Abandoned 18th-century plans to redesign the Houses of Parliament may have led to the best ever parliament.
That is according to Cambridge art historian Dr Frank Salmon.
Speaking as plans get underway to restore parliament, Dr Salmon said designs drafted by architect William Kent in the 1730s in some respects represent the “mother of all parliaments”.
Kent was commissioned in 1733 to design a more spacious and convenient parliament building. But the plans, laid out in 80 drawings, came to nothing.
By 1742 the government’s coffers had been drained by war with Spain and British embroilment in the War of Austrian Succession. Meanwhile Kent’s political champion, Prime Minister Robert Walpole, had been toppled.
Kent envisaged a new building which, in one set of plans, would have been almost as big as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. At 444ft long and parallel to the River Thames, its towering columns and dome would have dominated the city.
Kent’s Commons would have been amphitheatrical, with space for spectators, and unlike Westminster today, where the labyrinthine corridors of power would stretch to three miles if placed end-to-end, Kent’s building would have been relatively easy to negotiate.
Kent imagined Corinthian columns, Venetian windows, white Portland Stone-rusticated ground floors, and imposing first floors that typified 18th-century architecture.
He envisaged communal toilets for male servants, in contrast with comparatively more luxurious accommodation above stairs. And in a later plan, with a huge central tower, the building would have projected far enough into the Thames to require embankment.
“The designs reveal Kent to be a highly professional, competent architect rooted in reality,” said Salmon.
“His legacy of 80 drawings might in some respects represent the best Houses of Parliament – the mother of all parliaments.
“The drawings show us the brilliant imagination of a man at work in transforming an architectural idiom that was created for the country house, into one that could serve purposes of governmental business, administration and bureaucracy.”