elicit the respect and admiration of the masses. Ancient European and younger Canadian architectural details envelope the buildings with an aura of splendour, tradition, and order. The Parliament Buildings attract thousands of visitors each year. They are one of the most photographed buildings in Canada.

While the external appearance of the Buildings is impressive, it is the architectural designs inside that have the greatest impact on the proceedings. The House of Commons chamber features much of the architectural grandeur that characterizes the buildings. Stone archways and elaborate ceiling frieze continue the gothic theme, while spectacular stained glass windows depict scenes from each province, giving the Chamber a distinctly Canadian flavour. The four walls, constructed of both stone and finely-carved wood, are capped by an embellished ceiling, forming what must surely be the most gorgeous meeting room in Canada. …

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