Bombed but not Broken: 70 years after Commons' bombing

"We shape our buildings - and our buildings shape us." So Sir Winston Churchill told the House of Commons when it debated the rebuilding of its Chamber after it was destroyed by a German bomb, 70 years ago today. It was the worst night of the blitz, with thousands of casualties across London and across Britain. And three fire watchers died in Westminster.

Tonight at 11.30pm on BBC Parliament, I present Bombed but not Broken, a special programme telling the story of the bombing and the subsequent rebuilding of the heart of British democracy, with the aid of some marvellous archive footage.

The House of Commons we see today is pretty similar to the previous Barry and Pugin chamber which was created in the aftermath of the fire which destroyed the old Houses of Parliament in 1834, except that its gothic styling was watered down somewhat. But the key decision was to keep the Chamber much as the old one had been, two-sided with a clear distinction between the Government and Opposition sides, and not to switch to a continental-style hemicycle.

Churchill argued that that sharp party distinction, which was an accidental consequence of MPs moving into the narrow St Stephen's Chapel in the reign of King Edward VI, and moving the benches so that they faced each other, rather than the altar, set the template for two-party politics. And he opposed the idea of a Chamber shaped so that an MP could elide from one party to another, without ever having to "cross the floor." (He was of course an expert on this point, having crossed the floor from Tory to Liberal and back again, during the course of his long career.)

And speaking against the background of the blackout of European democracy in the 1930s and 1940s, he was dismissive of the way other parliaments, with their "harangues from the rostrum" had fallen to fascists and communists. He was determined to preserve the physical setting of democratic politics and the "spirit of place" that permeated the previous chamber - nodding enthusiastically when the Labour patriarch Jimmy Maxton commented that the Chamber was "no mere affair of stones, but a sentient place". Those voices were decisive - and resulted in the present Chamber, which was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott - also the architect of Battersea Power Station and the designer of the classic red phone box.

Scott took the opportunity to build in a bigger press gallery and more office space - but those who entered the new chamber on October 26, 1950, after years of borrowing the Chamber of the Lords, and occasionally Church House, found it spookily familiar, if a little less elaborate, and with a subtly lighter colour scheme. One noticeable change was the "Churchill Arch" - the doorway from the Members' Lobby into the Chamber. Churchill insisted that the blast-damaged stonework was preserved as a reminder of the Commons' own wartime ordeal. And to this day the scarred masonry can be seen beside his own statue.

We shape our buildings and they shape us, and the process has not finished.

There is a very interesting thesis waiting to be written about the consequences of the new Commons office building, Portcullis House. With its coffee bar and canteen, PH has become the new nexus of Parliament, where peers and MPs, researchers and hacks hang out, sip their lattes and mingle.

It is quite unlike the very compartmentalised facilities in the main building, many of them peers-only or MPs only, or only open to certain gradations of journalist. And it has, in a subtle way, changed the dynamic of Parliament.