C Northcote Parkinson’s Law of Buildings


NATO’s new HQ. Copyright: SOM + assar architects

Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) was primarily a British naval historian who accidentally fell into the field of public administration and management via a 1955 humorous article published in the Economist magazine. Later expanded to book length, Parkinson’s Law, which argued that ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’ rapidly became ubiquitous. That ubiquity overshadowed the fact that Parkinson, a prolific author, proposed a number of equally convincing laws and observations about bureaucratic life. He developed, for example, a mathematical formula to predict that the (British) Royal Navy would one day have more admirals than ships (on 24 September 2008 the Daily Telegraph duly reported that ‘There are currently 41 admirals, vice-admirals and rear-admirals but … the number of fighting ships in the Navy now stands at just 40.’). His Law of Triviality wittily compared debates about expenses for a nuclear plant, a bicycle shed and refreshments to demonstrate how expenditure committees naturally concentrate their attention on smaller figures about activities to which they can relate. And who could disagree with his description of the:

‘… standard test by which the importance of the individual may be assessed. The number of doors to be passed, the number of his personal assistants, the number of his telephone receivers – these three figures, taken with the depth of his carpet in centimetres, have given us a simple formula that is reliable for most parts of the world.’?

This blog may return to Parkinson’s other laws at some date, but the law that concerns this essay was first published under the title of ‘Plans and Plants, or The Administration Block.’ For ease of reference, it shall be referred to here as Parkinson’s Law of Buildings. This he defines as follows; ‘a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse… Perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is not time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done.’

Parkinson calls in evidence a series of historical examples of architectural grandeur accompanying organizational/institutional decline. In the case of the Vatican, for example, ‘the great days of the papacy were over before the perfect setting was even planned. They were almost forgotten by the date of its completion.’ By 1933 the League of Nations was seen to have failed, and yet its ‘physical embodiment’, the Palace of Nations, was not opened until 1937. He argues that Louis XIV moved to Versailles in 1682, the year his career reached its apex, and thereafter, as the sumptuous Palace was gradually completed, so his power inexorably declined. Parkinson gives a number of British examples, including Blenheim Palace, Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster and the Colonial Office, but identifies New Delhi, started in 1911, several years after the decline of British imperialism began (with the 1906 General Election), as a perfect example of his Law’s applicability.

Parkinson warns, however, that the inverse of the Law doesn’t necessarily apply. That is, the life of a dying institution could not be prolonged ‘merely by depriving it of its streamlined headquarters’. On the other hand, ‘an influential reader’ could ‘prevent any organisation strangling itself at birth:’

‘Examples abound of new institutions coming into existence with a full establishment of deputy directors, consultants and executives, all these coming together in a building specially designed for their purpose. And experience proves that such an institution will die. It is choked by its own perfection. It cannot take root for lack of soil. It cannot grow naturally for it is already grown.’

Readers may themselves conclude that there are plenty of illustrations of Parkinson’s Law of Buildings at work in Brussels, Luxembourg (the newly-marbled majesty of the law, perhaps?), Strasbourg (ahem) and Frankfurt (double ahem). But there is, surely, in Brussels, one example par excellence of the Law. In October 1967, following the organisation’s de facto ejection by France, NATO’s hastily-built provisional headquarters were opened on the site of the old Haren airport on the outskirts of Brussels. The organization was expected to move to a permanent site at Heysel the next year, but the move never took place. Therefore, until the present day, and throughout much of the Cold War, NATO has been housed, and functioned reasonably well, in jerry-built prefabricated buildings notorious among long-suffering staff for their impracticability. But now, in 2016, with NATO’s post-Cold War existential crisis rumbling on, the organization will move into a magnificent, state-of-the-art, Michel Mossessian and Larry Oltmanns-designed Headquarters building on the other side of the Boulevard Léopold III. The design can be viewed at this address: http://www.som.com/projects/nato_headquarters  The site states that:

“The design for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters evokes fingers interlaced in a symbolic clasp of unity — an apt symbol given NATO’s changing mission from opposition and prevention to unification and integration. The building provides each member-nation with embassy-level security and privacy while also offering communal spaces where delegates can convene. Flexible office layouts and shared amenities yield an office urbanism that brings together 28 member countries and 19 partner nations. The 41-hectare campus includes a highly secure data center and 245,000 square meters of office, conference, and recreational space. The structure and organization were designed in direct response to considerations of the community. Sustainable design is employed throughout, with a number of innovative solutions such as photovoltaic cells, green roofs, chilled slabs, and natural ventilation.”

Putin’s bellicosity, the Crimean venture and the perceived threat in the Baltic may have given NATO a renewed raison d’être for the time being, but, ah! ‘An office urbanism…’ ‘Considerations of the community…’ As Parkinson put it, ‘When we see an example of such planning … the experts among us shake their heads sadly, draw a sheet over the corpse, and tiptoe quietly into the open air.’

Note: Northcote Parkinson was the author of some sixty published books, including nautical fiction, naval history, biographies of fictional characters, naval history and studies related to public administration and management. Parkinson’s Law was published in 1957 by John Murray Ltd.

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