When the Council of the European Union unveiled its new headquarters in 2016 a lot of disgruntled taxpayers thought its £300 million construction cost to be a symbol of EU wastefulness. The ‘space egg’ as it is known, has nearly 13, 000m2 of external window panes, frames made of English oak, and building materials from all over the member states. It is a weird but grandiose building and, despite the critics, the Council’s £300 million cost looks relatively modest in comparison to the £1 billion cost of Facebook, Amazon, and Apple’s headquarters. Remember that the EU is a trans-continental superpower, and Facebook is a social media website.
But the real question is: why do corporations and nations pour so much money into the construction costs for their seats of power?
The answer is: to make a statement. The building must exert power itself; a beauty and grandeur that does most of the talking with just its appearance. The Scottish parliament building ended up costing over 40 times the estimated budget to construct it – why did building not simply stop? The answer is: because to abandon a building that’s symbolic of democracy in Scotland would seem to irreversibly damage democracy in Scotland itself.
The Power and Presentation of Cleaning
Constructing a statement of power is only half the challenge. The rest lies in maintaining it – often at enormous, unnecessary expense. After all, even the grandest buildings gather dust and grime like the rest of them.
But to have a filthy building would betray the gloriousness that an important building is supposed to radiate: that’s why properties of power need to remain not just clean but sparkling.
Take the Palace of Westminster for example. The Old Palace was built in the 11th century to house the English royalty. When the Old Palace burned down and the new Palace was built, it had become the ‘mother of Parliaments’ and a focal-point of democracy. The building imbues prestige; it is also a world heritage site, and a Grade 1 listed building.
So it should come as no surprise that it costs the taxpayer £4 million a year to clean the Palace of Westminster. There is a team of window cleaners on site every single day; a part of their duties is to carefully maintain the special and ancient stained-glass windows inside.
Prestige at the Royal Palace
Westminster was at one time the seat of royal power, but that power has shifted. Today the Queen inhabits Buckingham Palace. The Queen is apolitical, but as part of her duties as a diplomatic force she must entertain up to 50,000 guests a year.
Cleanliness is very important for Buckingham Palace, and requires a small army to keep it presentable. To give some idea of the size of the Palace, try to imagine a house with 775 rooms and 78 bathrooms, and now imagine cleaning it. The Queen employs about 800 people to keep the Palace spick and span, and most of them live in-house. (Presumably the first thing they keep clean is their own bedrooms.)
Window cleaning at the Palace is a tricky affair: cleaners are not allowed to use telehandlers or other lofty, crane-like equipment – they must ensure privacy for the Royals. Instead they have to rely on 100-ft long window cleaning poles to wash the muck off of the highest windows.
To give an idea of how prestigious the idea of cleaning is to the Royal family, remember that the Queen has a ‘clockmaker’ on her payroll. His job is to check up on the Palace’s 350 clocks, making sure they are all in synch.
Contemporary power: Shifting attitudes to prestige
Something that is never far away from the news is that of climate change, pollution, and the hope of sustainability. The constant urgency to do more is shaping how our leaders construct their properties of power. Newer buildings almost always focus on sustainability, and try to manage this to help with the cleaning and maintenance costs.
The Senedd building, the seat of the Welsh government, for example, was built in 2001. It is thought to be one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in the world, and collects rainwater to flush its toilets. Similarly the ‘space egg’ of the European Union is made largely out of recycled or sustainable materials.
The properties of power must always send the right messages. In modern times this has shifted from glory to sustainable and progressive but regardless – new or old – our cultural institutions will always demand grandiosity. As the old saying goes: “Cleanliness is next to impossible”, yet that is precisely what the properties of power must strive to achieve – otherwise they could not be the pillars of our cultures and national consciousnesses. They must achieve the impossible.
This article was written by Ben Fielding. Ben is a copywriter for Pure Freedom. The data in this article were collated from numerous Freedom of Information (FoI) requests submitted to royal households, British institutions, and various EU buildings.