The architecture of assembly

architcture of assembly

“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.”
Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt, “These 5 architectural designs influence every legislature in the world — and tell you how each governs, The Washington Post, March 4, 2017

The architcture of assembly

How do room sets imply and influence what happens at meetings? Can room sets affect the quality of democracy, sharing, and equality experienced by participants?

In Parliament, a fascinating new book and website, Dutch architects Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt document the architectural layout of all of the 193 United Nations’ member states legislative buildings, and analyze how their room sets correlate with the associated countries’ governance style. [Update: U.S. readers may be interested in a similar analysis of legislative chamber layouts of all 50 U.S. states.]

So what can we learn about meeting room set design from Parliament? Here are a few observations.

Curved theatre seating dominates

One of the interesting findings is that the most common legislative room set is one rarely used at traditional meetings: the semicircle.

architcture of assembly
National Assembly, Palais Bourbon, Paris, France

This of course echoes the pleas that Paul Radde & I have made for years for meeting planners to replace straight row theatre seating with curved row designs: pleas that, despite persuasive arguments, have largely fallen on deaf ears. Because every seat directly faces the focal point of the room, curved sets offer maximum comfort for each audience member. People don’t have to continually twist twist their bodies when they’re sitting for a long period.

Clearly, many architects of legislative chambers know something that most meeting planners don’t.

Room sets correlate with the level of democracy

Every room set imposes an architecture of assembly. Legislatures are meeting spaces that concentrate on sharing points of view, convincing others, making public political statements, negotiation, and compromise. Though all these objectives can be present for the non-political meetings and conferences that make up the majority of meeting industry work, let’s concentrate on the first activity: sharing points of view.

Parliament finds that classroom-style sets “…where members of parliament sit in regimented rows focused on a single speaker… [are] particularly common in countries with a low rank on the Economist’s Democracy Index.” Sadly, classroom sets are still, in my experience, the most common room sets used in meetings. If sharing points of view, participation, and engagement are desirable at a meeting, such sets should be avoided.

Conversely, circle seating is rarely used in parliaments or meetings. Only nine parliaments in the world meet in this setting.

The Landtag in Düsseldorf, the regional parliament of Nordrhein Westphalia in Germany

Circle room sets are the most egalitarian architecture, though hierarchy can still be suggested or maintained if two or more concentric circles of chairs are used. I open the Conferences That Work meeting design with participants sitting in a single circle of chairs — a room set limited, in practice, to around sixty people.

Horseshoe sets can facilitate a fluid focus

Horseshoe sets are, at first glance, a mixture of the semicircle set above and another common parliamentary form: opposing benches.

Opposing benches in the United Kingdom House of Commons Chamber

Interestingly, I’ve found that horseshoe room sets with a single-row of chairs, or multiple rows with plentiful aisles can provide an effective format for group discussions, with participants moving to and from a few “speaking” chairs at the mouth of the horseshoe.

The Bangladesh horseshoe-form legislative chamber

Meeting professionals are fortunate — if we apply ourselves

Here’s how Max & David conclude their Washington Post article:

“[Architecture] can be one way to … experiment with new models that are more attuned to contemporary life and to the challenges that we are facing today.”

Legislative chambers are massive formal structures that reflect the sociology, history, and politics of their culture. They are rarely rebuilt to reflect a change in the circumstances and outcomes they were originally designed to serve. Even so, the variety of forms displayed in Parliament shows us some of the rich possibilities available, even in heavily constrained circumstances.

Meeting professionals are more fortunate. We can usually change the room set to respond to the specific needs of a meeting. Yet too often, we limit ourselves to a small set of familiar forms we have experienced over and over again.

We can and should do better.

Room set and Landtag images reproduced from The Washington Post
French National Assembly image by Richard Ying et Tangui Morlier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
House of Commons image attribution Flickr user uk_parliament
Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, Dhaka, Bangladesh by Rossi101 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

When event covenants collide—a story

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I was facilitating a one-day workshop for 24 college presidents. At the start, we agreed to follow six covenants, including the freedom to ask questions at any time, and a commitment to stay on schedule. Our program was tight and college presidents are not known for their brevity, and I was feeling somewhat apprehensive about the group’s ability to honor the latter covenant.

During our opening roundtable sharing, everybody heroically tried to stop when their time was up, but we were still running late when, at the end of one participant’s contribution, someone I’ll call Q said, “Can I ask a question?”

All eyes turned in my direction. Conflicted and flustered, I blurted out: “No.”

Everyone laughed. My self-contradiction was funny—in the same way that seeing someone slipping on a banana peel is funny.

banana-peel

Q then asked his question anyway, which was the right thing to do. Why? Because both the question and the answer that followed were brief, and then we were on our way again. It was a challenge, but with the participants’ help we stayed on schedule for the rest of the day.

This was an interesting learning experience for me for three reasons. I learned that:

  • A preoccupation with a long-term process goal (keeping a program on schedule) can lead me to try to block a short-term need (getting a question answered).
  • Participants who respect the covenants we’re using (Q saw a contradiction and rightly asked me what was appropriate for him to do) can be trusted to do the right thing.
  • I am far more capable of dealing with potentially embarrassing situations than I used to be. (The moment I realized that my aim to keep the event on track wasn’t threatened, the experience became funny to me too. In the past, I would have remained feeling uncomfortable for a while about “losing control”.)

I suspect it’s impossible to have a set of covenants that won’t occasionally clash—and I think that’s actually a good thing.

A Taoist might say that tension between opposites illuminates the underlying core. In this example, I was attempting to balance the success of the overall experience with the needs of the moment. There’s no “right” answer; after all, too many delaying questions could have significantly disrupted the workshop flow and reduced the value of our time together. Awareness of the potential contradictions helped me to focus on a key aspect of the day’s work.

Noticing and responding as best one can to such tensions is necessary and valuable in the moment of facilitation. And, as a bonus, sometimes the outcome is amusing too.

Photo attribution: Flickr user manc72