The Scottish Parliament
Edinburgh EH99 1SP
 

EMBT (Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue) with RMJM 2004

In assessing the Scottish Parliament building, it is hard to separate the building itself from the extraordinary cost of creating it. At the official estimate of £431 million ($750 million), this amounts to a contribution of more than £100 from each Scottish adult, or more than £3.3 million ($6 million) to accommodate each of the 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (there is a total staff in the building of 1,200).

The point is not just that at that price the building had better be good. The significance of the cost is that the big claim of Miralles’ design over its competitors was in how democratic it was. The four other shortlisted designs in an invited competition were more classically monumental. The design by Spanish architect Enric Miralles was more self-effacing and metaphorical – an arranged cluster of low-lying buildings nestling into the land:

“The Parliament sits in the land. We have the feeling that the building should be land, built out of land. To carve in the land the form of gathering people together... Scotland is a land… The land itself will be a material, a physical building material…”

This apparently restrained approach, where 60 percent of the urban site is covered in vegetation, appealed to the jury, and in particular to Donald Dewar, Scotland’s First Minister and the lead client: “Miralles had ideas about how you put a building into the site that we found very sympathetic… he wasn’t looking for a landmark building.” 

 

The building is full of democratic references, from the grassy banks that serve as a people’s “assembly area” to the dark, monk-cell-inspired inglenooks in each MSP’s office; from the narrow, winding corridors and staircases designed to encourage casual interactions between MSPs, to the circular layout of the debating chamber. But this is democracy at a luxury price. 

 

Abstract shapes of Miralles’ invention continue the democratic theme, representing “whatever you want them to be”, as the tour guide tells us repeatedly. The most ubiquitous and characteristic shape is used at scale on the building façade to shade the windows, and in miniature inside in the perforated grilles of the air conditioning vents. The orthodox interpretation of the shape is as the (loosely inspired) outline of the Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch, a painting in the National Gallery of Scotland. Other interpretations have ranged from hair-dryers to the triggers of revolvers. This freedom of interpretation feels less an exercise in democracy, and more an unquestioning hero-worship exacerbated by the untimely deaths during the project of both Enrico Miralles, the lead architect, and Donald Dewar, the lead client.

The materials and the detailing spare no expense in communicating the Scottish heritage that the form of the building omits. Saltire crosses are embedded in the silky-smooth concrete vaults in the public entrance. The stepped gables prevalent in the Royal Mile are turned upside-down in the bottom of the projecting inglenooks in the MSPs’ offices. Grey granite was quarried from a disused Scottish quarry in Aberdeenshire, re-opened specially for the building (and now remaining open, exploiting the new fame of its stone). Scottish oak is used selectively, complemented by oak from mainland Europe.

The roof of the debating chamber is a complex construction of tensile steel wires and steel-reinforced oak beams, inspired by the hammer-beam roof of the 1639 Parliament building; the structure does provide a clear view for all MSPs with no obstructing columns, but with a gratuitous visual complexity that is made more extreme by a cacophony of suspended lights and cameras. This excess extends beyond the chamber. A committee room sitting fourteen MSPs around a table is illuminated by seventy ceiling-hung spotlights.

(In March 2006 it became clear that the complexity of the chamber’s roof was more than visual, when one of the oak beams came free from its steel mounting, causing the chamber to be closed for several weeks.)

The result is a building with beautiful spaces. It has won major architectural awards, including the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2005. The Architectural Review describes how

The new Scottish Parliament has soul in spades. Conjured up by the Catalan magus Enric Miralles, it is a heady, hedonistic brew that distils aspects of Kahn, Aalto, Mackintosh and Gaudi and infuses them with Scottish history and myth, geography and geology. A Celtic-Catalan cocktail to blow both minds and budgets, it doesn't play safe, energetically mining a new seam of National Romanticism refined and reinterpreted for the twenty-first century.

And so it does. But it does so with the refined – to the point of elitist – feeling of a concert hall or art gallery, betraying the project’s democratic aspirations.

Simon Glynn 2006

 


How to visit

The Scottish Parliament is at the bottom of Canongate in central Edinburgh, opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Many areas of the building are open to the public. More can be seen through guided tours, especially on days when the parliament is not in session. For comprehensive information on how to get there, opening hours, days when the parliament is not in session, and guided tours, please visit www.scottish.parliament.uk/vli/visitingHolyrood, telephone +44 131 348 5200 or email sp.bookings@scottish.parliament.uk.


Books and other web sites

The official site of the Scottish Parliament provides a good collection of images, including parts of the building where the public is not allowed to photograph, at www.scottish.parliament.uk/nmCentre/images/latest.

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