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Issue 17 - Years late, but worth the wait?

Scotland Magazine Issue 17
November 2004


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Years late, but worth the wait?

The new Scottish parliament has been dogged by controversy. But it's a stunning building set to draw hundreds of thousands of people. Nick Bibby reports

If you’ve heard anything about the new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, it’s likely to be about how much it cost. Admittedly, it’s anywhere between three-and-a-half and 10 times over budget, depending on whose figures you believe, and is more than three years behind schedule regardless of who you listen to.

This has led to much grinding of teeth and beating of chests among the Scottish media and political classes and as the building finally opens, the important question can finally be asked; was it worth it?

In terms of the building itself, the answer seems to be ‘yes’. As the world’s newest parliament building opens for business it is increasingly acknowledged as one of the most significant pieces of British architecture since World War II.

Having more or less swept the board in architectural competitions over the last few months – with comparisons being made to such iconic designs as the Sydney Opera House and the Guggenheim – it’s time for the less rarefied but far more critical eye of the world’s public. Whether visitors to the building will be convinced remains to be seen but, with 700,000 of them expected each year, they certainly seem keen to find out.

Although the new building has been up and running since early September, it wasn’t officially opened by the Queen until 9th October.

Although much of the parliament itself has something of the space age about it, the opening ceremony reflected a pomp and pageantry more reminiscent of the last time the Scottish parliament sat, right up until its suspension in 1707.

The original architect, Enric Miralles, was determined that his concept would speak to the many sons and daughters of Scotland who have left their native land during the last 300 years to seek their fortunes and escape the economic hardships of much a Scotland’s recent history.

His design was inspired by the motif of two upturned boats, as though at rest on a beach after the long voyage home.

This simple image evolved into a complex of nine buildings; the leaf-shaped boats of the original design became the roofs of four towers, which are surrounded by the stepped offices for parliamentarians and the renovated, 16th century Queensberry House which, ironically, saw much of the plotting to suspend the old parliament.

This merger of old and new continues throughout the project with stones from the brewery which previously inhabited the site being used as construction materials.

Acknowledged as the defining achievement of one of the world’s great architects, the building became his memorial following Miralles’ untimely death in July 2000.

When the parliament’s other great proponent,Scottish First Minister Donald Dewar, also died just a few months later, there was a deepening sense of crisis amid inquiries, allegations, political recriminations and an endless arguments over the escalating price.

For four years in this heated atmosphere construction continued, for the most part hidden from view by fences and scaffolding.

Miralles’ abiding belief was that, “the parliament should be able to reflect the land it represents. The building should arise from the sloping base of Arthur’s Seat and arrive in the city almost surging out of the rock.”

This approach, that buildings should become part of the land, was fundamental to his fascination with the interaction between the natural and built environments – creating a structure which bonded organically with its surrounding landscape is no mean feat against the imposing volcanic reliefs of Arthur’s Seat on one side and the stark cityscape of Edinburgh’s Old Town on the other.

The end result merges the built and natural environments through a creative use of materials in the structure itself as well as sweeping ground-works and a series of pools.

The striking granite faces of the parliament, complete with the Miralles ‘shapes’ surrounding some of the windows and oak blinds covering others, is instantly arresting. The use of Kemnay Granite from Aberdeenshire and a darker, South African stone makes for a brooding appearance, which, fortuitously, works to best effect in the rain. Internally the building is equally impressive. From the use of sunlight in the debating chamber to the interplay of glass, steel and oak throughout, visitors are left with a sense of openness.

With details such as contemplation pods in members’ offices and by placing public areas at the heart of the project, the parliament acquires a tangible sense that this is a place of serious judgement, not quick-fix solutions.

There is certainly nothing quick-fix about the engineering concerned. The roof of the chamber features a stainless steel frame with 111 interconnecting nodes, each one of which is unique and weighs more than half a tonne, supporting oak beams individually crafted onsite to fit perfectly. Members’ offices were precast offsite before being set into predetermined spaces.

The detail of the design and the intricacy make the new parliament a must see for anyone with an interest in architecture or construction.

It is the most accessible parliament building in the world, and is acknowledged by the European Union as the most accessible public building in the whole of Europe.

As well as a wide range of facilities supplied for those with disabilities, it is the first parliament in Europe to provide a crèche for visitors (advance booking is recommended) and baby changing facilities, induction loops, wheelchair accessibility and so forth.

There are 255 seats in the chamber for visitors, compared to 130 for members or 157 visitors’ places in the House of Commons, 70 in the Lords and 35 for the Welsh Assembly. Six of the seats are designed for wheelchair users.

Access to the chamber and much of the building is free, although there is a small charge for the official tour, which goes into the details of the parliament’s history and design.

For those who would rather figure things out on their own, there are educational facilities for school parties as well as interactive resources for all of those interested in finding out more about Scotland’s fledgling democracy.

In amongst all of this, of course, there is the small matter of running the country.

Visitors will have access to debates and meetings of committees; unlike the London and Welsh Assemblies, the Scottish Parliament has the power to enact primary legislation independently of Westminster and so what you witness as a visitor are decisions that will affect the health,
wealth and welfare of every citizen in Scotland.

After all of the arguments over the cost have died down and squabbles over whether it’s on the right site have been settled, the wrangling over this and that decision will leave a Parliament Building that remains a bold statement of the ambitions of 21st century Scotland.

The Holyrood project suggests a nation rediscovering a self-confidence and ambition it has long been denied.

Whether the actions of the nation’s representatives live up to the sense of common purpose and endeavour for a shared future envisioned in the building remains to be seen.