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The Politics of Design (and we don’t just mean designer homewares…)

May 08, 2015 3 min read

Well, well; the votes have been cast and the results have been counted…

But we’re not here to talk about that. No, we’re here to give you a bit of a breather from #GE2015 – whilst giving ourselves a bit of a breather from designer homewares! - and we hope that our ‘political’ blog will be inspirational, no matter how you voted. Our focus is not the bodies that fill those hallowed political institutions of the globe, but the bricks and mortar themselves (or rather, the design).

Rightly or wrongly, politics has always influenced architecture – and often with stunning results. Here are two heavyweights of the political landscape (and two of our favourites):

Palace of Westminster, London (UK)

Courtesy of Lies Thru a Lens

The meeting place for our House of Commons and House of Lords has appeared in various guises; in fact, the bulk of the construction for the modern-day Houses of Parliament was not completed until 1860 – and its ‘design journey’ was not a simple one…

After a fire destroyed the previous structure in 1834, King William IV wasn’t quite sure what to do. Keen to get rid of Buckingham Palace (a domicile that was not quite to his liking), he considered siting Parliament there; however, this proposal – which was presented as a ‘gift’ – was rejected, and so eventually he turned the decision over to Parliament itself.

The political gravitas of the site was too much for the houses to ignore, so instead they set about the Palace of Westminster’s reconstruction – but the design was something they took very seriously. Each house formed a committee and debated publicly on the proposed choices for style. Eventually the Gothic style was settled on – due to its conservative connotations – and, after reviewing nearly one hundred proposals from architects, Charles Barry was appointed to produce the design.

Barry’s masterpiece is undoubtedly Gothic, with expected details such as elaborate carvings, turrets and stained glass windows (not to mention its imposing height), but also embodies the neo-classical principles of symmetry: it was intended to be a working building that brought balance and inspiration to the practices of Parliament, enlivening the spirits of the Victorian public. With this in mind, Barry linked the three facets of Parliament – the Commons Chamber, the Lords Chamber and the Sovereign’s throne – in terms of physical design: they were positioned in a straight, interconnected line, accentuating their relationship spatially and creating a sense of equity.
The White House, Washington, D.C. (USA) 

Courtesy of George Rex


Another iconic political residence that also rose from the ashes, quite literally (it was gutted by a fire that was again caused by the British – oh dear!).

Only the shell of the former White House (originally built in 1792) stood after the War of 1812; but instead of forging a new ‘design’ path, President James Madison wanted to restore the structure to its original glory. The same architect, James Hoban, was brought back to supervise. 

James Hoban’s vision was of a mansion that incorporated grand elements with classical flair (to create a sense of history and heritage for the relatively young government) whilst also suggesting the republican principles on which contemporary American society was built – not a palace for a queen but a ‘house’ for an elected leader. It was to be impressive but not imposing: an ethos that was initially demonstrated in the rejection of the very first concept for the White House – which the French engineer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, envisioned as a vast palace. 

The design also gestures to several defining traditions, which in turn symbolise the political significance of America’s inclusive ‘melting pot’ culture: it has been described as neo-classical, Palladian, and Federal. It is also said to have been influenced by Leinster House in Dublin (home to the Irish Parliament). Certainly the bow-shaped front is reminiscent of Irish Georgian design, whilst the porticos (which were added later, during Thomas Jefferson’s tenure) show classical influences.

Which political landmarks have inspired you, due to their design or otherwise? Feel free to share your thoughts with us on Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus - we'd love to hear from you.

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