Scottish parliament building

Scottish parliament building
12 February 2007

Devolution in 1999 brought to Edinburgh, for the first time since the Treaty of Union in 1707, a parliament able to make decisions concerning matters such as education, health and prisons within Scotland.

At first, the parliament met at the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall on The Mound and had offices in the former Lothian regional council headquarters. The need for a permanent home gave, however, the possibility of constructing a new building that could represent Scotland’s new-found self-sufficiency.

The chosen location was on the site of a former brewery at the foot of the Royal Mile, opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse and overlooked by Salisbury Crags. A 1998 competition to design the parliament building was won by the Catalan architect Enric Miralles, working in partnership with the local firm RMJM.

When building began in May 1999, it was predicted to cost £40m and be complete by 2001. But by the time the Holyrood building was officially opened by the Queen in October 2004, having cost £414m, the project was widely perceived to have been a fiasco. The considerable delays and spiralling costs were subject to an inquiry, the results of which were published in a report by Lord Fraser shortly before the building’s opening.1

With references to Rennie Mackintosh’s flower paintings and the curves of upturned boats, the design was completed by Benedetta Tagliabue after Miralles’s death in 2000. The structure is clad with Caithness stone, stainless steel, oak and sycamore, and its surroundings are landscaped with native plants and gabion walls (made of stone rubble from the demolished brewery).

Critics were mostly very positive about the building. The Independent’s Jay Merrick described it as “a grandly figurative gesture, yet without a hint of pomp and circumstance”.2 Jonathan Glancey of the Guardian was impressed by its “rich, complex and crafted design, as much landscape as architecture”. He wrote that the parliament would “connect the city centre emotionally and physically to the hills beyond, expressing Edinburgh’s embodiment of Scotland’s political and cultural will”.3

Writing in favour of such “iconic” buildings, Charles Jencks praised Miralles’s design in a letter to Dejan Sudjic published in Prospect.

The Scottish parliamet has its references to ‘silver fish’ swimming in a shoal, to ‘leaves and curved bodies’ and a host of geological images that give Scotland identity, above all its ‘rock outcrops and finger lakes’.4

In 2005, the building won the Riba Stirling prize. It also won a Civic Trust award and came in the top ten of a poll of Britain’s favourite buildings conducted for ConstructionSkills.5 Even Prince Charles visited, reportedly describing the architecture as “intriguing”.6

The same year, however, the parliament was voted by viewers of Channel 4’s Demolition programme as one of the buildings they would most like to see knocked down. George Ferguson, the then president of Riba, who was involved in the programme, said that the choice of the building was less likely to be owing to its design, than a combination of disgruntlement with its high price tag and dissatisfaction with the results of devolution.7

Margo MacDonald, an independent MSP, has remained an outspoken critic of the ambitious and expensive design since its planning. After the announcement of Demolition’s “dirty dozen”, she sympathised with the programme’s voters, telling the Evening News: “It is proving very expensive to maintain and clean and repair and the number of design flaws which are being discovered on a regular basis would make most people question whether it should win a design award.”8

For the period the building has been open, its upkeep has, indeed, proved expensive. According to figures published in September 2006, the cost of repair and maintenance soared from £352,370 a year in the parliament’s temporary offices, to £749,011 at its official home.

This was not made any better by a 12ft oak beam swinging loose from the ceiling that March, which led to the parliament being temporarily relocated for six months and a bill of £500,000. The continuing expense of preventing and removing pigeons nesting in the roof has, as well, caused a good deal of contention in the local press.

Furthermore, in June 2006, ministers were forced to admit breaking European rules, having selected Miralles’s design without the architect having an adequate level of professional insurance cover.

A member of the panel that chose the design has, though, defended their decision. The Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark responded to its inclusion on Demolition, saying: “I think it’s a terrific building. Sometimes you grow to like these things. Maybe people who want to see the Scottish parliament demolished will find it grows on them.”7

But with the building’s continuously high cost of maintenance, this growing period — for Scottish taxpayers at least — may last a long while yet. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

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