"Why not move some of Britain's political power northwards?"
Opinion: moving the UK's Houses of Parliament to Bristol is not that strange an idea, says Owen Hatherley, but why not go one step further and create a new capital city in Milton Keynes or the Pennines?
In Stratford, east London, in the shadow of the Olympic Village, the Olympic Park and Britain's biggest shopping mall, is something called the Stratford Shoal, designed by architects Studio Egret West. It consists of a series of bright green and yellow fish-shaped metal sculptures, hauled up into the air by chubby, wonky metal supports to give the impression of, of course, a shoal of fish. These "swim" past the Stratford Centre, a hulking, brick-clad piece of 1970s "comprehensive redevelopment", which looks approximately as knackered as Westfield Stratford will look in 30 years.
The shoal was built for the Olympics for a very specific purpose – to hide, as much as is possible without actually demolishing buildings, the rather shabby, dilapidated reality of much of the district of Stratford from those visiting the international events. Perhaps someone saw this audaciously unpleasant piece of public art Potemkin village-making and thought: "Who could be more apt to design a replacement for the Houses of Parliament? And while we're at it, why not move it to Bristol?"
The person in question would be the Mayor of Bristol, the architect George Ferguson. A sincere and popular figure as he undoubtedly is, he surely knows that the proposal isn't going to be taken seriously.
The design by Studio Egret West would seem to confirm that, the sort of bumptious blobitecture that hasn't been seen since Peter Cook's Kunsthaus in Graz or Future Systems's unbuilt Prague Library. An undulating yellow roof with trees on top will billow across a harbourside space adjacent to Brunel's majestic Bristol Temple Meades station – an interesting combination of the aesthetics of the Garden Bridge and the plastic vomit you can buy in joke shops.
Silly as it undoubtedly is, it responds to two quite real needs. One of them is Ferguson's ongoing attempts to raise the profile and ambitions of Bristol itself, a city which, despite wealth and success, is rather straggly, unplanned and unlovely. The other is the fact that repairs to Charles Barry and AW Pugin's original Houses of Parliament will probably necessitate some sort of temporary Parliament. And why, the proposal asks, should it be in London at all?
There has been a certain amount of speculative talk in the last decade or so about moving the government out of London. Inspired perhaps by the success of devolution in Scotland and Wales, and by the moving of a large chunk of the BBC to Salford, it entails acknowledging the profound imbalances of the UK.
The argument goes that there was once a balance of some sort between the multi-centric industrial areas of Britain – the North, the West Midlands, South Wales and Central Scotland, where the steel, coal, cars and ships came from; and London, where the financial and political power was. Industrial decline has upset that already precarious balance, so why not move some of the political power northwards?
Some have suggested Parliament be moved to Liverpool, which certainly has the grand public buildings there waiting already; the Blue Labour politician Jon Cruddas has argued for an English Parliament in York, with Jerusalem as its national anthem, and it's doubtful that proposal has much room for Studio Egret West.
In fact, the strangest thing about the idea is that it is in Bristol, a southern city which is already relatively affluent. Personally, I've always liked the idea of it moving to Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire's readymade planned, elegant, empty Brasilia.
The history of moving capitals can be decisive. The clearest examples of this have been in Russia, Germany and Brazil, where they've made major changes to the way identity is perceived and how power works. Russia, perpetually neurotic about precisely how "European" or "Asian" it is, set indentured serfs to build the most European city on earth at St Petersburg, with its prospects, palaces and colonnades and precisely calculated spires, in deliberate contrast with Moscow's unplanned, exotic sprawl of polychrome onion domes. Moving it back there when Petersburg was threatened during the Russian Civil War in 1919 has rather fancifully been described as an instance of Russia "turning away from the west".
Meanwhile, the provincial, quietist culture of the Federal Republic of Germany was possibly best exemplified by the fact that the capital was moved from the complex, decadent metropolitan moloch of Berlin not to Cologne or Hamburg, but to the pretty Rhineland burg of Bonn, described in John Le Carre's A Small Town in Germany as a sinister combination of cutesiness and bureaucracy, and a good candidate for harbouring a resurgent German fascism. After reunification, there was a major contingent who wanted to keep Bonn as the capital, considering Berlin too tainted by Nazism and Communism, or simply too "eastern", closer to the Vistula than to the Rhine.
But the most famous 20th-century example will always be the wholly new-built capital of Brazil. Moving the capital from coastal Rio de Janiero deep inland to the desert was a statement of developmentalism and confidence, as well as perhaps reflecting a desire that government not rub shoulders with the hoi polloi too much. It has since become the paradigmatic "new capital", modern, spacious and internationally famous more for its architecture than for its culture or city life. Even Oscar Niemeyer, after creating this emblem of elegant bureaucracy, was always clear that he would rather live in Rio.
But then building a new capital is not what Studio Egret West are proposing for Bristol, so much as a temporary devolution. Like in Edinburgh, where some government happens in Miralles's grandiosely complex Scottish Parliament and much of it in a dull office block in Leith, or like in Cardiff, where it's divided between Richard Rogers's organic Welsh Assembly and all manner of nondescript business park buildings, we could expect that the spin doctors and secretaries would have to work somewhere else, near an Asda in the Avon Valley.
So if we're being speculative, why not go the whole hog? Why not a new capital in the North, maybe in the Pennines, between the two great conurbations of the North, around the monumental grandeur of the Emley Moor TV Tower (taller than the Shard, after all), which could stand as the Eiffel or Fernsehturm of a new kind of city, which could shift Britain's balance of power from an overdeveloped financial capital whose "success" even its inhabitants are increasingly sick of.
Main image shows Studio Egret West's proposed temporary Houses of Parliament for Bristol.
Owen Hatherley is a critic and author, focusing on architecture, politics and culture. His books include Militant Modernism (2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010), A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain (2012) and The Ministry of Nostalgia (2016).