Parkinson's Law
Requiem for a Dream

After an abysmal year, the EU has just opened a bright, shiny new headquarters—and not even the New York Times can avoid noticing the glaring irony:

Britain voted in June to leave the bloc, and the willingness of the other 27 member states to play by rules decided in Brussels is being tested in ways scarcely imaginable when the project was given the go-ahead a dozen years ago. Europe is being swept by populist fury, much of it directed at the European Union — at its centralizing tendencies and its often ineffectual results.

National leaders have failed repeatedly to reach consensus over how to manage the debt crisis in Greece that nearly sank the euro several years ago. They still are quarreling over how to handle a mass influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. That crisis could resume if a delicate deal with Turkey restraining the flow collapses.

At best, the new building might represent a fresh start for the European Union, along with its architecturally charmless neighborhood, known as the European Quarter. At worst, European leaders might end up meeting in their eye-catching new headquarters just as they reach the nadir in the struggle to determine the future of their troubled Continent.

The description of the $340M building is almost perfectly parodic:

A cube-shaped, see-through facade that encases the orb serves as a visual hymn to the European Union’s motto, “United in diversity,” Mr. Samyn said. The facade’s 3,750 panes of extra-clear glass have been mounted in refurbished oak window frames of different sizes, which were obtained from demolition sites in each member state.

The meeting rooms are laid with carpets and have ceiling coverings in 60 different colors, producing a mildly psychedelic effect. The square and rectangles motif, designed by Georges Meurant, a Belgian artist, acknowledges the importance of color to national identity while avoiding patterns that recall any individual member state’s flag.

The bloc’s leaders will sit at a round table rather than the one with sharp angles that is currently in use in the Justus Lipsius. That means they will no longer need to use video monitors some of the time to see who is speaking, making the atmosphere more intimate, Mr. Samyn said.

Longtime readers will know that we here at TAI are fans of Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the sardonic British bureaucrat and essayist whose collection, Parkinson’s Law, presents such timeless maxims as, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” It turns out that Parkinson had a theory on headquarters. He held that “lively and productive” institutions flourish in “shabby and makeshift surroundings,” while:

[P]erfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.

One illustration from from Parkinson’s “archaeological and historical” research into this ‘rule’ ought to be particularly chilling to the mandarins in Brussels:

Just such a sequence can be found in the history of the League of Nations. Great hopes centered on the League from its inception in 1920 until about 1930. By 1933, at the latest, the experiment was seen to have failed. Its physical embodiment, however, the Palace of the Nations, was not opened until 1937. It was a structure no doubt justly admired. Deep thought had gone into the design of secretariat and council chambers, committee rooms and cafeteria. Everything was there which ingenuity could devise— except, indeed, the League itself. By the year when its Palace was formally opened the League had practically ceased to exist.

Perhaps we can add an addendum to Parkinson’s chapter, saying that another sign of finality comes when the New York Times acknowledges a liberal-internationalist dream is in trouble. Their headline was, “As Hopes for European Unity Dim, New E.U. Headquarters Are Glowing.” The piece ended by comparing the new HQ to an urn.

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