Printer Friendly

Scotland the brave: operatic in both conception and execution, Scotland's long awaited new parliament will help a fledgling institution to mature and evolve.

With its swirling subtexts of politics, death, love, rivalry, money and nationhood, the saga of Scotland's new parliament would make a wonderful opera. Finally unveiled three years behind programme and ten times over its original (albeit woefully underestimated) budget, it is an audacious, intensely wrought vision of modern government and national identity that re-envisages the Scots as progressive, free-spirited romantics, rather than pawky, purse-lipped Presbyterians. Predictably, and with good reason, the Presbyterians have had a field day with the bawbees, but even at a final reckoning of [pounds sterling]431 million (roughly [pounds sterling]80 for every man, woman and child in Scotland), their first seat of government in over 300 years still weighs in at just over half the [pounds sterling]750 million squandered on the Millennium Dome (AR April 2000), which languishes unused and unloved on the Greenwich Peninsula, a bloated marquee without purpose or soul.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.

The Scots' right to have a degree of control over their affairs has been a long time coming. The Act of Union of 1707 removed the locus of political and economic authority to London, giving Scotland limited powers and nurturing a national sense of inferiority and insecurity. The modern movement for devolution gathered momentum in the 1970s and '80s, but the Scots still dithered, only finally assenting to the idea of a parliament with tax varying powers in 1997. when presented with a referendum by the newly elected Labour government.

Billy Connolly, the well-known Glaswegian comedian, famously derided the new institution as a 'wee pretendy parliament', yet it is anything but. The devolution settlement of 1998 left Westminster with control over foreign and defence policy, the constitution, immigration, trade and macro economics and broadcasting. The rest became Scotland's responsibility, paid for by a block grant from London which can, in theory, be supplemented by an increase (of up to 3 pence) in the basic rate of Scottish income tax. Housing, education, health, farming, fisheries, most transport matters, culture, sport and Scots law all passed to Edinburgh. As political commentator Neal Ascherson noted. 'It was a huge transfer of power. Many full blown federations give their component states less discretion'. (1)

With public consent finally in place, the bureaucratic wheels began to grind, committing an initial budget of [pounds sterling]40 million to the construction of a new building to house the embryonic parliament. Calton Hill, which rises in faux Athenian splendour over the east end of the New Town, was thought an obvious spot for an assertion of modern nationhood, but instead the Scottish Executive chose a less monumental locale. Not in the rational Georgian New Towh, but in the wynds and ginnels of the medieval Old Town; not on top of a hill, but at the bottom of one, at the foot of the Royal Mile, the great elongated ramp of glacial debris that links the Castle on its volcanic outcrop with the royal Palace of Holyroodhouse at its eastern extremity. Here, beyond this Caledonian Versailles, the city abruptly peters out into parkland dominated by the towering basalt cliffs of Salisbury Crags and the brooding mound of Arthur's Seat. A stone's throw from Holyroodhouse, the site originally housed a Scottish and Newcastle brewery (the new parliament uses the brewery's groundwater for cooling), typical of the somewhat dour character of the area preparliament, despite the scenery. In the wake of Holyrood's apotheosis, this has since been leavened by a wave of commercial redevelopment (new offices for the Scotsman newspaper, the Dynamic Earth Centre, AR April 2000, together with assorted hotels, housing and arts buildings). Much of this displays imagination and sensitivity in the way it repairs, renews and responds to the dense, urban tissue of the Old Town.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In 1998 an architectural competition to manifest a vision of contemporary Scottish democracy generated an impressively international shortlist of five practices (hooked up to local firms), including Richard Meier, Rafael Vinoly, and Michael Wilford. None, however, could compete with Enric Miralles' proposal, expressed with childlike simplicity through bundles of leaves and sticks, which conceived the new parliament neither as a remote monument nor as a demotic icon, but as an intimate gathering in the land. Bypassing conventional symbols of nationalism and authority (Wilford, for instance, proposed a drum and a campanile-like tower crowned with a Scottish saltire). Miralles' disarmingly ad hoc assemblage of topographic mounds both abstracted and addressed the surrounding landscape, tapping deep into primeval folk consciousness to express the historic, umbilical connection between land and people.

In his competition submission, Miralles asserted that, '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'. (2) The design equates the physical body in space with the notion of the body politic. Architecturally it was a bold choice, but as a romantic and intellectual conceit it struck a clear chord with Donald Dewar, Scotland's then First Minister and orchestrator of devolution, as did Miralles' Catalan background, suggesting a powerful empathy with the experience of a small nation trying to find its voice in the tough world of modern geopolitics.

Miralles always intimated that the undulating hull-like forms that so seduced the competition judges were provisional and indeterminate. He likened them to boats in a harbour that could bobble, swirl and move about, changing configuration as circumstances demanded and the design evolved. In fact, circumstances were to change with unexpected vigour and pathos. There were changes of client (from the original Scottish Executive staffed by civil servants to a cross-party political body that came into being with the first Scottish parliamentary elections in 1999); changes of programme (the new client effectively redrafted the brief, demanding accommodation for 1200 staff instead of the original 300, increasing the size of the building from 23 000 sq m, to 30 000 sq m, plus insisting on a new debating chamber and heightened security measures), and changes of budget (spiralling determinedly upwards and sparking commensurate public unease). Most poignantly, however, amid this bureaucratic turmoil, the deaths of both Miralles (AR August 2000) and Donald Dewar in 2000 robbed the parliament of its visionary creator and political patron within the space of four months, a misfortune surely unique in a project of such size and significance. It fell to Miralles' office, headed by his widow, Benedetta Tagliabue, working in collaboration with local architects RMJM to realize his singular, complex and highly charged vision.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Prior to his death, Miralles managed to complete a revised design, but though handled with his characteristic verve, the fundamental character of the scheme changed from a loose-knit, gently undulating topography to a more dense, urban micro-campus. The hulls were extruded upwards to create a series of four-and five-storey office towers to house parliamentary staff and committee rooms, where much of the legislative work is done away from the main debating chamber. The block containing individual offices for the 129 members of parliament (MSP) was also enlarged. Each MSP is a modern Saint Jerome cloistered in a monastic vaulted cell, complete with contemplative window seat and bespoke furniture ingeniously designed to exploit the tight space. Single banked, off a broad spine with space for a researcher and views back over campus, the cells are stacked up to form a huge honeycomb structure that anchors and defines the western edge of the site against the Old Town.

Despite the shifts in scale and density, the original informal relationship between the various elements was largely preserved and consolidated by a triangular concourse that unites the MSP block and the refurbished relic of Queensberry House with the office towers and debating chamber on the east side of the complex. The concourse is an extraordinary set-piece space that reprises the notion of boat hulls and leaves with its array of tilted vesica-shaped rooflights wrapped in scaly stainless-steel panels designed to capture and funnel the precious northern light. Shimmering like a shoal of fish, or flotilla of boats, they skim low and deftly in elaborate synchronicity above a modern, informal agora which, at once intimate yet dignified (the signature of the entire building), has quickly become the social heart of the parliament.

Within the campus an informal, non-hierarchical order generates an agglomeration of buildings each with its own identity, rather than a dominant, centralized seat of power. Along the west and north edges, the parliament locks into the matrix of the Old Town, expressing physical intimacy with the city and its citizens. To the south-east, the campus geometry slackens and diffuses into a series of long, low-slung turf-clad vaults that reach back like long green fingers through a new public garden and gathering place into the landscape of the park beyond.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

On the east side, held aloft by concrete flying buttresses, the debating chamber also addresses the landscape. This is the formal focus of the complex, the symbolic gathering in the land and the new crucible of political power. Compared with its Victorian predecessor at Westminster, which encourages confrontation between opposing factions, the new parliament is a model of conciliation and consensual exchange. The elliptical form (like a rugby ball with the ends cut off) avoids the repetitive rhythm of a radial design while retaining a sense of dynamism and enclosure. The warped hemicyle of MSP desks, each beautifully crafted in oak and sycamore, flares out from the speaker's dias and is flanked by a public gallery to the rear. Light and landscape flood the chamber and in idle moments, MSPs can watch the more robust burghers of Edinburgh taking their constitutionals up Salisbury Crags. The exposed roof structure of laminated oak trusses anchored by steel tension wires forms a supple, sylvan canopy over proceedings.

Parliamentary procedures are also a conscious departure from the patrician formalities of Westminster. MSPs address each other by name, vote with electronic buttons rather than trooping through lobbies and work normal office hours (parliament only sits from Tuesday to Thursday). Women make up 39 per cent of the current intake of MSPs, one of the highest proportions in Europe--only Norway and Sweden have more. (3) MSPs are elected by a form of proportional representation, so no one party has a monopoly on power, generating much necessary yet productive co-operation across party lines.

Conceived in a spirit of democracy and openness which may not survive the corrosive paranoia of our current age, the public are, in places, only an arm's length away from their elected representatives, another departure from Westminster tradition. The main public entrance on the east side is signposted by a huge canopy that draws visitors into a long, vaulted undercroft containing an exhibition space, cafe and shop. The smooth concrete of the distinctly Kahnian vaults is impressed with a pattern of abstract saltire crosses created using basic rubber moulds. From the intimate, crepuscular gloom of this cavernous space, people make their way up a twisting stair case to the literal and metaphorical enlightenment of the debating chamber. Visitors are plentiful and their presence actively encouraged, but, inevitably, public access had to be finely balanced against security in the present uncertain climate.

The demand for increased security measures added to the building's costs and delays, but Miralles, characteristically, has tried to make defensive structures part of the overall architectural language. On the Canongate elevation at the foot of the Royal Mile, a massive concrete bulwark for blast protection is transformed into a compelling tableau of Scots geology and literature. Studded with a patchwork of stones and inscriptions and incised with a Miralles sketch, it stops passers-by in their tracks and provides animation at street level.

Curiously, for a building of such importance, the parliamentary campus has a limited presence on the Royal Mile. New parts are screened by the refurbished bulk of Queensberry House, which was osmosed into the overall plan and now contains offices and the Donald Dewar Library. Little remained of the mansion's original interiors (built for the Earl of Lauderdale in 1681, it was variously remodelled as a barracks and hospital), so the approach here has been tactful and low key. A series of simple, sober new elements play off the massive stone walls in the understated manner of a Scandinavian town hall.

Apart from the relative restraint of Queensberry House, the building is a restless and at times hyperactive Gesamtkunstwerk drawing on a largely Caledonian palette of oak, sycamore, concrete, silver Kemnay granite and dark Caithness stone. Miralles cannot seem to bear to leave a window unornamented, either by a cut-out or a kind of bamboo (actually slim oak tubes) mashrabiyya, the effect in this case being more the tropics than the Trossachs. The cut-outs, in both dark granite and slatted timber, give the elevations a curious applique quality and add to the general visual hecticness. Charles Jencks suggests that this motif, supposedly representing an abstract member of parliament, might have been inspired by the famous Raeburn painting of the Reverend Robert Walker poised on his ice skates. 'This well known icon in black, which Miralles admired because he too was skating on thin ice, is an image of balance and movement, a good metaphor for democratic debate.' (4)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Such constant hyperactivity generates great richness, both formally and spatially, but at times it can be overwhelming. There is always the slight sense of complexity generated, however cleverly and architectonically, for the sake of it; of addition rather than reduction, though the workmanship, even in trickier moments, is generally exceptional. The intricate, labyrinthine intensity of the plan where volumes collide into and nuzzle around each other creates a changing interior landscape, in which you are constantly aware of other people and activities, but there is also the occasional sense of dislocation. Doubtless the politicians will enjoy plotting and scheming in the Jacobean nooks and corners.

As a historical type, parliament buildings are notoriously fraught. Kahn's Dhaka parliament was put on hold for over ten years as Bangladesh emerged from Pakistan, the Reichstag was burnt and bombed, but the Scots, to their credit, have held their nerve in the face of public scepticism and opprobrium. Their courage has been rewarded with the spoils of a Catalan enlightenment that rekindles a sophisticated national consciousness and delivers a building that would have been impossible to conceive of in Edinburgh twenty or even ten years ago. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the MSPs are thrilled with their new surroundings, but, ever wary of the predatory press, do not want to appear too vocal in their enthusiasm. The true measure of both the building and the institution it houses, however, is yet to come--how it will wear, weather and work. And though Scotland is not yet a mature parliamentary democracy, Miralles' imaginative and dignified new seat of government should give it every chance to become so.

1 Stone Voices--The Search for Scotland, Neal Ascherson, London, 2002, Granta, p293.

2 El Croquis, 100-101, Enric Miralles + Benedetta Tagliabue, 2000, pp144-145.

3 The UK parliament at Westminster currently has only 18 per cent female MPs.

4 Prospect, September 2004, p26.
COPYRIGHT 2004 EMAP Architecture
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:4EUUS
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:2618
Previous Article:Democratic representation: since the beginning of the state, all governments have built to demonstrate their power. How can modern democracies find...
Next Article:Centre court: South Africa's Constitutional Court is the highest judicial body in the land. A young practice won the competition to build an icon for...
Topics:


Related Articles
Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Scottish nationalism.
How to rule Britannia? Welshman Paul Williams asks what Scotland's and Wales's votes for devolved parliaments will mean for Britain.
After 292 years - we meet again: Campbell Leggat returns to the land of his birth to find out what Scotland's new parliament could mean for Scotland...
Letter from Scotland.
The Reign of Elizabeth I. .
In a Dark House.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters