Photographer Nico Bick offers a fascinating collection of 30 interiors of democratic representation in his project ‘Parliaments of the European Union’. Now that his work is touring through Europe, he is producing a publication that surveys 28 national parliaments and two European parliament buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg. His work can be regarded as part of a series of recent projects by architects, artists, and photographers on parliament buildings.
It is one of the most persistent truisms in architecture that buildings reflect power structures. We believe in the correlation because metaphors and politics are usually closely related, and buildings are perfect canvases for political messages. The Scots, for example, made sure that their (regional) parliament building, designed by Enric Miralles in 2004, was the exact opposite of the English equivalent that had been the stage for 300 years of humiliation by the British. The Macedonian president changed the facade of the modernist parliament building into an eclectic, somewhat 19th–century pastiche to illustrate a new wave of nationalism. Architects themselves offer ample munition to close the argument as well, like Philippe Samyn did when commenting on the new building for the European parliament (2014) in Brussels: ‘Just like Europe [the facade] is united from afar, but very diverse from up close.’
Between 2013 and 2016 XML architects explored parliament buildings, because ‘the architecture of spaces of political congregation is not only an expression of a political culture, it also shapes this culture.’ Curators Christian Kühn and Harald Trapp explained their exhibition, Plenum: Places of Power, at the 2014 Venice Biennale (which consisted of all parliament buildings worldwide, executed in white plaster on a scale of 1:500) thus: ‘The idea of democratic legitimacy of power is so widespread today that no nation can do without building such a place, at least in name, for a representative popular assembly. What do these places look like? And how are they connected to a public whose trust in democratic formation of will seems to be dwindling around the globe?’ Moreover, the importance of representation is the core of the New World Summit by artist Jonas Staal, whose projects focus on the creation of parliamentary settings for democracies without international acknowledgement.
Nico Bick focuses solely on member states of the European Union. The power of Bick’s images is in their size, the intense details, and the neutral way of portraying the plenary chamber in the respective parliament buildings in exactly the same conditions. More than focusing on the whole building, floor plans, or political aspects, he focused on the contradictions between public and private, for which he literally chose a different stance. He did not picture the exteriors, but the stage on which these ‘democratic mechanisms’ are set – the interiors, which is where politicians gather, debate and defend their beliefs. ‘It is here that democracy takes shape,’ says Bick. ‘Parliaments are regarded as public territory, but are they? The line between public and private is razor sharp. Citizens are not allowed in the political arena, but guided to a public tribune usually situated on the first floor. My viewpoint is seldom available to the ordinary citizen. My pictures are taken inside the restricted area. With my pictures I invite all civilians to take the seat of their political representatives and enjoy these sacred democratic grounds in full view.’
The results offer the viewer ample possibilities to observe the details, similarities and differences between the countries and their political homes. Each parliament is captured in three or four images, but not assembled in one frame. They are purposefully kept separate, to avoid geometrical distortion. It also forces to viewer to really look at them frame by frame, as objects of serious study. Thus, he wants to offer the possibility to compare different countries during a time of accumulating doubt about the legitimacy of the European Union. ‘I want to urge the viewer to think about the role and the function of today’s society, not only in the member states, but also in the European Union as a whole.’
It makes for an exciting game. When we look at the Hungarian parliament interior, can we relate it to Viktor Orbán’s policies? Do the stern details of the Polish parliament explain a bit of the current anti-European sentiment? Are the dramatic ways of Italian politics a result of their operatic parliament building? Can we see the similarities between the innovative policies on all things digital in Estonia and the contemporary design of their house of democracy? Could we have predicted the growing influence of nationalism when looking at the Danish and French parliament buildings?
Perhaps not, since buildings last longer than national regimes or, for that matter, their political representatives. Yet interiors are being updated all the time, like the forthcoming upgrades of the Dutch and Austrian parliaments, or the newly built Maltese parliament building. The president of the Austrian National Chamber, Margaret Prammer, used the Austrian parliament as a metaphor for the nation’s political character. ‘While the house conveys a sense of self-confidence, it is not showy. From the overall concept down to the details, architect Theophil Hansen succeeded in creating a parliamentary location which not only encourages committed, passionate debate and political discourse, but also urges moderation in the common interest and compromise.’
With his images, Nico Bick gives us a chance to see for ourselves and reflect upon prejudices and stereotypes, as well as the role and functions of both individual member states and the European Union as a whole.
Editor’s note: The publication Parliaments of the European Union will be printed as soon as there are enough subscribers. The book measures 30 x 37.5 centimetres. and will feature all 30 parliaments, presented with three or four related images. A triptych will be shown on a 90-centimetre fold-out page and a tetraptych will measure 120 centimetres. In the back of the publication will be a timeline of the project, legends, and summary lists with general background information about the EU member states and their parliaments. Interested? Order it here.
Additional images from Parliaments of the European Union: Nationalrat (Austria), Chambre des Représentants / Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers (Belgium), Народно cъбрание (Bulgaria), Hrvatski sabor (Croatia), Βουλή των Αντιπροσώπων (Cyprus), Poslanecká sněmovna (Czech Republic), Folketinget (Denmark), Riigikogu (Estonia), European Parliament in Brussels (European Union), European Parliament in Strasbourg (European Union), Eduskunta (Finland), Assemblée nationale (France), Deutscher Bundestag (Germany), Βουλή των Ελλήνων (Greece), Országgyűlés (Hungary), Dáil Éireann (Ireland), Camera dei deputati (Italy), Saeima (Latvia), Seimas (Lithuania), Chambre des Députés (Luxembourg), Kamra tad–Deputati (Malta), Tweede Kamer der Staten–Generaal (Netherlands), Sejm (Poland), Assembleia da República (Portugal), Camera Deputaţilor (Romania), Národná rada (Slovakia), Državni zbor (Slovenia), Congreso de los Diputados (Spain), Sveriges Riksdag (Sweden), House of Commons (United Kingdom).