The old Palace of Westminster, London , the seat of parliamentary government of the United Kingdom , was destroyed in a fire in 1834. Most of the palace burned to ashes, with the exception of the Hall of Westminster.

A new palace had to be constructed as no amount of restoration or regeneration would be sufficient to bring back the charm of the palace. This became a perfect opportunity to exemplify the pre-eminence of modern democracy in the United Kingdom. So, they launched a competition for redesigning the Palace of Westminster in Neo-gothic or Neo- Elizabethan architecture styles .  

Timeline of restoration: Palace of Westminster - Sheet1
Palace of Westminster_ ©2022 London Duck Tours Ltd

A palace that housed the House of Commons, House of Lords, several offices, and administrative and staff quarters had to be constructed on a rectangular site roughly measuring 800 by 350 ft. The Westminster hall had to be retained as it is. The competition received 97 entries, from which Ar. Charles Barry’s entry was chosen as the winning design. After several years of significant back and forth between the architect and the parliament, the original design changed to be immensely extravagant.

Timeline of restoration: Palace of Westminster - Sheet2
Spaces within the Palace of Westminster_©BBC News. 2022. | Parliament restoration plan could cost up to £5.7bn. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-33184160 [Accessed 14 August 2022].
Finally, in the year 1840, the first stone of the palace was laid. The gothic mammoth has 1180 chambers or rooms, 126 staircases, and over 2 miles of corridors. It is made up of 7,75,000 cubic meters of sandy limestone from Anton Quarry in Yorkshire.  Although the stone proved to be apt for the intricate carvings, it was clear from the beginning that it wasn’t going to withstand the intense pollution of industrial London.

Restoration timeline of the Palace of Westminster:

Construction Phase Restoration (1849-1926): 

Since the early phases of construction, several restoration attempts were made along the years of construction itself. In 1861, it was agreed that the stonework would be treated to control decay. However, no significant attempts were made to arrest this decay till the year 1913. During the years 1913-26, approximately 175 tonnes of stone were handpicked, stripping the marvel of all its beauty.      

Stone Conservation (1926-36): 

Considering the rapid decay of stone, the office proposed the restoration of stonework over a span of 12-18 years. The soft limestone would be replaced by hard oolitic limestone stone; in this process, the intricate details on the roof or the ones that were not going to be visible from the ground were to be eliminated. This restoration work continued till the mid-1930s and later came to a halt with the advent of the war.

Repair, Restoration , and Conservation of the Palace of Westminster-

The inadequacy of original construction and the damages sustained during the war called for urgent restoration initiatives. Numerous specialists were appointed to plan the restoration of the palace; these included the Directorate of Works London, the Directorate of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings – the forerunner of English Heritage – and the Building Research Establishment. The recarving, rebuilding, regilding, and replacement works were clubbed under three titles Repair Restoration and Conservation (RRC). 

Stone Conservation Programme (1981-94):

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Stone Conservation Programme_©BBC News. 2022. | Parliament restoration plan could cost up to £5.7bn. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-33184160 [Accessed 14 August 2022].
The initial stone conservation wasn’t of much help; the condition of the stone kept on deteriorating in the polluted London atmosphere. By the 1960s, concerns rose around the Palace’s image; a member of the house even referred to the palace’s appearance as ‘  Joseph’s Multicolored Coat ’. Different stone cleaning methods were being thought of to restore the facades of the palace, but no solid known stone-cleaning method existed at the time. Finally, in 1973 a feasibility report suggested the complete restoration of all external facades. This stonework restoration program was divided into 8 phases.

Phase I New Palace Yard (1981 – 1982): 

The Commons West Front with the grand Portland stone colonnade faces the New Palace Yard. The restoration of this Portland colonnade marked the first phase of works. The stone was in fairly good condition and only needed cleaning and repointing. This process involved water cleaning and dry brushing to remove several layers of dust and pollution from the surface.  

Phase II Westminster Halls and Peers’ West Front (1982 – 1984):  

Timeline of restoration: Palace of Westminster - Sheet4
Westminster Hall_©Restorationandrenewal.uk. 2022. An extraordinary history | Restoration and Renewal. Available at: https://www.restorationandrenewal.uk/palace_of_westminster/an-extraordinary-history [Accessed 14 August 2022]
The Westminster Hall is the oldest part of the palace and is adorned by a west side extension by J.L. Pearson featuring original flying buttresses. There is a mix of styles and stones in this part of the palace. The facade is flanked with intricate details, statues, elegant window tracery shields, and crocketed pinnacles. The restoration of which was a rather interesting mix of recarving, regilding, and repointing of these diverse elements.     

Phase III Speaker’s Green (1982 – 1984):

Speaker’s green elevation includes the Speaker’s tower and runs towards the Thames river. The bays contain niches and feature the statues of Kings and Queens of England. The stonework in this part had to be cleaned with strict control rules, to protect the fine interiors of the Speaker’s House state rooms.  

Phase IV The Clock Tower (1982 – 1985): 

Timeline of restoration: Palace of Westminster - Sheet5
Big Ben Tower_©David Cliff/NurPhoto/Getty Images

The 314 ft high Big Ben Tower is made of iron girders and a combination of Caen stone and brick on the interior and both hard and soft limestone on the exterior. The process of repair and facelift of the tower required massive scaffolding. The astonishing part was the restoration of the clock hands that were inspected and analyzed using x-ray by Harvel’s  Atomic Research Establishment. Another important part of the restoration process was the hot-zinc spray and reapplication of paint as an anti-corrosion treatment for the cast iron roof and lantern. 

Phase V The River Elevation and Chancellor’s Tower (1985 – 1986): 

The riverside elevation features the speaker’s tower and the Chancellor’s tower. The stonework along this facade was in quite worse condition, the carved panels on Chancellor’s tower had to be replaced entirely. A different Anstrude stone from France had to be augmented with the oolitic limestone Clipsham. The rest of the stonework was cleaned using mild air abrasion techniques. Additionally, works like gilding, repointing, and repainting metal were carried out.    

Phase VI The Central Tower (1986 – 1989): 

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Self-supporting Scaffolding_ ©Apolloscaffoldservices.co.uk. 2022. Available at: https://apolloscaffoldservices.co.uk/images/postimages/parliament/parliament-3.jpg [Accessed 14 August 2022].
The central tower or the great chimney comprised of a complex arrangement of pinnacles. A few of these pinnacles were missing since the war and were thus rebuilt. The challenge here was the requirement of building a self-supporting scaffolding structure as the arrangement of pinnacles was complex. 

Phase VII Black Rods Garden Elevation (1990 – 1991): 

The south elevation witnessed a lot of stone cleaning trials from 1971-72 and thus was a lot cleaner than most facades. It featured several statues, heraldic devices, orbs, crosses, and pinnacles, only a few of which required regilding and rebuilding. To make the facade look holistic, it was lightly cleaned.    

Phase VIII The Victoria Tower (1990 – 1994):

The final phase of the RRR program was perhaps the most challenging one. The restoration of the large Victoria Tower had to exclude the involvement of dust and water owing to the ancient manuscripts stored in the tower. Also, the building wings around and above had to be accessed continuously this made the process of restoration inconvenient.  There was a change of body responsible for continuing restoration of the palace following the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992.

Parliament Restoration and Renewal Plan (Tentative Timeline: 2019-2047)

Parliament Restoration and Renewal Plan_ ©UK Parliament / Mark Duffy

In 2019, a broken pipe halted the proceedings of the House of Commons highlighting the adverse state of the Parliament building. Since then talks have been around about yet again restoring the palace of Westminster, this time on a much larger scale. The Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Plan aims to transform the Houses of Parliament adapting them to newer technologies and future requirements. 

Tentatively the plan will require 19-28 years to complete, with 12-20 years of both the House of Commons and House of Lords working from outside, keeping the building vacant would save restoration costs and time significantly. 

These Palace of Westminster restoration works are divided into strategic themes and aim to address larger issues within the palace. The categories that the program will look at include: 

  1. Health and Safety: Enhancing fire and safety protection by replacing 4000 bronze windows and the removal of asbestos. 
  2. Building Services: The Palace has reported over 40,000 issues related to outdated services. The restoration plan aims to replace all the HVAC systems, drainage, water supply, and fire systems.   
  3. Building fabric Conservation: The stonework on the facade is posing serious issues as status and stone pieces are falling off. The building fabric restoration will require intense work. 
  4. Striving for Accessibility and Inclusion: The restoration plan aims to make the heritage piece welcoming and accessible for every individual. 
  5. Functionality and Design: The plan is to make the building future-ready by incorporating all the necessary safety measures. It also proposes the installation of information and communication technology within the palace for better connectivity. 
  6. Sustainability: Delivering environmentally sustainable solutions at par with the industry standards.

As of now, the House of Commons Commission, a new joint department is responsible for the management of the Restoration and Renewal Plan (RR). HOK is the architecture firm hired for restoration. The one of its kind humongous gothic wonder can take up to 76 years and around  £22bn in total to restore in its full glory.

References:

  1. https://www.parliament.uk/. 2022. House of Commons Information Office Restoration of the Palace of Westminster: 1981-94. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2022].
  2. 2022. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2022].
  3. Fiederer, L., 2022. AD Classics: Palace of Westminster / Charles Barry & Augustus Pugin . [online] ArchDaily. Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2022].
  4. BBC News. 2022. Parliament restoration: Report warns of increasing costs . [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2022].
  5. 2022. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2022].
  6. https://www.parliament.uk/. 2022. House of Commons Information Office Restoration of the Palace of Westminster: 1981-94 . [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2022].
  7. Hakimian, R. and Hakimian, R., 2022. Palace of Westminster restoration could take over half a century and cost £22bn | New Civil Engineer. [online] New Civil Engineer. Available at: [Accessed 14 August 2022].
Author

Namita Dhawan is an architect and a writer. She is extremely enthusiastic about architecture, design, history, research, and writing. She believes architecture is about power, it can provoke thoughts, and emotions, and control the actions of the users subtly.

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