Building democracy: how design can improve politics
A few months back I went to Cardiff to visit the Senedd (‘senate’ in Welsh), the home of the National Assembly for Wales. I was with my dad, who asked if I’d come and admire the impressive wooden roof with him
It’s only the second parliament I’ve been inside — the other being the big, spiky building in central London, which is currently being renovated. As we’d got toured round, I found myself making comparison between the two buildings:
- You can just turn up at the Senedd. No appointment or invitation needed. Yes, really. I even messaged them on Twitter days before, just to confirm ‘Can we really just turn up?’ My expectation was that you needed permission to visit a parliament. I was wrong.
- You can walk right up to the building. There isn’t layer after layer of walls. It’s not built like a fortress intended to keep people out. While the landscaping looks to deliberately make it hard to drive or park a vehicle near the building, walking up to it is simple. There’s less of a layer between politicians and the people they serve.
- You can see what’s happening inside. Most the walls are glass. Even without entering it, you can see into the building. There are long lines of sight that cut through the whole building, which give it an openness and avoid shadowy ‘corridors of power’.
- The security is friendly. The security guards even apologised for the slowness and explained why they used scanners and so on. This isn’t to sound flippant. Parliaments can be targets for violence, as we saw in London back in 2017, but having reasons for security features explained somehow makes them easier to use.
- The Senedd is grand without being big. You could walk around the whole building in 5–10 minutes. It has a human scale, which makes sense given the type of work that goes on in there — decision making that makes tangible difference to people’s lives.
- The building feels familiar. Its use of regional materials, especially slate and steel, makes the building feel connected to the place and people it represents. This might sound a bit ‘Art School’, but I think familiarity and authenticity are important qualities when deciding whether to trust something — be it a building, politician or, in this case, democratic system.
- The debating chamber was built to grow. The designers anticipated that the number of people elected to the assembly would go up. They accounted for this by making room for extra seats as they needed them.
- The Senedd is close to the people it serves. It’s not hundreds of miles away. This proximity makes politicians and the people they affect somehow less abstract, and more relatable to each other. And more human. Arguably one of the reasons for having a devolved government in the first place.
- The voting is digital. Politicians at the Senedd do not vote by walking into one room or another, as they do in London. While in principle I think it’s a good idea to make digital voting an option in elections (as it could increase voter turnout), I’m unsure when it comes to politicians. Does it influence decision making — is it faster or less considered? I don’t know.
Parliaments need to be designed, in how they look, work and feel
The features I’ve picked out in this post were conscious, informed decisions made by the Sededd designers Rogers Stirk Harbour + partners. They took into account the influence that the design of the building has on the decision making that happens inside it, and, in turn, public understanding and trust in those processes.
While the Palace of Westminster has so much heritage, it’s hard to argue its functional for a 21st-century democracy. I wonder, as others have too, if the current renovations could present an opportunity to redesign it to improve parliamentary processes and public perception.
If you haven’t seen the Senedd in person, you really should. Even just for the roof. My dad certainly thinks so.