It has always struck me as more than a little bit ironic that the residence of the President of Ireland was the countryside retreat of the representative of the British monarch in Ireland. Is it not unusual that the Houses of the Oireachtas are situated in a ducal palace, the Dublin residence of the most senior Irish aristocrat? If the different arms of the Oireachtas are to be the legislative organs of the people of Ireland, what does it say that they are seated in buildings left over from a time of autocratic, imperial and aristocratic rule?
Standing outside Leinster House with its imposing rusticated stone façade and cast-iron gates (which always seem sealed shut?) one cannot help feeling cut off from the Dáil, separated from one’s own representatives. Architecture is a powerful medium, and this building was designed with the intent of accentuating the difference in status between the Dukes of Leister and the people outside- designed with a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ in mind. The roughened stone reaching to the first floor imitates the rough finish of a castle’s walls and is, without doubt, a direct quotation from the Medici palace in Florence. Yes, that Medici family, the dynasty who through corruption and wile wrenched their city from republicanism to create their own duchy. This fortress-feeling is not accidental- Leinster House was bought as a seat for the new Dáil Éireann in large part because the city was still in the throes of a Civil War. Also, because of its position set in from Kildare Street TD’s could avoid walking straight out the door into a possible ambush.
What effect do you think this structure might have on the elected representatives themselves? To be gated and walled off from the people on the street, to spend one’s workdays in the vast complex of a former palace. How does this alter the way in which one views the demos?
A few minutes’ walk around the corner on College Green you will find another magnificent Georgian building. Since the Act of Union, this building has been a bank, but before then it had housed Grattan’s Parliament. It is the first purpose-built bicameral parliament building in the world, and a national, and international, treasure. The former House of Lords is open to the public, as is the former lobby of the Commons (albeit filled with counters). I would highly recommend taking a peek next time you find yourself in Dublin. In stark contrast to Leinster House, the façade presents a far more welcoming space with two columned arcades embracing a courtyard, arcades which accommodate the public into the building’s space rather than keeping them at bay.
While the building was created to accommodate a group of exclusively Protestant, wealthy and landed parliamentarians as well as the ascendancy peers of Ireland, it tells a different story architecturally. Against convention, the House of Commons was placed at the heart of the structure, capped with a great rotunda that collapsed due to fire in the 1790s. This pushed the plus House of Lords to the edge of the initial building. The chamber itself was octagonal, the seats set out in a fan-shape as opposed to the opposing benches of Westminster today. This was the first of its kind since Ancient Athens and went on to inspire a new style of parliament, the descendants of which include the US Congress, the French National Assembly and even the European Parliament, among many others. What’s more, a public viewing gallery was build overlooking the chamber, a symbol of public oversight. These innovations hold profoundly democratic values.
Although the House of Commons has since been divided into offices, this building represents a golden opportunity to amplify the message of democracy through our institutions’ architecture. A great new dome could be built above our new Dáil chamber like the one over the German Reichstag- a vault of glass with a public passageway up it so that the transparency that we expect of government is made manifest in the space they occupy and so that the ‘othering’ power of aristocratic architecture might be broken. In a time inundated with images, the way in which we see government and the manner in which our representatives see us is as vital as it ever has been.