Travel + Leisure

November 2004, Travel + Leisure

A Parliamentary Debate

Brilliant, late, and stupendously over budget, Scotland's new parliament building opens its doors to a storm of controversy.

Amid protests that it is both a financial and aesthetic fiasco, Scotland has erected a highly eccentric building to house its first parliament in nearly 300 years. Some Scots deride the oddly shaped and vastly over-budget legislative headquarters in Edinburgh as resembling a collection of coffins, bananas, and boomerangs. Meanwhile, the architecture critics for both London’s Times and Guardian newspapers have pronounced the new building “a masterpiece.”

Indeed, with his extraordinary design, the Spanish architect Enric Miralles created an entirely new theater for democracy. In the way that Jørn Utzon’s celebrated Sydney Opera House evolved into a new symbol for Australia, Miralles’s parliament may well become Scotland’s international icon. The design, emblematic of a newly integrated Europe where an outsider from Spain can create a potent architectural setting for Scottish politics, brings together in spirit the highly original work of Miralles’s fellow countryman Antoni Gaudí and Scotland’s own idiosyncratic architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Unlike most parliaments, there is no central dome or Big Ben-like tower expressing state power. Instead, according to a sign on a construction fence at the complex when I visited last summer, Miralles “strove to get inside the psyche of the nation” and was inspired by both the surrounding landscape and Mackintosh’s delicate flower drawings.

The result is a humanely proportioned rhapsody of granite, concrete, oak, and steel. But it is a rhapsody that has cost more than $775 million, nearly 10 times the original estimate and more than twice what it took for British architect Norman Foster to re-create the Reichstag in Berlin, home to Germany’s parliament. The exorbitant price tag sparked an official investigation in Scotland, and throughout seven months of public hearings, Scottish journalists were aggressive in decrying extravagances and reporting on construction snafus at the site.

The building, formally opened in October, has been star-crossed not just in terms of its financing. Miralles died of a brain tumor in 2000 at age 45and never saw the building completed,and the Scottish official responsible for the commission—First MinisterDonald Dewar—died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage the same year, before the parliament’s dedication. During the hearings that probed into the cost overruns, Brian Stewart, who took over from the late Miralles as lead architect, broke down and cried in the witness box as he described the building’s difficult birth. Construction ran years behind schedule. The 300-page investigation report, released in September, blamed civil servants for the spiraling costs. “Tempting as it is to lay all the blame at the door of a deceased wayward Spanish architectural genius,” the report concludes, most of the problems arose because “the client…wanted increases and changes.”

Before his death, Dewar acknowledged the risk that criticism of the project might well make him feel he “ought to emigrate.” And, according to Hamish Macdonell, political correspondent for Edinburgh’s leading newspaper, the Scotsman, the furor over the building has undermined public support of the so-called devolution process by which Scotland has regained some of the legislative powers it ceded when its parliament was subsumed by England’s in 1707. “You can’t underestimate the damage the building has done to public perceptions about Scotland,” Macdonell says.

A leading critic of the building, parliamentary member Margo MacDonald, expresses ambivalence about the architecture but zeroes in on its financing: “You can’t please all the people all the time,” she says, “but you can demonstrate competence and probity in handling public affairs. Neither has been demonstrated here.”

A short walk from the parliament, a popular pub, the Canons’ Gait, has set up an exhibition documenting the new building’s escalating costs. A detailed wall display provides a time line of the project, ensuring that the topic is hotly debated as pub patrons drink pints of beer. The official inquiry found that expenses were driven up by several factors. Fears of a terrorist attack forced major design alterations, since key areas had to be rendered blast-proof. Members of parliament demanded numerous changesto an already highly complex design. Finally, few if any of the rooms in the building have 90-degree angles, and Miralles rejected suggestions that he simplify their shapes to save money.

The new parliament sits at the bottom of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the road that runs from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Queen Elizabeth’s official Scottish residence, adjacent to parkland and in the shadow of an extinct volcano known as Arthur’s Seat. Miralles’s design stands in great contrast to the city’s 18th-century architecture, with its Neoclassical squares, crescents, and grand thoroughfares.

Rather than a single building, this parliament includes10 component structures and is arrayed on a campus-like complex. David Lewis, the structural engineering project director from the international firm Ove Arup & Partners,who has also worked with architects Daniel Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas, testified before the inquiry that the parliament’s geometry was one of the most challenging he had yet confronted and that Miralles’s office was often late in completing the architectural drawings. He was also critical of the Spanish architect’s work practices, saying, “It was not clear who was responsible for controlling the design process.”

Miralles’s widow, Italian architect Benedetta Tagliabue, responded with testimony of her own, defending her late husband’s work and hailing him as a “genius.” In a brief film about the parliament’s creation, which has been on view at the official visitors’ center, Tagliabue says, “Enric felt that Edinburgh had enough columns, and what the world needed was something new.”

To invent this, as Miralles wrote in his competition entry, “The building should be land—built out of land—to carve in the land the form of gathering of people together, not a building in a park or a garden.” Impressionistic sketches submitted by Miralles show leaves and twigs arranged haphazardly as if scattered on a tabletop. And in the plan he subsequently finalized, the building and its layout take sinuous forms that resemble plant stems, stalks, and tendrils. Miralles also planned landscaping around the exterior aimed at heightening the sense that the building emerges out of the earth, with grass, native plants, and wildflowers sprouting right up to the façade.

Organic patterns appear in the parliament’s concrete walls and ceilings, as well as its perimeter fence, wood inlaid paneling, and furniture. Faceted columns in the entryway recall quartzite formations and fragments of the nearby volcanic rock. There are flagstone floors and thick masonry walls that Miralles saw as typical of Scottish castles.

He included a lyrical mix of Scottish themes, even if there’s not a stitch of tartan to be found. Instead, he had the cross of St. Andrew, a national emblem, inscribed in the concrete vaulted ceilings of the main entrance and abstracted in door panels. The words of Scottish writers are etched on an exterior wall that is studded with rocks from the Hebrides and beyond.

The parliament’s main debating chamber is an intimate space, with members’ desks spread out in a semicircle only six rows deep. The ceiling is held aloft by exposed oak beams and steel joints. Silhouettes resembling those of malt whiskey bottles—Scotland’s chief export—adorn the walls behind the speaker and in an upper spectators’ gallery, making this very likely the world’s only legislature where liquor is so overtly enshrined. Large plate-glass windows afford expansive views of the green, extinct volcano outside. At one end of the complex stands a five-story block with members’ offices. Each of these has a vaulted ceiling and a window seat where the 129 parliamentarians can contemplate matters of state. The standard of craftsmanship for these offices, and their Miralles-designed furnishings, is extraordinary.

Perhaps to drum up popular support for the vexed project, Scottish actor Sean Connery appears in the film at the information center to laud the architect’s artistry. But comments in the visitors’ book indicate that other Scots are likely to haggle over its merits for some time to come. “Embarrassing!” writes M. Buchan of Oban, calling the structure a “concrete jungle.” “What a waste!” writes another. By contrast, a middle-aged visitor named Ailie McAndrew thinks the vast expenditure was worthwhile. “People from abroad think of Scotland as heather and kilts and bagpipes,” she says. “This building will give us a better image worldwide.”

If nothing else, Miralles has succeeded in creating a direct architectural riposte to the Palace of Westminster in London—the august, neo-Gothic pile that is the epitome of parliamentary architecture in the popular imagination. While controversy over the cost of the Edinburgh parliament is likely to fade, the design itself will long provide fodder—and a place—for the Scots as they debate their national identity and relationship with the rest of Britain.