The Parliament Building in Bern is at the heart of Swiss democracy. The parliament meets under its mighty dome, while the west and east wings are home to parts of the Swiss federal government and the federal administration. Outside, the expansive Bundesplatz (Parliament Square) is a lively meeting place for young and old alike.
Two structures dominate the silhouette of Switzerland’s capital city: the Gothic tower of the Bern Minster and the green dome of the Parliament Building with its golden ribbing on the roof. While still in its infancy, the Swiss federal state wanted to demonstrate its self-confidence by erecting the 300-meter-long monumental Federal Palace. The imposing dome of the Parliament Building rises from the center of the complex of buildings. Inaugurated in 1902, it houses the chambers of the National Council and Council of States, the parliamentary party offices, a restaurant and cafeteria, as well as numerous ancillary rooms. The adjacent, rather spartan west wing of the Federal Palace, built in 1857, is home to two departments (ministries), the Federal Chancellery, a library and the meeting room of the Federal Council (state government). Two other departments are located in the east wing, which was opened in 1892.
Born Out of a Civil War
Switzerland became a federal state in 1848. Bern was chosen as the capital thanks to its central location between the German- and French-speaking parts of the country. The city’s promise to donate the land for the administrative buildings was probably a very persuasive argument as well. Centuries of internal conflicts, foreign occupations and civil wars preceded the founding of the federal state. From 1815 onward, a federal act regulated the relationship between the 22 cantons in existence at that time. In the “Tagsatzung” (Diet), whose origins date back to the 15th century, delegates from those cantons would deal with the affairs of the day. The meeting venues of the Diet alternated between Lucerne, Bern and Zurich, but the country was divided by rifts between its conservative Catholic cantons and the more liberal, predominantly Protestant cantons. In 1844 and 1845, militias from the liberal cantons tried to overthrow Lucerne’s conservative government. As a consequence, seven Catholic cantons founded the “Sonderbund”, a special alliance. The liberal majority of the Diet decided to dissolve the alliance, accomplishing this during a civil war in November 1847. A federal constitution was then drawn up in record time. Almost three-quarters of those eligible to vote accepted the new constitution in the summer of 1848, and Switzerland as we know it today was born.
Parliament Building as a National Symbol
The new Parliament Building was intended to help bridge the gap between the various linguistic regions and different political and religious beliefs. The Federal Council hired architect Hans Wilhelm Auer, born in Wädenswil (Canton Zurich) in 1847. His accomplishments from 1874 to 1883 already included supervising the construction of the Parliament Building in Vienna and building the east wing of the Swiss Federal Palace. He regarded parliamentary buildings as a symbol of national unity. To convey this belief, he ensured that 30 types of rock from 13 cantons were used in the construction and interior design of the Swiss Parliament Building. Auer contracted Swiss companies only and hired 38 sculptors, painters and glass artists.
Switzerland’s Legendary History Carved in Stone
As soon as you step into the entrance hall, you can see how the Parliament Building pays homage to the mythical founding of Switzerland. A massive sculpture shows the forefathers taking the Rütli oath, just as Friedrich Schiller describes the fictitious founding scene of the Swiss Confederation in his work "Wilhelm Tell". The Domed Hall forms the architectural focal point, with a ceremonial staircase leading up to the second floor, the south side of the building, and the National Council chamber. Visitors and diplomats are able to observe the political proceedings from the spectator gallery. The meetings of the United Federal Assembly also take place here. On such occasions, the members of the Council of States take up their places along the rear wall. "The Cradle of the Confederation", a monumental mural gracing the wall by Geneva painter Charles Giron, is a characteristic feature of the chamber (allowing it to be recognized easily in pictures or television reports).
The smaller Council of States chamber is also located on the second floor, facing the Bundesplatz (Parliament Square). The rectangular room with its dark wood paneling is reminiscent of the council chambers of the Old Confederation, as is the oval council table in the middle of the chamber. This space is also adorned with a well-known painting – this time it is the fresco "Die Landsgemeinde" by Albert Welti and Wilhelm Balmer. Anyone who makes it this far on a tour of the Parliament Building should stop for a moment in the light-flooded lobby with its breathtaking view of the Aare river and the Bernese Alps.
From Parking Lot to City Square
Up until 2003, the Bundesplatz (Parliament Square) was a dreary, car-filled parking lot. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, however, the mood brightened with the arrival of the colorful vegetable, fruit and flower market (still held twice weekly). The square was completely transformed between 2003 and 2004, and since then neither trees, benches nor parked cars have obstructed the view of the Parliament Building. A 180-m² rectangle covered with dark slabs of Vals gneiss lends an elegant touch to the square.
In addition to the weekly markets, the square provides a setting for political manifestations, concerts, state receptions and sporting events. The main buildings of the Swiss National Bank and the Bernese Cantonal Bank are located on the Bundesplatz (Parliament Square), while to the north it borders on Bärenplatz (Bear’s Square) with several restaurants and other bank and office buildings along its edges. During the winter months, an artificial skating rink and restaurant are set up in front of the National Bank, and from spring to fall, interactive water fountains on the square’s western side offer refreshing fun for young and old alike.
26 Fountains for 26 Cantons
The 26 fountains of the Parliament Square’s water display represent the 26 cantons of Switzerland. Sometimes in rhythm, sometimes randomly, the water appears to burst out directly from the stone slabs and sprays up to seven meters into the air. Children play and splash in the fountains squealing with joy, while adults and even dogs can refresh themselves on hot days in the cool water. Young people clustered in smaller and larger groups sit around beside the fountains, sharing a picnic, having earnest discussions – perhaps even practicing a dance performance. This image is quite amazing in many regards. Such a sight would be unthinkable in front of other seats of government, such as the White House or the Elysée Palace.
The Swiss system of government is structured from the bottom up: from municipality level to cantonal (similar to a county in England or a state in the USA) and finally to federal state level. Thanks to direct democracy, sovereignty resides with the people, and voters can participate in decision-making at all levels exercising supreme political power. By means of referendums and cantonal and popular initiatives, they can directly influence legislation or amend parliamentary decisions.
The national parliament is a legislative body consisting of two chambers. In the 200-member National Council, which represents the people and their interests, the smallest cantons and half-cantons can claim one seat, while the larger ones are allocated several seats depending on their population. The Council of States represents the cantons and consists of 46 members: two from each canton and one member from each half-canton. Together, the two councils form the United Federal Assembly, which, among other things, elects the seven-member Federal Council, the Federal Chancellor (the government’s chief of staff) and the members of the highest courts.
A Visit to the Parliament Building
When parliament is in session, spectators can experience the debates and votes in both the council chambers live from the public gallery. A valid identity card is all you need to gain entry, but keep in mind that the number of visitors is limited and prior reservation is not possible. In the periods between parliamentary sessions, free guided tours for individuals and groups are offered from Tuesday to Saturday. After admiring the artwork in the Domed Hall, visitors take the open staircase to the lobby, then proceed to the National Council and Council of States chambers. This provides visitors with an insight into how Swiss politics and the parliament work. The tour is offered in German, French, Italian and English, and online reservations can be made up to three days in advance.
Virtual tour of the Parliament Building and information about tours of the Parliament Building