Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Big government buildings undergo constant repairs and renovations, but sometimes real rebuilding needs doing. (See a report on the $310 million renovation of Minnesota's state capitol.)

Westminster is rotting from within
The Palace of Westminster, with its cinematic Big Ben clock, set beside the River Thames, is a survivor — of epic fire, German bombs, sulfuric smog and bad plumbing.

An eccentric masterwork of Victorian genius, its dual chambers for lords and commoners are the living, breathing heart of constitutional monarchy, the home of Parliament, and one of the most photographed buildings in the world.

But Westminster is a wreck, its caretakers say.

The palace is not falling down. Not at all. Its bones, the superstructure, are solid enough, and carrying on…

Rather, Westminster is rotting from the inside, its water and waste pipes sclerotic, its ventilation shafts congested, its neural networks — the communication, electric, fire systems — nearly shot…

Westminster service tunnel
British lawmakers approved one of the most ambitious restoration projects of the modern age, a $5 billion scheme that would see the entire Parliament — the lawmakers, clerks, staff, guards, journalists, bartenders, everybody — decamp to nearby buildings for six years while a massive refurbishment is undertaken…

The work is scheduled to begin in 2025, with the hope that, sometime in the early 2030s, Parliament will return to its home. Exact dates are fuzzy, because the restorers say they won’t really know what they’re dealing with until they start ripping things apart…

The roofs leak, badly — sometimes there are buckets to catch the weepy drip in the Lords chamber. Moths are nibbling at Augustus Pugin’s wallpaper, mice scurrying across the encaustic tiles, and bad humors rising from the bowels below, where an 1880s sewage ejector plays the role of Sisyphus, condemned to spend its eternity trying to keep up with the flushing loos above.

Which are failing, by the way, occasionally catastrophically…

The Westminster complex covers eight acres, 17 football fields, and has more than 125 staircases and 1,100 rooms, probably more, and almost three miles of passageways.

The palace sees thousands of staff and lawmakers a day pass through and a million visitors a year. The kitchens serve up to 3,000 meals a day in the old-school dining rooms, another 2,500 in the modern cafeteria, and untold cups of tea.

There are eight bars.

The palace is alive…

The engineers confessed that there had been so many ad hoc repairs and workarounds over the past half-century that no one was sure what went where.

“We can have an educated guess,” said Stewart, pointing at a mass of water, electric, Internet and phone lines.

“But a phone line to where?” He arched an eyebrow…

Repairs have been delayed for years — because the Parliament did not want to pay for them, and also because of the potential disruption…

Today, fire crews wander the premises 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There were a half-dozen minor but worrying blazes last year, and hundreds of toilet failures, and a crack in a main sewage pipe…

Westminster junction box
The engineers point out postwar sewage and water pipes running above 1960s electric lines above 1970s phone lines above more modern Internet cables.

“We can’t fix it as fast as it falls apart,” Healey said. “The Palace of Westminster is 150 years old, and every building has a kind of life cycle.”

“It’s time,” he said.

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