Visit: Houses of Parliament, Portcullis House & 1 Parliament Street

Today felt like the 'official' start to the fieldwork period - my first of three visits to the Houses of Parliament.

The day began with an official 'Line of Route' tour of the Palace of Westminster which I secured a place on by contacting the Parliamentary Tours office. Once through airport style security, I was led to Westminster Hall to wait for the tour to start. Westminster Hall and St Stephen's Hall are the only parts of the palace where photography is allowed so I made the most of being slightly early and photographed some of the ongoing restoration works. Once we had been reminded for the 90th time to turn off our phones and to not bring any water with us (someone had thrown acid at a painting last week so it was now banned) we began the tour.

As it was a Friday there was very little activity in the building beyond a few researchers scurrying around, yet this also meant that we could spend a significant part of the tour within the Commons and Lords Chambers. Unsurprisingly, the palace interiors feel like the inside of an Oxbridge college or Buckingham Palace, yet due to flooding in previous weeks the whole place smelt rather foul. Throughout the tour there was restoration work going on all over, but the point at which we were made to notice it was in the Royal Gallery where the whole floor was being re-tiled - the latin words in the tile arrangement had been laid in the wrong order a few weeks ago so they were currently having to be rectified (!). The tour lasted around 75 minutes and although it was great to get a sense of scale, particularly in the debating chambers, the information given wasn't particularly useful or enlightening - the tour guide seemed to believe there were 800 MPs (?)


Diagram of official 'Line of Route' tour of Houses of Parliament

Diagram of official 'Line of Route' tour of Houses of Parliament

At the end of the tour we made our way back to Westminster Hall where I met up with a parliamentary researcher who had agreed to give me a further tour of the building and surrounding estate. Thankfully, this gave me an insight into the "real" parts of Parliament and just how poor a condition the working parts are actually in.

We began by visiting one of three Post Offices in the building, located in the Members Lobby, before heading down towards the Library Corridor and onto the Pavilion/Terrace which faces onto the Thames. The grandiosity of some of the dining rooms along the Library Corridor was pretty impressive and I was informed that because of this they rent these spaces out at quite the price for charity dinners and launch events. This was followed by a quick look at the hairdressers (which I was informed is rather expensive) and onto the Sports and Social Bar (which had a very Oxbridge college bar vibe about it). Finally I was shown Westminster Gym and the numerous eateries available to the staff before we moved onto Portcullis House and 1 Parliament Street through the subway connection underneath Westminster Bridge Road. Within this connection is a separate tube entrance for MPs and staff.

Portcullis House is the newest building in the Parliamentary Estate, though it also isn't short of problems (not including the 12 rented fig trees in the central atrium which have so far cost over £400k!). We made our way up from the subway and into the main atrium. This is a more casual dining and working space where I was informed MPs would bring guests who might feel uncomfortable in some of the grander spaces in Parliament. This is understandable as the atrium is much more modern and well lit and overall a more enjoyable space to be in. On the edges of the atrium are another Post Office, more eateries and the Vote Office where copies of the houses itineraries, vote outcomes and other printed versions of Hansard etc can be found.

The glazed atrium roof was designed by Hopkins Architects. Its curved form is constructed from structural timber and steel connections in a series of triangular sections. During my visit it was evident that these were failing as there was a large tarpaulin covering a fifth of the atrium and buckets scattered around the periphery. As we made our way up onto the first and second floors, the corridors were lined with contemporary portraits of MPs (one of Michael Gove which was particularly frightening) and along these corridors were more committee rooms. Whilst in the building we visited a couple of MPs offices, during which the researcher showing me around said these were the best offices to get as they have some form of air-conditioning and are overall in a working order. In one of the offices a researcher informed me that the only annoyance is that he spends more time their than the MP, yet the MP has a larger desk and isn't allowed to give it to his staff member - yet another strange protocol.

Finally we moved on to 1 Parliament Street which on the inside looks more like run down British hotel than any other office building I have been in. The MPs offices are lined up along long, narrow corridors and are roughly split between parties on each floor. The office I visited was one of the smallest, with two desks and a sofa crammed into the space. The room was rather hot even with the windows flung open. Out of this window there was access to the parapet of the building. Behind the wall there was a plastic crate positioned to stand upon to see over the wall onto Parliament Street!

Overall the visit around the Parliamentary Estates was very informing and will undoubtedly feed into my ongoing thesis design. It was particularly interesting to see the condition the Palace is in for my own eyes as opposed to the texts I have read over the past few months. What has surprised me most about the visit, particularly to the Palace, is just how much it feels more like a museum than a working building. I can easily see how some visitors would feel more comfortable in the realms of Portcullis House as opposed to the Palace as its interior really is quite medieval and oppressive. Throughout the visit I was constantly thinking about how much it would be improved by more open spaces as the courtyards aren't particularly great spaces as most of them contained refuse storage. I think the main challenge for my design will be to try to incorporate a series of public spaces whilst also ensuring a suitable level of security. This is an aspect I look forward to inspecting within further visits to other institutional spaces such as the European Parliament in Brussels and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

Above: a series of sketches from an MPs office in 1 Parliament Street


After the tours of the Parliamentary Estate were complete, I decided to try and track down a few of the Division Bells dotted around Westminster to see how far away they stretched. After finding a couple, I have since come across a list of division bells both inside and outside the Parliamentary Estate which were revealed from a Freedom of Information request. Below I have mapped them to work out how many are within an 8 minute walking distance (based on 80m a minute pace) of the Palace as MPs have 8 minutes to get to divisions for a vote. I intend to use this as a design tool within the urban planning of offices and committee rooms outside of Parliament in my thesis design.

Houses of Parliament Division Bell located in St Stephen's Tavern, Bridge Street

Houses of Parliament Division Bell at St Ermin's Hotel, Caxton Street

The Red Lion pub on Parliament Street where the Division Bell is often mistaken for the fire alarm by customers

The Red Lion pub on Parliament Street where the Division Bell is often mistaken for the fire alarm by customers

Below is an interactive map of the Division Bell locations. The black markers show the division bells located within the Parliamentary Estate and Government buildings. The other markers show the bells located in pubs, hotels, private members clubs and restaurants. Unsurprisingly, the majority are within, or just about within, an 8 minute walking distance to the Palace of Westminster with the anomaly of City Hall.

A map of the Division Bells showing the 8-minute walking distance perimeter to the Palace of Westminster

A map of the Division Bells showing the 8-minute walking distance perimeter to the Palace of Westminster

Tom Ardron