Power of place: does the seating arrangement of a state legislative chamber play a role in its effectiveness?

Author:Kurtz, Karl

If you were going to build the perfect capitol, with chambers that encourage meaningful dialogue, enlightening discussions and bipartisan camaraderie, would it look like the place where you work?


"Whether arranged in a semicircle or horseshoe, as opposing benches or classroom style, the seats in these halls not only offer clues to a nation's history, but also the atmosphere in which its laws are shaped," contend Dutch architects Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt. In "Parliament," a book they published last year, the two examine the complex relationship between architecture and politics by comparing the legislative halls of all 193 countries in the United Nations.

They found that all chambers' seating arrangements fit one of five designs, and that despite the unique geography and type of government associated with each, these legislative spaces are "part of the drama that is performed in them"--becoming what the authors describe as "actors in the shaping of our shared future."

What about state legislative chambers? The researchers didn't include any U.S. state capitols in their study, so we looked for ourselves. It turns out that state chambers fall into four of the authors' five categories--with a few modifications and one addition.

What Shape Are You In?

The most common American chamber shape is the classic semicircle--as it is for the U.N. member parliaments--with 51 legislative chambers (27 houses of representatives and 24 senates) matching this pattern. That both chambers of the U.S. Congress were built in this style probably contributes to its predominance among state legislatures. Iowa's House of Representatives, built in 1886, is a classic example, as are the Arkansas and Idaho house chambers, finished in 1915 and 1920, respectively.

The next most popular American form is the classroom style. The Texas House, with its 150 desks, is set up this way, as are the Washington Senate, with 49 desks, and the Oregon Senate, with 30. Another 26 chambers have classroom arrangements. Twelve more, including the Missouri and Indiana senates, have a slightly curved classroom style, with some desks at an angle.



The Connecticut and Massachusetts senates are the only full-circle state chambers among the country's 99. (Nebraska has just one chamber.)

The only configuration found in the U.S. that the Dutch researchers didn 't find elsewhere is the "chevron" style. The...

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