The European parliament's new home in Strasbourg is undeniably monumental, but do 626 MEPs really need a second vast complex to do their job?
Europe seems to be experiencing a new flush of democracy. Parliamentary buildings are appearing from Berlin to Edinburgh, London to Nicosia. Fittingly, the two most ambitious – and certainly the largest – have been purpose-built for the European parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg.

The final phase of the Brussels parliamentary complex was occupied in May 1997 and the Strasbourg building is nearing completion, with the first session pencilled in for this coming June.

But why build two complexes for one parliament? Could this be a heartwarming example of the Belgians and French working together in a spirit of international co-operation? Sadly, no. The arrangement is more one of bloody-minded national rivalry. The parliament is a glorified travelling circus, with the 626 MEPs holding committee meetings in Brussels for three weeks of the month, then decamping with their entourage of 3000-odd assistants and officials to Strasbourg for plenary sessions. To add to the confusion, the parliament's secretariat is in Luxembourg.

The Brussels and Strasbourg complexes fix this Euro-duplication in steel and concrete. The Strasbourg building, which will lie largely idle for three weeks of the month, comprises a parliamentary chamber able to seat 750 MEPs, 29 conference rooms with 2690 seats and 1133 individual offices. The final cost of the 220 000 m² complex is expected to be well above £330m.

All this accommodation inevitably makes for a vast building. All the more so as it has been squeezed on to a tiny promontory of the River Ill, across the water from the 1960s Council of Europe building and Richard Rogers Partnership's more recent European Court of Human Rights.

The building itself is a great arc of blue-tinted glass that follows the bend of the river in a 400 m curve rising at its midpoint to a height of 43 m, equivalent to an 11-storey building. Behind this arc is an even higher, coronet-shaped tower, containing 17 storeys of MEPs' offices. The actual debating chamber is positioned like an egg in a box – or more precisely, a timber-clad, oval chamber embedded within the riverfront arc.

It certainly is monumental, but the building does little to inspire faith in the transparency and accessibility of European democracy, at least when viewed from the outside. Not only is this glacial mammoth overpowering in scale, it also displays an over-simple geometry and an inscrutable tinted facade.

Yet despite its scale and overpowering exterior, this is far from being a mindless hunk of bureaucratic real estate. The design, chosen by means of an international architectural competition, is by the French practice Architectural Studio Europe, which has completed an array of sleek institutional buildings across France.

Architecture Studio Europe was all too aware that the Strasbourg building "runs the risk of totalitarianism by its scale alone", and has taken pains to express the "openness, dialogue and debate" of parliamentary democracy. These concerns lie behind the articulation of the building shell into the three elements of arc, tower and dome.

In theory, this makes for a legible building. In practice, the oval parliamentary chamber – the democratic heart of the bureaucratic complex – only appears as a shallow mound rising above the roof of the arc. From the outside, it only becomes fully visible at night, when the interior of the arc is lit up.

The architects have been more successful in breaking down the apparent scale of the building interior. Here they have introduced a chasm-like street that separates the public spaces from the private offices. This is traversed by slender footbridges at various levels and embellished by hanging gardens.

The interior design is steeped in an elaborate symbolism concerning circles and ellipses, which are intended to express, respectively, classical wholeness and romantic striving. "The symbolic challenge of representing democracy finds its expression in this tension between the circle and the ellipse, in their dialogue, their confrontation and their alliance," claim the architects. Thus, the office tower is circular in plan but encloses a narrow, elliptical courtyard. The parliamentary chamber, in contrast, is elliptical in plan and section but contains a circular configuration of seating.

Despite its curvilinear symbolism, the narrow courtyard within the tower expresses little more than an overconstrained plot ratio. The parliamentary chamber is more impressive. Its oval dome is clad in curved timber boarding, oak on the inside and cedar on the outside, giving the impression of a gargantuan hollow gourd emerging from the floor. It contains 1300 seats for MEPs and the public, making it the largest parliamentary chamber in Europe. But the relatively low ceiling, along with the curvilinear shapes and the ripple formation of overhead lights, give the huge chamber a sense of intimacy.

In practical terms, the facilities and space within the huge building should be adequate to accommodate the future enlargement of the European Union, even within the parliamentary chamber. But will MEPs appreciate the unprecedented physical compactness of the complex, or will they find it claustrophobic? And will their electorate come to appreciate the generous interiors, or will they be put off by the massive sheer exterior? The monumentalism of the building may well become its abiding image. But this monumentalism is largely hollow. The democracy that the architects have striven to express has little real substance in Strasbourg. The parliament may have gained some power in recent years, but the real decision-makers in the European labyrinth continue to be the European Commission in Brussels and the ministers of the member states.

Procurement problems

As is the rule in government projects, the European parliament building in Strasbourg has run into major problems. Planned for completion by December 1997, it is still not finished, although handover is now imminent. A parliament spokesman claimed that “serious problems” in the installation of cabling, sound systems and fire safety have still to be resolved and certificated. The building is being developed in a European equivalent of a private finance initiative. The developer is an ad hoc consortium named SERS, headed by Strasbourg city council, which donated the site. On completion, the parliament will enter into a 20-year lease and eventually buy the building outright. Design and construction is monopolised by French companies, plus one or two Italian and German firms. British companies were notable by their absence, with the exception of Bovis, which advised the client on buildability. Despite delays, the building is economical. Bovis project director, Jérôme Dauzet, believes that client variations will add only 2% to costs. The architect claims that, last June, the construction cost of the 220 000 m2 parliament was calculated to be £225m. This translates to a unit construction cost of only £1025/m2 – a fraction of the UK’s new MPs’ building in Westminster.