7 Spaces 7 Spaces


‘Acts must take place in settings’, as Edelman observes. And many political actions – meetings, speeches, ceremonies – take place in monumental settings: large, imposing, often superhuman or inhuman in scale. They afford a sense of solidity and durability. They compensate, that is to say, for the contentiousness and contingency, the uncertainty and lack of clarity which marks many of those actions.

Spaces as symbols minimize the anxieties arising from the ambiguities and conflicting cues of everyday life.

Murray Edelman, ‘Architecture, spaces and social order’, 1995

Helen Schwartzman begins her book on the meeting: ‘Consider a room’. Even before the meeting, there is the space in which it happens. We need special places for politics: democratic politics must take place in spaces where it can be seen, and where people are used to looking. To advance a cause, a claim must be made in a space where it will be seen and heard, while the process by which it is debated and decided upon must also be transparent. Democratic politics must be visibly so: it must take place in some place where it is subject to scrutiny.

The principal spaces of democracy are parliaments, and the spaces close to them: the parks, streets and squares of capital cities. These spaces of assembly comprise three principal elements: a chamber, for debate; precincts, with offices and rooms for work and other kinds of interaction; a perimeter or periphery in which what goes on in the assembly and its precincts is open to external challenge. These are the spaces in which definitions of the situation are formulated, advanced and contested: they include large spaces where people gather and can be seen to gather and smaller spaces where people confer and make decisions, and where those decisions are investigated and interrogated in their turn.

Conceptually, a Parliament House is a building requiring a multiplicity of spaces for people to meet – the public meeting the public, the public meeting MPs or staff, MPs or staff meeting other MPs or staff, and then MPs taking decisions.

Charles McKean, ‘Theatres of pusillanimity and power’, 1999

We talk of the parliamentary arena, enjoying the way the metaphor makes an association with gladiatorial combat. The metaphorical association is inescapable, but shouldn’t obscure the extent to which the description it contains is true. The arena is centrally positioned in the city, but also clearly demarcated from it. What goes on there is communicated to the outside, perhaps by the shouts of the crowd, or perhaps by being broadcast. It has a limited number of seats: not everyone can attend, while everyone who does has his or her own seat. They come for a specified period of time, led by the promise of excitement. What the audience sees is not only the action, but the fact of its being witnessed by others like themselves.

Nirmal Puwar wanders through Westminster in the way Benjamin wandered through the Arcades, alert to its countless quirks, its accretions of what she calls its ‘archi-texture’. Still visible are the remains of the church, the palace and the court it once was, for it has had multiple functions, the balance between them changing over time. ‘How buildings learn’, as Stewart Brand puts it, is a marker of changing human interests and purposes, a reflection of the way the system of the building and the activities it contains has responded to its changing social and material environment. By the same token, the Houses of Parliament are a fusion of different sets of distinctions: of ways of dividing Lords from Commons, men from women, actor from spectator, and likewise of combining the spectacular (entrance and debating halls) with the mundane (office and committee rooms).

When the Estates-General met for the first time at Versailles, they did so in converted halls in the wings of the palace. The six hundred deputies of the Third Estate, now calling themselves the National Assembly, met in the Jeu de paume, a racquet court. Once they had relocated to Paris, a radical group began to meet in an empty Dominican monastery known as the Jacobins in rue St Honoré. That is to say that there was no readymade ‘republican space’, waiting for republicans to use it. The revolution was made in repurposed, renamed and reimagined spaces; indeed, it consisted in large measure in renaming, repurposing and reimagining space and how it might be used. And as it progressed, it became clear that Paris simply didn’t have enough of the meeting rooms, administrative facilities, courts and prisons the revolution would require.


As long as he is there, all the others are there too; whatever excites him, excites them; and he sees it. They are seated some distance away from him, so that the differing details which make individuals of them are blurred; they all look alike and they all behave in a similar manner and he notices in them only the things which he himself is full of.

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1960

Parliamentary chambers tend to be set out in two standard forms, the square and the semi-circle, the one said to express a binary, competitive if not antagonistic politics, the other a range of positions, and concern for more consensual decision-making. In debates at Westminster, participants speak from their seats (though they stand to do so); members of the government sit on the front benches, and speak at a table in the middle of the floor between the two sides. Participants on one side speak to or at the other, even while formally acknowledging the speaker. In semi-circular arrangements, by contrast, participants usually speak from a raised podium which forms the central focal point of the room, and address the assembly as a whole.

Before 1789, parliaments formed in the shape of a square or rectangle, the king occupying one side, the first and second estates – the clergy and nobility – along the perpendicular sides to his right and left, and opposite him the third estate, composed mostly of representatives of towns and cities and sometimes large landowners, comprising a nascent bourgeoisie. This was the body politic: the basic constitutional-political metaphor of the feudal period: the king its head, the estates its limbs. This entailed a distinction between the body natural of the king in person, and the body politic of the constitutional order.

After 1789, the arrangement of parliaments represented a shrinking of the position of king, clergy and nobility, and a widening and broadening of the representative mass opposite them. Members of the assembly themselves now represent the authority formerly invested in the king and the estates. This notion of the body politic hasn’t disappeared, but it is realised and represented differently. It’s not that parliamentarians are elected representatives and then assemble to deliberate, but that they represent in assembling, forming a body which represents the wider, metaphorical national body.

Where there is no parliament building, people have used a theatre. After the First World War, the German National Assembly met in the National Theatre in Weimar to draw up a new constitution. During the Velvet Revolution in Prague at the end of 1989, the Civic Forum met in the Magic Lantern theatre. The theatre is big enough to hold the crowd, and it offers positions from which to speak, and to be seen and heard. It is a place of drama, of performance, a place where people give accounts and make representations of the world around them and how it might be.

A young man in the centre of the aisle is leading the talk. It remains glorious: someone speaks from one of the golden theatre boxes, the lovely and serious, the faces – no longer bored – at last turn in that direction, the arguments flow back and forth in the longest conversation in the world which has been going on for days, around the clock.

Cees Nooteboom at the Odéon, Paris, 1968


At PMQs, the Leader of the Opposition sits opposite the PM at the dispatch box. The leaders of the small parties, however, must stand to speak from the benches where they sit, and so have nowhere to rest their notes, nothing to lean against, no prop to give them parity with the Prime Minister.

Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, Punch and Judy Politics, 2018

A rostrum is a special site for speaking: a small platform which requires a speaker to stand, and to stand in a certain way; it raises a speaker above those he or she is speaking to, and separates him or her from them; it elevates. It enables him or her to see and be seen and heard. To the extent that all speakers in a debate or other event use the rostrum, they all speak from the same position, which renders them – and what they have to say – at least formally equivalent to each other.

Have you ever seen a rostrum from behind? All men and women – if I may make a suggestion – should be familiarized with the rear view of a rostrum before being called upon to gather in front of one. Everyone who has ever taken a good look at a rostrum from behind will be immunized ipso facto against any magic practised in any form whatsoever on rostrums. Pretty much the same applies to the rear view of church altars; but that is another subject.

Günter Grass, The Tin Drum, 1959

Committee rooms

In the US Senate: (C)ommittee members [are] seated behind a bench (or two) on a raised dais; witnesses at a table or bench facing the panel but at a lower level; photographers huddled on the floor between them; television cameras in niches above and to the side; and behind the witnesses rows of seating for the witnesses’ staff, interested public, media and so on.

In the UK Parliament: (C)ommittee room layout is superficially similar – a curved table for members, behind whom sit their advisers; facing them a straight table for witnesses; behind the witnesses the public ‘gallery’ – but with the big differences that all the furniture is on the same level and the rooms are generally very much smaller, relatively intimate affairs, because committee membership rarely exceeds eleven in total. Even the relatively small US congressional committee rooms are much more intimidating for the uninitiated because of the closed frontages to the benches and their raised position, which means that only the head and shoulders of members are visible. Indeed the layout sends ‘courtroom’ cues and thus cues feelings of guilt, crime and punishment. The British rooms, on the contrary, send cues of a business meeting, thanks to the open-fronted tables all on the same level.

Canada’s parliament: (I)ncludes a variety of committee spaces, with large, small and medium rooms to accommodate different sized groups; some rectangular rooms to accommodate traditional ‘inquiry’ style hearings; and diamond-shaped rooms to accommodate more circular seating patterns for workshops and discussions; all with flexible furniture that can be shifted around as need be, and information technology wired into every room. Thus, these rooms come with a very different set of cues from their US counterparts: they are work spaces, business spaces, discussion spaces, and deliberative spaces, rather than inquisitorial courtroom spaces.

John Parkinson, Democracy and Public Space, 2012

On some committees, members sit according to party line; in others they do not. In one particular committee, a clerk told me that if an MP’s seat is taken by someone else, then ‘things are said’. This may seem inconsequential, but the use of space has physical and symbolic effects. Physically, it means that members from different parties quite literally contact one another and talk directly to each other (or, if they sit along party lines, they do not). Symbolically, it reveals the extent to which a committee is cross-party in its process of undertaking committee work. One chair, for example, noted that he tries to make sure the committee doesn’t sit by party in order to ‘act as one’.

(T)he leading clerk assigned to a particular inquiry will usually sit to the left of the chair in meetings in order to provide administrative support during private or public hearings. But other staff will sit at the side of the room, almost out of view. They are, literally, at the edges of a select committee performance. Additionally, clerks do not often have microphones in these large committee spaces, nor name cards to identify them (each MP has one for their seat). Though there are clear reasons for this when public sessions are underway (clerks are forbidden to speak), it is curious that in private meetings members can be heard through microphones, but clerks face a greater difficulty.

Marc Geddes, Dramas at Westminster, 2020

Murray Edelman wrote about ‘Architecture, spaces and social order’, in From Art to Politics. How artistic creations shape political conceptions, U Chicago P, 1995; the quotations appear pp 75 and 77

‘Consider a room…’ is Helen Schwartzman, The Meeting, op cit, p 3

The idea that democracy must be seen is from John Parkinson, Democracy and Public Space. The physical sites of democratic performance, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012

On the arena, see Canetti, Crowds and Power, op cit, pp 30-31

‘Conceptually, a Parliament House…’: Charles McKean (1999) ‘Theatres of pusillanimity and power in Holyrood’, Scottish Affairs 27 (1) 1-22; p 11

Nirmal Puwar wanders through Westminster in ‘The archi-texture of Parliament: flaneur as method in Westminster’, Journal of Legislative Studies 16 (3) 298-312 (2010)

The idea that buildings learn is Stewart Brand’s: How Buildings Learn. What happens after they’re built, New York: Viking Penguin, 1994

On the creation of republican space: Sloterdijk, op cit

On the evolution of the parliamentary chamber, see Philip Manow (2004) ‘Der demokratische Leviathan – eine kurze Geschichte parlamentarischer Sitzanordnungen seit der französischen Revolution’, Leviathan 32 (3) 319-347

Cees Nooteboom is quoted in Geert Mak, In Europe, op cit, p 656

On the rostrum: Parkinson, Democracy and Public Space, op cit

At PMQs…’ Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, Punch and Judy Politics [page]

I have the Grass quotation from Nicholas Humphrey and Robert Jay Lifton (eds), In a Dark Time, London: Faber, 1984, p 52

The comparison of committee rooms is again from John Parkinson, Democracy and Public Space,op cit, pp 113-114, and ethnographic material on UK committees likewise from Marc Geddes, Dramas at Westminster, op cit, pp 124 and 86