Magazine article The Spectator

This Old House

Magazine article The Spectator

This Old House

Article excerpt

India's parliament may be about to move out of it's rickety old building. Can anyone imagine ours doing that?

'If the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild.' Heartlessly, this concludes the latest official report into the restoration of the Houses of Parliament. Four thousand miles away in New Delhi, it's the same story.

The Central Public Works Department has declared the constitutional masterpiece of Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker equally unfit for habitation. 'We badly need a new parliament building, ' complains government minister Jairam Ramesh. 'This one simply isn't functional and is outdated.'

In the oldest parliament democracy and in the largest, the challenge is the same: what on earth to do with our Grade I* legislatures? Do we preserve or decant; modernise or historicise? But the competing solutions proposed by London and New Delhi offer a telling insight into two contrasting national psyches.

In SW1, the situation is critical. Forget the obvious signs of decay - the mice; the leaking roofs; the wafts of sewage. Deep in the belly of Charles Barry's 1830's Gothic wonderland, the infrastructure is in meltdown. The steam and condensate systems are beyond life expectancy. Explosions from the boilers risk the cabling and water pipes.

The vertical risers are ridden with asbestos.

And like a decaying hulk, the Palace glides on with gallons of water swashing around its basements.

In New Delhi, the fabric of Parliament House's gorgeous, fortified sandstone is equally frayed. Proceedings in the Rajya Sabha have been suspended during budget debates because of unspeakable smells.

Office additions have blocked off emergency exits, while unauthorised alterations threaten structural stability. And like at Westminster, there is a tangible sense of decay along the corridors and chambers - made all the more stark by the new cityscape of luxury hotels and boutique office complexes springing up across Delhi.

So after decades of fudging it, the British and Indian authorities have decided to evacuate their parliament buildings while major restorative work is undertaken. Or in the bureaucratese of the House of Commons Commission, 'a staged comprehensive modernisation with full decant when essential'.

And MPs don't like it one bit. In the Members' Dining Room, colleagues shudder at the thought of being decamped into the corporate, Excel-spreadsheet tedium of the Queen Elizabeth II Centre or the cavernous, echoing environs of Church House. In New Delhi, the old guard are equally appalled. 'This is part of our tradition and history, and as the oldest member of Parliament, I will protest and oppose any move to bring it down or shift its seat, ' the Father of the House, Gurudas Dasgupta MP, has announced.

What is surprising is the ardour so many MPs feel for their legislatures given the low regard the buildings have for them. When Barry and Pugin designed the new Palace of Westminster, their priority was to champion hierarchy and order, not democracy and liberty. The conservative aesthetic of medieval Gothic, the gilded extravagance of the Lords Chamber and the splendour of the Royal Gallery were all in stark contrast to the cramped, spartan and often inaudible Commons Chamber (with only the narrowest provision made for press and public). …

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