Portcullis House: A Classic Case of Overdesign

I’ve tried to like it. I really have. I’ve been going in and out for a year now, I’ve taken friends and relatives to look around, I’ve tried to defend it as someone with an interest in contemporary architecture. But on reflection I think I’m decidedly underwhelmed by Portcullis House.

This is the black box of a building next door to the more photogenic older Palace of Westminster, completed in 2001, meant to provide office space for MPs, which it does (although not all of them by a long stretch). It also houses conference and event space, and its covered courtyard is a communal social hub for meeting, talking and eating. It caters to these functions at a basic level more or less acceptably. And it’s certainly visually striking. But there is something not quite right about the ensemble that is hard to identify. There is something wrong with this picture. And it is this: it is totally and inexplicably, pointlessly overdesigned.

There is an argument that the most important institutional building in the country should be architecturally impressive (although in the current climate I suspect even that would be questioned – do those naughty MPs really deserve nice offices??) but need we be reminded that there can be grandeur in simplicity?

A key moment in the piece is the atrium, but it’s remarkable how badly it seems to have been thought through. As though the architects designed a building with a hole in the middle and then decided to fill it in – not as though they planned the internal courtyard from the start. And then covered it with a very strange roof. I’m pretty sure there is no structural reason for it to be so neurotically complex. There are so many nodes and struts and connectors it looks like a weird arachnid robot.

As it’s nigh-on impossible to assert in these democratic times that aesthetic judgements are objective, my subjective opinion is that it’s unnecessarily ugly. It looks good from neither below nor above. I was astounded to find out that the little silver sails arranged in clusters on the underside of the glass roof are pure decoration – so odd are they, I was convinced they must be playing some critical function.

Throughout the whole building, the ‘design’ is a thing that shouts at you from every detail, clamouring for attention. Which, actually, is why it’s divisive. There are some very deliberate aesthetic moves that would only appeal to those with a fetish for buildings that look like bicycle gearing. In the design process the aesthetic choices seem to have been made totally independently of the functional ones, which is why they are so glaring. Apparently it’s meant to reference sails and boats, as well as the lines and mouldings of Barry and Pugin’s Victorian Palace next door. Well which is it? Because to my mind those two styles aren’t really compatible, and mashing them together can only result in a visual mess.

I’m not fully qualified to comment on functionality as I’m not a member of parliament so don’t experience the whole range of use. But I do know that the heating and ventilation systems don’t work that well, which is unfortunate as it was billed as a beacon of environmental design. It was hugely expensive to build, given that it’s just hyped-up office space. In fact it’s often jokingly referred to as one of the most expensive office buildings, ever.

And as far as the Atrium is concerned… Actually, if use is an indication of success, the atrium isn’t a failure – it’s always buzzing, and a great place to people-watch. However for a space predominantly used by people over the age of 50, the acoustic environment is poorly conceived. For the even slightly hard of hearing, every other sentence is drowned out by the ambient noise. Not ideal if you’re trying to hold a meeting. And it gets hot when the sun shines on the glass roof.

The building is not terrible. It’s just not that great, and it’s easy to see why – when it absorbed so much cash – the users should feel rightly disgruntled when it doesn’t perform exceptionally. Too much time was spent shoehorning in some more references to yachts, rather than exacting value for money. I imagine a similar argument could be made about the design and construction of the  Scottish Parliament. If this is what Parliamentarians think of when they hear the word design (without even tackling the ridiculousness of the rat-ridden rabbit warren next door), no wonder they think it means ‘superfluous, overly expensive and ultimately disappointing’. Hopkins didn’t do the concept any favours.

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Filed under Architecture, Design, Politics

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