Britain’s parliament is falling to pieces, and the best answer is to dump the country’s politicians in the River Thames.
That might sound like an internet comment under a Brexit article, but it’s a real answer to a debate going on in London right now. According to a report from the UK’s parliament, the Palace of Westminster, which it calls home, is in increasing danger of going up in flames like a stack of dry kindling. The Houses of Parliament (as they’re more commonly known) were completed in 1870 and have wiring and ventilation systems scarcely touched since the middle of last century. To make things worse, some of its electrics are clad in asbestos. If MPs aren’t moved out so they can be refitted, the report says, there is a “substantial and growing risk of either a single, catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems.”
The essential repairs needed to avoid this apocalyptic scenario should start in 2020 and end in 2026. But where are all those MPs to go while parliament gets a makeover? The sane suggestion is to relocate the two chambers to a government building and a conference center nearby. A more radical plan is nonetheless gaining traction.
A proposal from the U.S. architecture firm Gensler suggests housing MPs in a temporary bubble floating on the river Thames right in front of parliament. Dubbed Project Poseidon, Gensler’s 820-foot long design would have a wood-framed dome made up of two humps, with one chamber of the parliament sitting beneath each. This week, the plan got a boost when the U.K. Leader of the Opposition, the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn, described the plan as “very interesting” with “outline drawings...of merit [that] should be looked at.”
London’s Evening Standard newspaper, never a fan of Corbyn’s, damned the plan as bizarre and labeled his semi-endorsement “extraordinary.” Certainly inserting what looks like a crystal moth cocoon into one of the world’s best known city views isn’t exactly an easy sell. Keeping the site secure when anyone could take a potshot at it from Westminster Bridge could also be tricky. But the Gensler proposal does comes with one big advantage: cost.
According to the architects’ own reckoning, the floating parliament would cost £160 million to construct and install. That’s a large sum, but they estimate that by using the riverfront directly outside parliament, the U.K. could still save £1.8 billion that would otherwise go on relocation costs and rent, and on converting other buildings to make them suitable.
Those are Gensler’s figures, which should possibly be taken with a pinch of salt. But having the site right next door does seem as if it could save cash. It might, for example, enable workers to continue using some parts of the building while others are being refurbished. Once the work is finished on the original parliament, the Gensler blob could be towed away and become a museum of democracy, the designers suggest.
Aesthetically, Project Poseidon has some pluses too. As I.M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid shows, sometimes the best way to insert a new building into a historical ensemble is to do give up entirely on trying to mimic its older neighbors. Still, the symbolism of Project Poseidon’s shape could still return to haunt British parliamentarians at a period when their prestige is fairly low; to put it bluntly, it looks a bit like a giant glass turd.