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THE CITY and buildings and streets and landscapes and skyscapes through which we move have their effects upon us, and end up influencing us, often in very profound ways. Hence the choices we make about the places where we choose to situate ourselves—keeping always in mind that there are many things that we cannot choose about our lives—are of great moment. Such choices have particular importance when they relate to the built environment. Winston Churchill gave a speech in October of 1943, in the midst of the still-raging Second World War, that expressed the matter perfectly, as he so often had a talent for doing. The German air force had destroyed the British House of Commons building in an air raid on May 10, 1941, and, after a period of time in which the Parliament had moved temporarily to the House of Lords, it was now possible to contemplate rebuilding the House of Commons. But how closely should the new structure follow the old lines? Or was it an appropriate moment to contemplate alterations and improvements? A larger, more spacious meeting chamber, for example? Churchill thought that any such change would be a matter of the utmost importance, hence he chose to weigh in forcefully on the matter, as Prime Minister and national leader. Churchill did not have a professional's understanding of architecture. But he showed at the outset that he understood what was at stake better than a whole battalion of experts. "We shape our buildings," he said, "and afterwards our buildings shape us." He went on to explain, briefly but powerfully, why the Commons building should be rebuilt exactly as before, and on the same foundations. This was not merely a sentimental gesture, born of a desire to maintain aesthetic continuity with the past; or a patriotic one, meant to keep faith with the ancestors. It was meant to preserve functional continuity as well. The preservation of the shape and size of the small oblong Chamber of the Commons might seem a matter of indifference. But Churchill insisted otherwise. Parliamentary government had flourished in Britain within precisely these structures, and partly because of these structures. The shape of the building crucially influenced the way that political factions organized themselves, and the manner in which debate 6

The City: Summer 2009

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