What we build shapes us

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What we build shapes us

People often think that the Palace of Westminster, the meeting place of the U.K. Parliament, is very old. But not all of the buildings are old. Westminster Hall, the oldest part, was built in 1097. But most of the structures were destroyed by fire in 1834, and the complex was rebuilt beginning in 1840.

The Commons Chamber is the newest. During World War II, German airstrikes destroyed the building in May 1941, leaving only the outer walls. The current structure was rebuilt and reopened in 1950. The members of Parliament pledged to build the same structure in the exact same place, like a phoenix reborn from the ashes.

The actual appearance did not change much, and the only change was adding more seats, from 340 to 430. Still, not all members can sit at once, as there are over 600. Unlike the Lords Chamber with its gilded decorations, the Commons Chamber is not ornate.

What makes the Commons Chamber really special is not visible. It is the spirit of solidarity of the countries that contributed to rebuilding the structure. Materials used in the chamber came from all over the world.

The table in the middle was a gift from Canada. Three chairs around the table are from the South African Republic. The Speaker’s Chair was a present from the Commonwealth of Australia. The two dispatch boxes on the table are from New Zealand, and the ink stand is from Zimbabwe.

In the Houses of Parliament, votes are conducted in the form of division. The members who support a bill gather in the lobby made with wood from Nigeria. Those who oppose stand in the lobby made with wood from Uganda. The entrance doors to the chamber were gifts from India and Pakistan. The clock was made in Northern Ireland. Gifts and materials from 50 countries were used to build the Commons Chamber.

Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.”

The latest controversy over the U.K. budget reminded me of how the Commons Chamber was built. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne reduced the tax exemption benefit, only to retract due to public opposition. The only area where he did not cut spending was official development assistance (ODA). Since 2010, the United Kingdom has allocated 0.7 percent of the gross national income (GNI) on ODA. The United States is the only country that spends more on ODA than the United Kingdom.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, vowed to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to charity. Countries also need to keep their promises. Korea has repeatedly promised to spend 0.25 percent of its GNI on ODA, but the promise has not been kept.

The author is the JoongAng Ilbo’s London correspondent.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 3, Page 35

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