On October 9 the Scottish Parliament building celebrates it first decade. It is a contentious building that provokes strong emotions; no Edinburgh resident is ambivalent towards the postmodern creation at the end of the Royal Mile. The question remains; is it an architectural landmark, or a monstrous blot on The Athens of the North?
There is no denying that the project to design the new Scottish Parliament was tumultuous from the start in 1998. The architect was selected by competition, as is the culture of the profession. Controversially, the winner of the competition was a Spanish architect, the late Enric Miralles, which seemed to contradict the notion that the new Parliament was born from patriotism, provoking dissatisfaction before the building’s foundations had even been laid. Why was a Spanish architect the lead designer when Scotland has a bountiful roster? However, his appointment can be seen as a tribute to the spirit of egalitarian competition, where nationality should not provide an advantage. Ten years on, it is also strangely poignant that the architect was Catalan; as currently Catalonia plans to hold an independence referendum inspired by Scotland’s.
Then there was the swelling cost of the project, which at the time was subject to memorable media butchery and ended in a public inquiry. In the end, the project was almost ten times over budget (935 per cent of the original estimate), putting it ahead of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Sochi Olympics in percentage terms. This generated a great sense of hostility towards the building: nothing grates on the public opinion like misspent money. One wonders, however, how much of the loathing for the building stems from this initial discontent which clouded the public’s judgement on its design. Using taxes to pay for a building generates a sense of attachment, and thus the taxpayers were amongst its harshest critics, questioning where and how their hard-earned money had been spent. Looking back, the building was doomed in the court of public opinion before the ribbon had even been cut.
Paradoxically, the building was lauded a triumph by the critics, although panned by a majority of the public. The design won numerous industry awards including the venerated Stirling Prize. However, it was also one of Britain’s ‘Most Vile’ buildings by the public in a 2005 Channel 4 poll. Ultimately, while it may be an academic success, something seems amiss when it comes to the adoration of the public. The building, in its pioneering design, has lost something in translation between the architect and the user.
Part of the seduction of the Scottish Parliament building is the architect’s use of the landscape. Miralles’ initial driving concept was that “the building should be land built out of land […] to carve in the land the form of gathering people together”. Thus, the building seems to grow from the landscape, and is not one building, but rather a series of forms. While the building may be successful in its form, on approach it presents a rather convoluted façade, which obscures the genius of the design. One is struck by the flimsy nature of the wooden detailing. The oak poles that pepper the façade seem out of place with the rather monolithic vernacular of Edinburgh and seem to come from warmer climes. These poles also cost £1 million to varnish in 2011, and many were replaced within the building’s first decade. In January of this year it was revealed that £11 million has been spent on maintenance, an incredibly vast sum. In terms of the building’s success, one of its main problems is that it may have beauty in design, but lacks economic practicality.
At the crux of the design is symbolism rooted in Scottish culture, drawing on influences from our naval heritage to Mackintosh’s geometries. The abstract granite and timber panels on the facade of the building theoretically represent Raeburn’s famous painting of the skating minister in the National Gallery of Scotland, which is a charming reference, if not exactly obvious to the unenlightened viewer. While those in the industry may be enamoured with these thoughtful nods to Scottish culture, they can easily be lost on the uninformed observer. The theme of abstract silhouettes continues in the debating chamber, with silhouettes of people along the wooden walls reminding the MSPs of whom they represent. The problem with the abstract motif is that its constant use throughout the design may well create a romantic representation of our culture, but it can also create a perplexing collage of unfamiliar forms.
The Parliament’s interior is ultimately more successful than its exterior. The use of materials such as granite, oak and stone creates a polished refinement. The debating chamber, with its sleek wooden lines, is an exercise in elegant modernity. Even the most contemptuous critic would find it difficult to not find some redeeming qualities in the sweeping, energetic interiors. The extensive use of glazing is both a metaphorical and physical attempt to support political transparency. The debating chamber follows the European tradition of a semicircle rather than Westminster’s tradition of political parties facing each other. A decade later, post independence referendum, with the Scottish National Party holding the majority of seats, this design decision seems to have eerily foreshadowed the future of Scottish politics.
So why is this multifaceted building not loved? It is no Edinburgh Castle or Tower of London, although admittedly these examples have had time to occupy themselves in the hearts of the public. Though the exterior itself is arguably not postcard material, it does deserve to be appreciated for the success of its function. The debating chamber has a charismatic modernity, and once inside, the building feels lavish. However, one cannot escape the disjointed nature of the exterior. In many ways, the building is a functional success hidden beneath a collage of ideas.
In its first decade the Scottish Parliament has polarised opinion and received as much criticism as acclaim. The building has been as much a place for politics as it has been the subject of it. In essence, the paradox of the Parliament, its success and its failures, has created a fascination with architecture in the conscience of Scotland. It is rare to find a building whose aesthetics provoke an opinion in every viewer. We should celebrate not its flaws nor its awards, but its ability to universally produce a reaction from its design.