The architecture 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, 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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