10

It is quite common for legislative bodies to sit in "semi circles".

European Parliamentsource

I can see how, for historical reasons, this shape was optimal for hearing clearly in a large room, however this needs not be so in the present day and age.

This "strip-like" configuration arguably also lead to the concept of left and right and of two political "poles".

Why, then, do we keep on using this seating structure? Are there any countries that experimented with different seating shapes and with what results?

  • 1
    I think I read in a high school history textbook that after the Reichstag fire, parliaments in Nazi Germany weren't semicircular, but more like everyone facing forward. Presumably because dissent was not a valued feature of parliament. – Andrew Grimm Dec 25 '12 at 11:29
  • 2
    Ironically, it too means that orthodox communists and hardcore fascists sit close to each other. According to some liberals, so do some of their policies. – gerrit Jan 7 '13 at 13:28
11

The answer is very short but the reasons are:

  1. In theory when a speaker reads his speeches on the tribune, the speaker represents a portion of the "people", and because of that He deserves respect from his colleagues (other speakers), so a good way to do that is pointing all the seats in direction to the tribune.

  2. The acoustic reason, is because they try to imitate or simulate a the Greek Theater, where the sound is distributed uniformly along all the seats and the last user (in this case another speaker) can listen what the other speaker says. Don't forget that most of speakers Houses were built in XIX Century when the microphone didn't exist, so listening to others was troublesome.

---------------------------------Greek theater_______________________________________

  • I think for #2 you meant the term "acoustics", not "phonic"? +1 for #2. – user4012 Dec 24 '12 at 2:21
7

As one who regularly addresses large crowds, I can tell you that while acoustics may not be as important today, eye contact still is. Alternatives such as a podium in the round are disconcerting at best.

Also, remember that many legislatures in the United States are in the same buildings they have been in for years. Tradition plays an important role, and there is a high bar to change it.

Finally, if you are wondering why parties sit together, there is an even simpler reason. Think back to high school. Given a choice between assigned seats (where the teacher decided) and sitting with your friends, which did you choose? In most assemblies, the podium is one of the less interesting things going on. It's the ability to talk with your colleagues (the polite term is caucus), both for strategic reasons and just because you like them better that matters.

  • Just a note: if you watch cspan regularly, you will find that most speeches on the house and senate floor are unattended. – user1873 Dec 24 '12 at 15:08
  • True, but during ceremonies of state the chamber is filled – Affable Geek Dec 25 '12 at 4:41
5

To answer the second part of your question about other seating arrangements:
The British House of Commons is set up in a rectangle, with each party on one side of the rectangle and the speaker sitting in between the two aisles. Also unique to the HoC is the size. The chamber can only seat 427 of the 650 members. After WWII, Churchill had the opportunity to rebuild the chamber to accommodate the large body. He declined and insisted that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy: 'we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.' The Confrontational design helps to keep debates lively and robust but also intimate. Having watched some debate, I can say the British House of Commons is much more rowdy than any other government I have seen.

  • Several parliaments in Canada, federal and provincial, are set up the same way. I can't say if it's all of them. But they certainly have been that way since before electronics was a big factor. And the rowdy nature is also present in Canadian politics. – user21424 Sep 25 '18 at 21:02
0

Canada and Britain are opposed, stacked rows, like spectator flanks in a hockey stadium, while France and America are like the ends of a hockey stadium, rounded. There is no "reason" for either shape.

  • I would disagree that there is "no reason". There are historical reasons why the shapes were chosen in the first place (e.g. the House of Commons' layout is based on that of a chapel). And there are reasons why such layouts -- even if initially accidental -- are maintained. – owjburnham Oct 5 '17 at 13:45
0

I believe the members of the Volkskammer in the German Democratic Republic were seated in straight rows forming a rectangle, a bit like a classroom, rather than a semi-circle.

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