January 2005

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Scottish Parliament
A new language for a new symbol

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photo: Duccio Malagamba photo: Duccio Malagamba
words: Justin McGuirk

Everyone had been waiting for the scaffolding to come down. And it did, just long enough for the Queen to cut the ribbon, before going back up. But now it really is finished, and architectural photographers from all over Europe have been descending on Edinburgh in search of the definitive shot.

But the Scottish Parliament is a chimera: it won’t yield a defining postcard image because there is no angle or aspect, no feature or silhouette, that can suitably sum it up. Neither imposing nor a clear symbol, it denies everything that society traditionally expects from the home of government.

Walking down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile you eventually just stumble across the Parliament. It is scarcely taller than the surrounding buildings and since it’s at the bottom of a hill its neighbours rise above it anyway. This was part of the rationale behind choosing Holyrood as the site: it meant that rather than lording it over the city from Parliament Hill, the home of government was just down the High Street. The complex, which is made up of eight distinct buildings, is so seamlessly stitched into the local fabric that at its rear it brushes up against a pebble-dashed apartment block, and now and then balls from a school playground get kicked over the boundary wall.

However, the building also marks the edge of the city and the beginning of a wilderness. With the rugged Salisbury Crags facing it from the south, the Scottish Parliament looks out over a natural landscape that distinguishes it from any parliament building in Europe. The main reason why Catalan architect Enric Miralles and Scottish practice RMJM won the design competition back in 1998 was because they emphasised the building’s connectedness to “the land” rather than to the capital. Miralles’ key formal gesture is in the plan, which has the buildings shaped and laid out like a tight cluster of leaves. This isn’t apparent from the street, but there are more literal comparisons to the landscape. The wall along Canongate evokes an escarpment and the patchwork motif on the facade gives the surface a jagged quality. Similarly, Miralles used materials from across Scotland, like Caithness stone and Kemnay granite, rather than the Craigleith sandstone ubiquitous in Edinburgh. But whatever the rhetoric of the “organic” plan, the building doesn’t connect with that view. Standing in front of the main entrance, it looks like a minor airport.

It is ironic that the front of the Scottish Parliament, which is the only side with an open approach from within the city, should have the weakest visual impact. Its only character comes from a steel-tube canopy with a sparse topping of oak poles. This doesn’t just look quaint; the poles have a bamboo effect that evokes a sunshade outside an African town hall. Under a grey sky, with rain threatening, those sticks are all the more evidently pure whimsy. In contrast, the rear of the MSPs’ offices is the strongest face of the building – and yet here you only have the width of an alleyway to take it in. The stepped motif of the windows is the most distinctive element of any of the facades and has already become the visual shorthand for the Parliament – its Big Ben.

Miralles, who died in 2002, said that Edinburgh had enough classical architecture. In the Parliament he appears to be defying the frontal aspect of the city’s predominantly neoclassical make-up, and in a sense it comes across as a political gesture. Miralles has abandoned the rules of stately architecture and come up with a new language for a new democracy. Since the Scottish Parliament is a campus-like collection of buildings rather than one overriding form, you read it as an assemblage of diverse details. These decorative elements are highly idiosyncratic. “Shapes and lines just poured out of him,” says RMJM’s project architect, John Kinsley. “He had a wonderful sense of humour and took great delight in post-rationalising the shapes and creating stories about them quite mischievously.”

The strength of Miralles’ ornamental language is that it inspires both curiosity and myth-making. The pistol-shaped window motif working across a number of the facades has been variously interpreted as an abstracted politician, a drawn curtain and as a reference to the skating vicar in Raeburn’s famous painting in the National Gallery of Scotland. But there is something about this particular motif – alternately in oak slats and granite slabs – that is reminiscent of the pattern-making you see on industrial buildings by motorways in northern Europe. Miralles has brought an artistic sensibility to the building that is distinctly European and has no precedent in the British Isles, with its tradition of engineered rather than crafted architecture. But while his language is uniquely creative and confident, its individuality is also its weakness. There is something uncomfortably random about representing the political hopes of a nation with such quirky iconography – iconography that, in the unkindest interpretation, has the distinctiveness of a corporate identity.

Some of these criticisms of the exterior will sound churlish, but the Scottish Parliament cost £431m, £80 for every Scottish citizen, so one has to ask whether it suitably represents what is essentially an investment in national pride. And the answer is yes – on the inside.

The building’s most powerful and seductive moments happen within it. Walking around it, it is too close and inscrutable to get a sense of its complexity. Even the intricate organisation of the buildings is best appreciated from behind a window on the inside – and there are points of real drama, such as when the three sharp prows of the committee room buildings converge like three blades at the end of an alley.

It’s an unusual state of affairs that the broader Scottish public may come to recognise the inside of the Parliament building better than the outside. This is not simply because it is the most publicly accessible parliament in Europe, but because television coverage is already focusing on the two most dramatic backdrops available, which are in the garden foyer and the debating chamber.

Leaving behind the undistinguished front facade, you step into the low-ceilinged public lobby, which is directly beneath the debating chamber. It is a dark place enlivened by a wonderfully plastic use of concrete: barrel-vaulted ceilings are inset with abstracted saltires and held up by blade-like columns. Miralles designed the key interior spaces as sequences. From the crypt-like lobby you move into a triple-height, glazed stairwell leading to the debating chamber. The stairwell is an incredibly involved space, with the geometric oak-and-glass structure playing off the smooth concrete buttresses just outside it – it feels like a secret route sandwiched between the building’s inner and outer workings.

As soon as you enter the chamber your eye is drawn straight up. The roof of the building is supported by a network of diagonal oak beams connected by 114 stainless-steel nodes. The tapered beams are beautiful in themselves, as are the sculpted nodes, but the combined effect of all that triangulated wood interwoven with hundreds of lighting rods is mesmeric. If it were a steel assemblage you would call it high tech. Instead it has a gothic delight in ornamental structure.

This, in many ways, is the public face of the Parliament. Not just in TV terms but also because there are actually more audience seats than there are desks for the MSPs: 207 to 131. Beneath the galleries the members’ desks are laid out in an orchestral arc rather than the confrontational ranks of Westminster. This may promote unity over division – although Miralles apparently used to pretend that the two halves of the ceiling were shaped after Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The route MSPs take from their offices to the debating chamber passes through a space that is less grandiose but even more distinctive. The garden lobby is covered by 13 rooflights – the so-called overturned boats – which on the underside are rather like eyelids propped open with matchsticks. They have a wonderful fluidity in series and create a space that, even on the gloomiest days, will feel bright and playful. This is the spot that TV news crews have picked to waylay members returning from their debates.

The level of detail in the garden lobby attests to Miralles’ obsession. For instance, the perforations in the ventilation shaft echo the pistol motifs of the facade, and they are arranged in the outline of Scotland’s west coast. Similarly, the concrete columns, though precast, are all unique. The level of craftsmanship that can be seen everywhere in the complex – from the debating chamber roof to the alignment of the granite slabs on the facade – is extraordinary. It is very hard to criticise a building this well made. Outside it may not be instantly evident, but inside you can see where all that money went.

There is a stone in the Canongate wall with an inscription by Charles Rennie Mackintosh: “There is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfection of the mere stylist.” Miralles wasn’t a mere stylist, he was the supreme stylist, all the more so in that he didn’t fit into any style. His position, in so far as it was a position at all, could be set against that strain of contemporary architecture that sees a building as a programme, as behavioural statistics crystallised and therefore innately representative of a culture. Miralles’ approach was more intuitive, more artistic. He was brave and joyous in his use of ornamentation, and he had the craftsman’s appreciation of how materials feel. The Scottish Parliament is rich in a way that very few buildings are. It may not look like statement architecture, but it is.