The landscape architecture of Parliament Square, Westminster, London UK

Does Parliament Square need a new design or new function?

There are many proposals for the re-design of Parliament Square and the above satellite image (courtesy of Google) reminded me of its natural use. It is a great place for political demonstrations. The photograph is probably of the 2010 Peace Camp but might also be the 2009 demo against the final assault on the Tamil Tigers. Boris Johnson wants to pedestrianise Parliament Square. I support the idea, and would like to see this part of London become a ‘ten times’ congestion charge zone. But what does Boris think a pedestrianised Parliament Square would be used for? Happy voters massing to express their gratitude at the wisdom of their elected representatives? No Boris. It would become a world centre for political protests AND QUITE RIGHT TOO. MPs come here to Westminster to express their views. Let us welcome the peoples of every nation to do likewise, conditional upon the demonstrators being well-behaved. The people of Zimbabwe set an excellent precedent for how to behave with their regular weekend protests in the Strand and, when visiting the RIBA Library, I have often been inspired by the serenity of the Falun Gong protest in Portland Place. Falun Gong also use Trafalgar Square.
What alternitive functions might go towards a design brief for the re-design of Parliament Square: five star outdoor eating? a rose garden? the best fountain in London? a biodiversity garden? a carousel? a street market for pre-owned souveniers? a city farm? a waste-recycling facility? an outdoor art gallery? the best-kept lawn in Europe? floral bedding? a facility for the homeless? a collection of memorial sculptures? a permanent memorial to Brian Haw? Very obviously, the social role of Parliament Square must be considered before it can be re-designed.

250 years of Parliament Square history: John Roque's plan of 1746 and an Ordnance Survey plan c 1896

22 thoughts on “The landscape architecture of Parliament Square, Westminster, London UK

  1. Christine

    I wonder if an analysis of the way the existing space is used is part of this process? The wikipedia entry is quite informative, and perhaps a few plans might assist detail historical changes and the current layout (including the statues of famous political personages).[ ]

    Perhaps if there was a proposal to include Boris in the line-up of political personages (with all the attendant potential consequences of being so publicly displayed) it might become more obvious to him how to design an appropriate brief for parliament square.
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    Oh, and shouldn’t Emily Pankhurst [ ] and/or Margaret Thatcher [ ] have a statue also?

  2. Adam Hodge

    Whilst I heartily respect your democratic leanings re well behaved political demonstrations, I would love to see a tall but very simple fountain, rather like the one at Stanway House, and if it could be variable in its height it would be addictive to watch.

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    I received a soaking from the Stanway Fountain when the wind changed direction and it would be fun to watch political interviews with occasional gushings of water on the participants. Maybe Parliament Square needs to be changeable. For a month around Chelsea it could have a fabulous floral display. Then I would like to have Boris installed there for one day a month, answering questions from Londoners. There could be a collection of statues of famous Londoners, displayed in rotation. ‘Parliament Square’ screams to be a lively space, not a dead space as at present.

  4. Christine

    Interesting. So far we have suggestions for a permanent fountain and a range of temporary installations.

    I agree Tom ‘putting a politican on the spot’ for one day a month(ie Boris) is a brilliant idea. Perhaps the floral display could be roses? (Maybe red and white? [ ]) With Love Day once again celebrated on the 25th Marchas a peaceful gathering of citizens and a festival in celebration of democracy?

    To continue the tradition of peaceful dialogue between citizens and government perhaps a big screen and [ ] wi fi connections might also be necessary for a model twentyfirst century political square?

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    Parliament Square, Westminster Bridge and Whitehall should be pedestrianised eventually. The Mall is already pedestrianised on Sundays and the first step should be to extend this scheme. The re-design of Parliament Square therefore needs to accommodate both the ‘isolation’ and ‘integration’ roles of the space.
    A fountain wall on all four sides of the wall is a possibility, operating at any height up to say 2m. It would be a spectacle and it would provide white sound as an an acoustic barrier protection for the users.
    A rose garden is very attractive idea but since roses have a shortish season they should be grown on large palettes which could be stacked on a container truck and lowered into place for the season – for the rest of the year they could be cared for under contract by the National Rose Society.

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    A Speakers Corner is a very appealing idea but the present Speakers Corner in Hyde Park does not work at all well: it is too noisey. Parliament Square could be fitted up for this purpose. It could be done with a conventional microphone/speaker system and/or it could be done with a modern hifi-wifi system. Visitors could simply tune in their mobile phones to the speaker they want to hear. Whatever the design, I think this is the best use for a PARLIAMENT SQUARE. It is located, as Bill Bryson pointed, between a statue of King Charles I at one end of Whitehall (in Trafalgar Square) and a statue of the man who arranged for his head to be cut off (Oliver Cromwell) outside the Palace of Westminster, on the south side of Parliament Square. The location of Charles I’s execution and the home of the Prime Minster are also on Whitehall. So the area is already a symbol of a nation’s determination to encourage debate and recognize the validity of competing points of view. Hyde Park Corner does not have nearly such a symbolic place in the political history of the UK – Tyburn, near the site of Marble Arch, was the place where prisoners were hanged as a public spectacle. I think it was George Steiner who saw Britain as a re-insurance organisation for liberty and a physical symbol of this tradition would be a brilliant functional and aesthetic role for Parliament Square.

  7. Christine

    Yes. Considering the very long,complex and dramatic history of democracy in Britain, Parliament Square deserves much thought to bring together and link the myriad of associations.

    Deconstruction is a useful theoretical tool for analysising how these threads might be identified and then brought together in a cohesive scheme that respects the multiple viewpoints and layers of history. [ ]

    Perhaps Parliament Square could act as a counterpoint to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park where the people speak? Parliament square could be the place where politicians speak in public and the people have the opportunity to question them at some length.

  8. Tom Turner Post author

    Yes – ‘moving’ Speakers Corner would be both wrong and impractical, so ‘counterpoint’ is a good idea for a relationship. Also, Speakers Corner attracts many religious speakers and I am not in favour of integrating religion and politics.
    In the new Parliament Square, I would like to have a role for talk show hosts sometimes acting as intermediaries between politicians and the people. But the place also needs to be a changeable garden. This would be a difficult urban problem and, as always, good design is most likely to be achieved in the context of good planning.

  9. Tom Turner Post author

    A number of re-designs have been commissioned. The most recent, by Hawkins Brown, was axed by Boris Johnson in 2008 – and I think he took the correct decision. The problem was that an unsatisfactory brief had resulted in an unsatisfactory design – which is why I think that, for such a difficult project, any competition to design the space should be preceded by a competition to ‘design’ the brief.

  10. Christine

    It would be good to include in the competition documents for the brief for Parliament Square all stages of the transformation of the square from Edward’s complex through to the Hawkin’s Brown scheme (being mindful of Borris’ previous concerns with aesthetics, loss of the lawn and cost).

  11. Tom Turner Post author

    I wish I could say that it was normal to manage historic gardens in the light of ‘all stages’ of their historic transformations. It certainly should be. I have updated the aerial photograph and added two historic plans of Parliament Square to the above post. They remind me of the Tiananmen Square Competition, because conservation-minded design is particularly difficult when the place in question remains at the heart of a nation’s life. As the plan’s show, Parliament Square is a relatively recent creation. The historic spaces are New Palacae Yard and Old Palace Yard – and the space which has been most wrecked is Old Palace Yard. It is managed like an American embassy in a troubled Middle Eastern capital city (or, indeed, like the American Embassy in Grovesnor Square London. It is closed today (4th July) to celebrate Independence Day and it is due to move to a better-fortified site south of the Thames (in Nine Elms). The design of the new building is remarkably like William the Conqueror’s plan for the Tower of London: a donjon with a moat on the edge of the City of London.
    The Praça do Comércio in Lisbon should also come into this discussion. It was the site of the Royal Palace before the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Now surrounded by government ministries, it was a vast car park for many years and is now an apparently function-less paved square. The King of Portugal was assassinated here in 1908 and it would still be a great place for political demonstrations, as Athens’ Syntagma Square has proved in recent weeks.

  12. Adam Hodge

    Would it be worth making the square less of an island in the mannner of Trafager square, merging it with the Abbey or New Palace yard . The Foutain wall suggested in commnent 5 could then be used to define the road perimeter.

  13. Tom Turner Post author

    Good idea. They should pave the whole of Parliament Square for pedestrians and then let motor vehicles drive on the ‘road’ sections as and when necessary. This could be on four sides in the rush hours, on three sides on other weekday times and on NO SIDES on weekends and public holidays. The traffic policy in front of Buckingham Palace (ie around the Victoria Fountain) is excellent but the design policy is wrong: it should be designed as a pedestrian space onto which vehicles can intrude from time to time (eg when a prince is being married, buried or crowned).

  14. Christine

    Of course the traffic solution will be an integral part of the design solution, but I don’t believe it should entirely dictate what the square should be.

    Utzon, in designing the Opera House, proposed a solution that separated cars from people – cars below the podium and people above. I am not suggesting this is the solution, but rather that perhaps it would be best not to foreclose on the potential for a range of options which might be imagined to deal with traffic and the extent/limits of pedestrianisation.

    A traffic engineer with a comprehensive understanding of the feeder systems to the area might be a good person to have at hand to consult with?

    It would also be interesting to understand pedestrian movements between the key buildings in the precinct, and also the many ways the square is currently used and the shortest, longest and average stay of people in the square.

    Tom, is the Square considered vulnerable to a Tsunami or is inundation in a Thames flood event (mitigated by the Thames Barrier) the biggest natural climate threat?

  15. Adam Hodge

    The time lapse clip indicates that a lot of people enjoy sitting on the grass in social groups.Does this mean that paving the area throughout would kill off the ‘relaxed ‘ feel of the place that grass offers or would a great number of seats in social groups be necessary if the area was paved ?

  16. Christine

    Yes, it is interesting also to watch each individual group for the duration of the clip. There seems to be a fair amount of sunbathing occurring. It is quite probable that in 1905 such activities would have been frowned upon. [ ]

    Aquitaine in Bordeaux has a pedestrianised Parliament square. [ ] and [ ]

    A panorama of Parliament Square in London in winter suggests more peripheral pedestrian activity. [ ]

    Perhaps dining experiences on the square [ ] and the view from surrounding tour buses [ ]are more important in this season?

    Adam in winter the grass offers much needed visual contrast to the predominant ‘grey’.

  17. Tom Turner Post author

    I will look more carefully in future but my impression is that Parliament Square receives very little use except (1) on those few hot days when every greenspace in Central London is strewn with sunbathers (2) during political demonstrations – which are more often held in Trafalgar Square. The 1905 photograph is of the design shown on the old Ordnance Survey map, above, and looks to be a more useful space then the present traffic island.

  18. Christine

    The seasonal aspect of square design are top of mind at present due to the newly redesigned King George Square in Brisbane receiving considerable criticism about for not being climate responsive. [ ]

    As a space it works well as a thoroughfare to connect areas of the city (through wider pedestrian and plaza areas, continuity of surfaces and finishes, changed orientation of the square and use of topography and grades) but is less desirable as a place to stay and experience.

    These two aspects of design creating place and making connections would be important considerations, which potentially could reinforce the functional aspects of the square.

  19. Christine

    ps. Environmental (wind, light and water and green amenity) city modelling as an urban design tool will become increasingly important as cities densify and grow. See: Modeling the environmental impacts of urban land use and land cover change — a study in Merseyside, UK.
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