By Karl Kurtz
Thirty or so years ago, I was standing in the back of the Indiana Senate chamber talking with Robert Garton, who was then president of the Senate.
We talked about his work outside the legislature as a management and communications consultant and shared a view that room design and layout are important to effective communication and training. The Indiana Senate is shaped like a classic classroom with 50 desks in rows facing a raised podium:
I asked Garton to assess his legislative chamber’s design from the standpoint of communication. He said that he had never really considered it—he had always taken this chamber for granted.
After thinking about it for a moment, he said that the chamber is designed more so that members can talk at each other than communicate with each other. He allowed as how he wasn’t sure that’s the most effective way to design a space where negotiation and compromise are supposed to occur.
I was reminded of that story when I read a recent Washington Post story, “These 5 architectural designs influence every legislature in the world—and tell you how each governs.” The article, written by Dutch architects Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt, is based on their book, Parliament, which compares the legislative chambers of the parliaments of all 193 United Nations member states and explores the relationship between space and politics. They argue that all legislative chambers fit into the following five categories:
As a legislative junkie who has visited 96 parliaments around the world (54 in the United States), I was intrigued by this story.
Although their article covers a few state or provincial parliaments in other federal systems, there is no mention of America’s 50 state legislatures. This omission inspired me to search out photos of our 99 legislative chambers to see if they fit the pattern identified by the Dutch architects.
It turns out that most of them do fall into these categories with a few modifications of the typology and the addition of one new type. Starting with the Opposing Benches category, there are no American legislatures that have a pure version of this model, which is closely identified with the Westminster style of parliament predominant in Great Britain and its Commonwealth countries. But take a look at the Vermont House of Representatives:
Would you describe that shape as “opposing benches with a curve” or “horseshoe with an open neck?” If you decide it’s a Horseshoe, then it would be the only one in that category in the 50 states. I prefer to place it in the category of a modified version of Opposing Benches because of the table in the middle that is typical of the form.
The most common American chamber shape is the classical Semicircle—as it is for the UN member parliaments—with 51 state legislative chambers (27 houses of representatives and 24 senates) matching this pattern. The fact that both chambers of the U.S. Congress use this form probably contributes to its predominance in state legislatures. This photo of the Iowa House of Representatives is a classic example of the Semicircle form:
The next most popular American form is the classroom style, like the Indiana Senate, with either 39 or 28 chambers in the category, depending on how you count them. The count of 28 includes only the ones that are full-on classroom style. There are another 11, though, that have a slight curve to the layout of the desks like the Missouri Senate:
I choose to call chambers like this Curved Classroom style. It’s a bit of a cross between Semicircle and Classroom.There are only two Circle chambers among state legislatures—the Connecticut (photo below) and Massachusetts senates.
There are two remaining chambers that belong in a new category that trainers refer to as Chevron. Take a look at the South Carolina Senate layout, which could be considered Opposing Benches but is distinctive because the two sides are angled toward the front desk:
The Arizona Senate’s design is similar but the desks are less angled toward the podium and each other:
Cohen de Lara and Mulder van der Vegt, the architects, conclude their article by saying:
"While the world outside the walls of these parliaments changed beyond recognition, parliaments are responding to these changes from a 19th century setting.
"Architecture sets the stage for our lives; it creates the world we inhabit and shapes how we relate to one another. In a time in which democracy is under increasing pressure in different parts of the world, it is time to rethink the architecture of assembly. Once built, parliaments are locked in time. But political systems can and should adapt to what is changing in the world. Since architecture gives shape to ideas, it can be a powerful tool to rethink our models for collective decision-making. It can be one way to reshape our deliberative bodies and experiment with new models that are more attuned to contemporary life and to the challenges that we are facing today."
I’m sympathetic to their conclusion, as I’m sure Garton would be, but don’t look for American legislatures to do much redesigning of their historic and tradition-laden chambers soon.
For the legislative geeks among our readers, here’s my list of each chamber’s shape. Please email me with corrections of the categories, as the shape of legislative chambers is not always clear from online photos or is open to debate.
Karl Kurtz is retired from the NCSL staff but continues as a legislative junkie as principal of the one-person consulting firm, Legis Matters.