Modern

The New Palace of Westminster

The fire of 1834, which destroyed much but not all of the old palace of Westminster, provided an opportunity to put into place some of the long existing hopes and plans for a purpose-built Parliament. After a controversial competition, and amid seemingly interminable wrangling, the project was entrusted to the architect Charles Barry (1795-1860), who collaborated with the artist and designer Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52). Their masterpiece, in its external appearance and its internal decoration, was inevitably something of a compromise of styles and aspirations, but it aimed to embody a vision of Britishness. The resulting building is now a much loved national icon.

The new palace of Westminster incorporated parts of the surviving structure of the old palace, most notably the medieval Westminster Hall and the adjoining law courts (until they moved to new buildings in the Strand in the 1880s). Built in the Perpendicular style, it aimed to harmonize with the surrounding buildings, not least the Henry VII chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey.

The new palace also contained elements that had been prefigured in earlier projected plans for rebuilding Parliament, for instance the positioning of the two Houses along a central axis, with the Speaker’s chair in the Commons facing the throne in the Lords at the other end of the building. In addition, the emphasis on the monarch’s entrance under the Victoria Tower and the ceremonial route to the Lords chamber for the state opening were an extension of ideas that had been current at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Yet the new palace was a strikingly large and original conception, providing clever and elegant solutions to many of the technical problems that existed at the time, including the use of metalwork in the roofs in order to reduce the risk of fire damage. These developments emerged over a couple of decades, as the new palace was constructed around the ruins of the old, in which politicians continued to sit and work.  One of the most unusual features of the palace was only finally finished in 185