Our Publications
Register for free

Article Reference: AT154p32  Date: 1/1/05  Architect: Enric Miralles, RMJM
Building: Scottish Parliament complex, Edinburgh
Title: Charles Jencks on the architectural territories of the EMBT/RMJM parliament building

Identity parade: Miralles and the Scottish parliament
Charles Jencks on the architectural territories of the EMBT/RMJM parliament building.

How should a governmental building represent and present national identity? That is a great unanswered question of our age. As sociologists and philosophers tell us, we build up day by day our personality as if it's a house, and do so without giving it much thought; while architects, given the job of designing national parliaments, have a nightmare trying to figure out who this collective and historical 'we' could possibly be. In the last 50 years, they have mostly shied away from any direct answers and produced well-mannered abstractions, neutral pieties that say all too clearly, 'we are a nation of respectful accountants'.
The notable exception is Le Corbusier's work at Chandigarh in the late 1950s, where he attempted to construct a new identity for fledgling Indian democracy. In its layout, aesthetics and iconography, Le Corbusier gives a clear indication of what the symbols of a new government might be. They turn out to be based on solar, cosmic and ecological signs that he fashions, as well as local Indian life in the Punjab. The results may be flawed, given his grandiose dreams and the lack of money, but they remain a standard yet to be surpassed. While there are other worthy attempts at a nation-building architecture - Niemeyer in Brasilia, Mitchell and Giurgola at Canberra, Foster at the Berlin Chancellery and Rogers in Cardiff - none matches Chandigarh in ambition or symbolic programme.
What are the Scots - today and yesterday? One can't design a new parliament building without asking this question. But even if the Scots could get on the couch and successfully come to an existential consensus, it would be only the beginning of an architectural investigation. That may be why the designer Enric Miralles displaced the question of national identity into the landscape. Here there are natural metaphors on which to draw. Where at Chandigarh Le Corbusier made a new architecture from nature local to the area, in Edinburgh Miralles has appropriated images from the sea (upturned boats and fish), from leaves, and from the nearby Salisbury Crags (rock outcrops). One iconic image dominates the whole scheme, either through repetition or transformation, and pulls together the riot of forms: the leaf/fish shape.
Having a shallow curve on the sides that comes to a point at the end, rather like the Christian vesica shape, this form is most dramatic in the foyer leading to the assembly hall. Here nine or ten fish swarm overhead or, depending on how you see it, transparent leaves nestle together. They pull you up a slight incline towards the debating chamber, one of the great processional routes in contemporary architecture. Light spills down one side of these vesica-forms, a brilliant idea both literally and metaphorically, creating a general reflected glow that is without obvious precedent unless it is, again, Le Corbusier.
But here the parallel between these two Europeans comes to an end. For while they share a commitment to nature symbolism, they divide over the issue of complexity. Miralles, like many other postmodern architects, has a preference for piling on the motifs and ideas: upturned boats, keel shapes, deep window reveals like a castle, crow-steps, prow shapes, diagonal gutters, 'bamboo bundles' and above all the dark granite gun-shape that repeats as an ornamental motif at a huge scale. Everywhere broken silhouettes compete for attention, just like the alleyways next door. That's fine, and contextual, but it's quite a meal. As a result of the complexity, the parliament is really a kind of small city, with much too much to digest in one short three-hour sitting. The Scottish parliament will take time to judge: maybe not 50 years but three or four visits, long enough to absorb all the richness and get used to those jumpy black granite guns, the most arbitrary of several questionable ornaments.
At first I found them unresolved leftovers, the kind of thing that Miralles might have edited out or improved, had he lived to complete his designs. But on second and third seeing, after hearing how they relate to his idea of a generalised Member of Parliament, I began to accept them as he intended, as flat civic statesmen, perhaps even a reference to the Raeburn painting of the Reverend Robert Walker leaning forward on his ice-skates. This well-known icon in black, which Miralles admired because he too was skating over thin ice, is an image of balanced movement, a good metaphor for democratic debate. It's a form also taken up, and reversed as ground rather than figure, in the window-tilts of the MSPs' private offices. Here again the first impression is 'too much': too many crow-step references to Mackintosh and the vernacular, too many window types and panel shapes, too many 'bamboo bundles' acting as sunscreens - and obscuring the view. And, as if the last were not enough, the MSP, as he crouches into his little inglenook seat, stares straight ahead at what? A blank wall! Absurd, waste of money, outrageous - shouted my internal, mean-spirited accountant.
But hold Gradgrind, all ye Arthur Andersons and Grant Thorntons, all ye testifiers to the Fraser Inquiry. How are you to judge whether this building has achieved 'value for money', the perfectly valid and interesting remit of the Inquiry, unless you compare it with other parliaments and their budgets, and get proper architectural critics and historians to do the judging? My guess, based on the comparable costs of Chandigarh, the Canberra parliament, the new Reichstag, the Cardiff Assembly and the English Houses of Parliament, is that, at �431m, the Scottish Parliament is about average for such a national symbol. And it was finished in six years, a short period relative to the above-mentioned parliaments, especially the English one.
In any case, a national assembly is not, in the first instance, a functional or economic enterprise; it is an exploration of collective identity, and that has to be creative and speculative, especially today. From every angle the message is coming that Britons are, and always have been, a polyglot nation. The Scots themselves are equally hybrid, having formed out of four distinct tribes, not to mention the Norse and the Vikings. These ethnic or clan divisions were accentuated by geological separations, the endless lochs and mountain ranges, the fault lines and fractured shoreline. Given this geological complexity, it is no exaggeration to say that national identity is folded intimately into the landscape.
So, return to those funny inglenook seats where the MSPs look out over the old town of Edinburgh and over to the Salisbury Crags, look at Arthur's Seat looming up out of the ground like some volcano-ridge on a walk. What a spectacular cosmic view! It is perhaps the greatest expression of raw nature to ever occupy the centre of a city. And this is why Miralles makes such a thing of the inglenooks, with their sunshades of oak. They not only block the inquisitive eyes just across the street; they are meditative caves, places for each MSP to gain courage to act as an individual with a conscience, each a shrine to self-construction. Looking over the city and at the Salisbury Crags, surrounded by carefully crafted woodwork and elements that dovetail together like a puzzle, an MSP just might be inspired to rise to the level of the detailing: complex, powerful, and sometimes heroic.
Here we touch another point of complexity. Architecture not only symbolises political identity and action but physically can bring them into being; in a parliament building the spaces provided - the shape of the debating chamber, the lobby rooms, even the restaurant - can enhance or inhibit democratic interchange. In this sense, the Scottish parliament makes several important moves. Whereas the Westminster parliament defines democracy as a conflict of opposed elites confronting each other across two sides of a chapel, the layout of the new parliament stresses conciliation. The vesica-shaped debating chamber, with its gently sloping floor and the raked seats, encourages consensual exchange, side to side rather than head-on. Conviviality is reinforced by the spiky dance of wood and steel overhead, another version of the vesica-shape, and even more by the way light spills in from the sides. Here again one can be in visual contact with Arthur's Seat and the city, the adjacent Holyrood Palace and the white tents of Hopkins' Dynamic Earth, all of them fine structures.
Another impressive aspect is the way the building turns structure and construction into an expressive art. This is apparent in the debating chamber truss and in many of the details, including the console-desks of each MSP. These again transform the leaf-and-twig motif, the shallow curve, in a layered throne of sycamore, oak and high-tech. 'Forward to the arts and crafts', the architects are saying; it's not a retreat but the fulfilment of a promise made more than a 100 years ago, when the profession said it could invent better details than the traditional ones. And so it is with the necessities. The banks of lighting, the cameras and the interactive technology that allows the parliament to 'go live' to the nation are, like the desks, turned into an art form.
This level of craftsmanship is unlikely, and stems from what was perceived as an unhappy union. One of the problems that beset the building was communication between the two sides of the winning team: EMBT, the Barcelona studio of Enric Miralles and his wife Benedetta Tagliabue, and the Edinburgh office of RMJM, led by Brian Stewart. The working style of these designers differed radically, something that led to various disputes. But, in the end, it also led to an extraordinary mixture of inventive design and superb detailing, qualities that are rarely combined in one office.
The way the building brings in the public and allows it to congregate in the streets and landscape around is the significant innovation. Think of the Palace of Westminster or Washington DC: there is nowhere for the people to meet collectively and express themselves as a force. Contrast this with European democracy, with its tradition of the square or piazza or French place; as Hannah Arendt points out, it is as if the people have to hear themselves as an entity, see themselves speak and act as if in a collective mirror, in order to be a political force. If these spaces are provided, as they are in Europe, then as the examples of 1989 show, the people can gauge their own response to breaking events.
This fundamental institutional space of democracy is provided at the Scottish parliament. It is the first time in recent Anglo-Saxon practice, and it took a European architect to make the shift. Miralles has given a new twist to the continental idea of the agora: he has turned it into a soft turfed place. In all 60 per cent of the floor plate is given over to landscape. Taking the same gentle curves that he uses on the debating chamber, Miralles creates an open amphitheatre of steps and stairs. In this way, the designer sets up a clear equation between the people's debates and their representatives.
All in all, this building explores new territory for Scottish identity and for architecture. In the era of the iconic building, it creates an iconology of references to nature and the locale, using complex messages as a substitute for the one-liner. Instead of being a monumental building, as is the usual capital landmark, it nestles its way into the environment, an icon of organic resolution, of knitting together nature and culture into a complex union. Perhaps the overall image, the jagged stainless steel and masonry, can be seen as a rocky outcrop. This furthers the idea that Scottish identity is closely associated with the rugged landscape and with the urban experience in which it has grown.
Charles Jencks is a writer and designer. His Landform landscaping project at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh won the 2004 Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year.

Miralles' manifesto
Scotland is a land... it is not a series of cities. The parliament should be able to reflect the land, which it represents.
The open site... this is a crucial image in understanding the possibilities of the site. The land itself will be a material, a physical building material. We would like the qualities that the peat gives to the water and turf to be the basis for the new parliament. This is a way of making a conceptual distance from Holyrood Palace. Whereas the palace is a building set on the landscape, related to the gardening tradition, the Scottish parliament would be slotted into the land.
The perception of the place and the scale of the site will change drastically when the end of Canongate is opened. The small scale of the houses along Canongate will appear again and distant views will open to the Robert Burns monument and the rock of Arthur's Seat. The new parliament should not impair these vistas, which will become visible when the existing brewery is demolished.
The parliament sits in the land... because it belongs to the Scottish land. This is our goal. From the outset we have worked with the intuition that individual identification with land carries collective consciousness and sentiments. 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 into the city, almost surging out of the rock (competition statement 1998).

RMJM writes
The plan is basically a loose U-shaped cloister form opening up to the landscape. There are two principal entrances: the MSP formal entrance (1), located at the point where the Royal Mile (now Canongate) ceases; and the public entrance (2), orientated towards Holyrood Park and the landscape.
The parliament complex comprises a number of elements:
MSP building (3) This defines the extreme western edge of the Holyrood site and completes the distinctive rigg (ladder) plan of the medieval city. It houses offices for 109 of the 129 MSPs and their researchers, secretarial staff etc. The building, which steps down from six to four storeys at its southern end, is disciplined by the 3m wide vaulted module of the MSP's office bay. The plan is single-loaded and is zoned from the public corridor on the east side progressively to the crafted window seats on the west.
Queensberry House (4) This grade-A listed building, dating from the early seventeenth century, had seriously degenerated and none of the historical interiors remained, nor was there record of them. The exterior was carefully restored to its original configuration and the structure was stabilised by the insertion of steel floors and roof. The most radical decision was to create completely modern interiors in the language of the rest of the project. The restored Queensberry House accommodates offices of the presiding officer and other staff as well as the Donald Dewar reading room.
MSP foyer (5) All main MSP routes cross the foyer, which connects the MSP block lifts, the ceremonial stair to the debating chamber, the formal entrance and access to Queensberry House and the cafe. Press functions can take place here. Nestled into the curved foyer roof are 13 leaf-shaped rooflights of differing sizes and orientations, giving direct and indirect daylighting.
The towers (6) The four main tower buildings nestle round the western edge of the debating chamber and fan out round the garden area. They house six committee rooms plus offices for staff and government ministers, as well as meeting rooms where members can meet with their constituents. Each tower varies in height and has a blunt end reaching to a razor-sharp prow. Office space has exposed flat concrete ceilings with service runs in raised floors. The committee rooms are each unique in plan and section and have vaulted ceilings into which incisions have been cut for lighting. The fifth tower is the media tower (7), attached to the debating chamber, which provides offices for each media group plus facilities for tv and radio broadcast.
Canongate wall (8) This forms the last piece in the southern elevation of the High Street, stretching from the castle to the palace. The massive curved, precast wall panels which hug the pavement edge incorporate a collage of memories and quotations from Scottish literature, as well as pieces of stone representative of the geological strands of the landscape. The building contains library and research facilities.
Public foyer (9) This grand hall contains all the welcoming and informative functions of the new open institution - reception, shop, cafe, facilities for schoolchildren etc. This space elevates the chamber up out of the ground, to meet the landscape 'tails'. The geometry of the fan-shaped barrel vaults coincides with, and flow from, the geometry of the tails, so that people and the landscape arrive at the same point. Abstractions of the saltire are incised on the surface of the concrete vaults. The geometry is broken by deep, curvaceous light wells carved into the vaults below the chamber seating, bringing sharp shafts of light into the deep-plan space.
Debating chamber (10) Throughout the design process the debating chamber has held its strategic position, its relationship to Holyrood Palace and its elevational and geographical contact with the landscape. From the outset, the seating layout of the chamber was to be homogenous, so that party boundaries are invisible and allow for change. The form was intended to discourage the confrontation embodied in the Westminster model. The chamber uses elipses rather than circles in the row arrangement, creating a dynamism exceeding that of the simple classical rotational model.
We wished the chamber to be naturally lit and to capture key views to the outside - like framed landscape paintings. This drove the section of the chamber. The west wall is bathed with light from three massive rooflights, the intensity of light emphasising the forms of the plan. Elsewhere windows are cut into the skin, framing views of the landscape. The roof structure comprises three principal elements: a trigirder spanning along the eastern eaves level and providing lateral wind bracing; a range of pylon supports along the west elevation (stage end wall); and, suspended from these supports, the main trusses spanning across the chamber. The roof trusses are made from laminated oak and tensioned stainless steel. The 114 nodes are themselves works of art in stainless steel, fabricated by Scotland's oil industry. Flying clear of the top booms is the great sweep of the roof.
As well as MSPs, the space is shared with the public, whose gallery sweeps around in the same geometry, sloping downwards at one point to engage with the politicians. Another important factor was the need for disabled access, which works at odds with the fundamental auditorium determinants of compact spacing and steep rakes. Forty per cent of the seating in the debating chamber is accessible to wheelchairs.

The variety of buildings in the parliament complex has led to a range of design and construction techniques, writes Arup. They contribute to, and help to express, the architecture by using visible structure of the highest quality.
Clear examples of complementary techniques are in the MSP offices, where extensive use of exposed concrete vaulted soffits and matching in-situ cast frames is made. This was achieved using precast floor units stitched to the frames to provide the necessary robustness against potential bomb damage. A similar approach can be seen in the public foyer. Twisted precast concrete columns support the concrete ceiling, which contains saltire crosses and rooflights bringing daylight into the space from above. The converging geometrical arrangement of the columns and the vaulted ceiling were formed using special high-quality formwork, creating the feeling of an undercroft.
Restoration and reconstruction has transformed Queensberry House into a robust structure containing a modern office environment. This included grouting and through-bolting the rough-faced rubble-filled walls and inserting a new steel and concrete floor construction, joining Queensberry House wth the other retained building, Canongate. Here the main feature is the cantilever at the official entrance to the parliament, with 18m long steel veerendeel frames pre-stressed back to the concrete frame behind.
The assembly building towers are generally in reinforced concrete, with single floor spans of up to 14m. In order to achieve clear spans over committee rooms, the floors are post-tensioned and pre-stressed. These buildings and the MSPs' offices are located over a considerable basement containing car park, plant and storerooms.
The debating chamber is located above the public entrance. The structure is principally composed of steel frames integrating the routes of the air supply ductwork. These frames provide the stepped seating for the members and the public galleries. The roof above is supported on three-dimensional tied timber trusses spanning up to 22m. These in turn support a steel grid providing the basis for the sheet roof systems, the oak timber lining of which completes the underside. The trusses, made from oak glulam members typically 600mm x 300mm, are connected by specially fabricated stainless steel nodes and tie bars.

From the outset the intention was to naturally ventilate as much of the building as possible, writes RMJM. 80 per cent of the accommodation is naturally ventilated, with mechanical air handling and comfort cooling restricted to areas where large numbers are assembled for long periods under television lighting. Apart from Queensberry House (which has sash and case windows), motorised windows controlled by the BMS serve all naturally ventilated areas to provide a night-time summer purge. This 'coolth' is absorbed by the fabric and released during the day.
The MSP building is naturally ventilated. On the west elevation ventilation is provided via two opening windows (one motorised) located within each MSP's 'think pod'. On the east side, it is achieved by opening windows located along the open-plan corridor space and also by pocket windows which penetrate the area above the corridor and serve the researcher offices directly. Construction is a mix of precast and cast in-situ concrete units, providing U-values between 0.225 and 0.25W/m2k for the walls and roof, while the glazing manages a creditable 1.4W/m2k. Anticipated gas consumption is 78kWh/m2 - compared to the Econ 19 'good practice' figure of 79kWh/m2 and 'typical' figure 150kWh/m2.
Just about every conceivable item, device or strategy that could help deliver a low-energy building has been incorporated. These include variable speed fans, pumps and controls, which have resulted in anticipated electrical energy savings of about 560,000kwh per annum.
Water from two 25m deep wells is used for cooling. Extracted from the underground aquifer at a temperature of 10�C, the water is passed through a heat exchanger, and circulated at a temperature of 15�C to items such as underfloor cooling, chilled beams, structural cooling, and displacement ventilation air handling units. The well water also serves feature ponds and is used for wc flushing, saving on water and drainage charges.
The design brief included the goal of a 'very good' or 'excellent' Breeam rating. This was tackled by dividing the project into three parts: MSP Building, Queensberry House and the office element of the Assembly Building. An 'excellent' rating was achieved for all three elements, securing an environmental performance index of 10 for both the MSP Building and Queensberry House.

Project team
Architects. landscape architects: EMBT/RMJM; EMBT competition team: Joan Callis (project leader), Constanza Chara, Omer Arbel, Fabian Asunci�n, Steven Bacaus, Michael Eichhorn, Christopher Hitz, Francesco Mozzati, Leonardo Giovanozzi, Fergus Mc Ardle, Fernanda Hannah, Annie Marcela Henao, Ricardo Jimenez; EMBT realisation team: Joan Callis (project leader), Karl Unglaub (site architect), Constanza Chara, Umberto Viotto, Michael Eichhorn, Fabian Asunci�n, Fergus Mc Ardle, Sania Belli, Gustavo Silva Nicoletti, Vicenzo Franza , Antonio Benaduce, Andrew Vrana, Bernardo R�os, Torsten Skoetz, Tomoko Sakamoko, Javier Garc�a Germ�n, Annie Marcela Henao, Christian Molina Angel Gaspar Caspado, Nadja Pr�wer, Sania Belli, Pedro Ogesto Vallina, Leonardo Giovannozzi, Sara Hay, Marco Santini, Francesco Matucci, Cristiane Felber, Marco de la Porta, Sonia Henriques, Luciano Di Romanico, Jan Locke, Christine Stauss, Sandra Stecklina, Simone Brussaferi, Claudia Lucchini, Stefan Geenen, Kristina Kinder, Franziska Bartsh, Adam Strong, Patricia Giacobbe, Rafael du Montard, Florencia Vechter, Eugenio Cirulli, Emanuele Bottigella, Torsten Skoetz, Albert Nasser, Jorge Roll�n Raffin, Griet Lambrechts, Sandy Brunner, P�ter S�ndor Nagy; RMJM team: Andrew Hodgkinson, Andy Bushell, Annette Raible, Armin Rose, Barry Croall, Bernd Woger, Brian Stewart, Bryan Thomas, Calum McLeod, Carl Davies, Carl McWilliam, Caryl Stephen, Chin Koi Khoo, Choon Yen Yap, Chris Patterson, Christopher Walsh, Claire Coombe, Claire Gordon, Colin Cairns Ford, Conor Pittman, Craig Hovell, Cristina Gonz�lez-Longo, David James, David Malley, David Maxwell, David McPherson, David Miller, David Reat, Debbie McKeen, Emma Franks, Fan Tie , Fiona Kelso, Fiona McNeill, Fraser Hay, Gillian Hanley, Gordon Gray, Gordon Hulley, Gordon McGregor, Graeme Marshall, Guiseppina Ascoine, Hector McDonald, Ian Burns, Jackie Brown, Jackie Milne, Jason Sharman, Jennifer Cassidy, John Doogan, John Dwyer, John Kinsley, John Marshall, John Ramsay, John Welsh, Julia Radcliffe, Karin Ott, Kath MacTaggart, Keith MacRae, Kenny Fraser, Kevin Grubb, Khairul Khalifah, Kirsten Spence, Kirsty Raitt, Laura Walder, Leigh Muldownie, Louisa Reid, Lumir Soukup, Malcom Christie, Manuela Molendini, Mark Bingham, Mark Dowey, Mark Hutcheson, Merlinda Song, Mette Thagaard, Michael Duncan, Mike Lee, Mike Murray, Moira Blane, Monika Einwachter, Nathan Ward, Nick Finlay-Coulson, Nicola Henderson, Nira Ponniah, Norman McKenzie, Pamela Syme, Patrick MacDonald, Philip White, Pohkit Goh, Rachel Smith, Rebecca Wober, Robin Gibson, Ross Milne, Sandra Costa Santos, Simon Brims, Simon Richards, Thomas Hutcheson, Tom Hay, Tony Kettle, Tony Malley, Victoria McAllum, William Anderson, William McElhinney, Wilson Homal; services: RMJM Scotland; structural engineer: Arup; qs: Davis Langdon Everest; planning supervisor: Turner & Townsend; access: Buro Happold; catering: Matthew Merritt; acoustics: Sandy Brown Assocs; lighting: OVI; signage: CDT; lime: Scottish Lime Centre; broadcasting: EMS; construction manager: Bovis Lend Lease; client: Scottish Parliament Corporate Body.

Selected subcontractors and suppliers
Roofing: Coverite; stainless steel: Avesta; green roof: Bauder; soft landscape: Fountains; insulation: Styrofoam, Foamglas, Rockwool; mansafe system: Latchways; rainwater goods: CGL Systems; syphonic drainage: Ross ADT; curtain wall: Mero; cladding: Watson Stonecraft; windows: Drawn Metal, Mero, Baydale; rooflights: Spacedecks; fit-out: Mivan, Ultimate Finishing Systems, RD; flooring: Vetter (stone), Mivan (timber), EGE (carpet); furniture: Ben Dawson; ironmongery: D-line; closers: Allgood; sanitaryware: Twyfords; taps: Vola; concrete: O'Rourke; m&e: Forth Electrical Services, Rotary; buildings work: Ogilvie Construction; chilled beams: Trox UK; catering: Design Counters, Scobie & McIntosh; av: Tyco, Thomson Multi Media, Broadcast Systems; commissioning: Commtech; QBH decoration: Rolland Decorators; vent canopies: Ventmaster; signage: Wood & Wood; brick/block: Lesterose; QBH render: Balmoral Stone; bms: Honeywell; QBH renovation: Ballast Construction; lifts: Otis; steelwork: MSP East; alarms: ADT; fabrics: Bute Fabrics; sealants: Sika; facade timber rails: Haldane UK; flagstone: Caithness Stone; Scottish oak: Cromartie Timber; steel nodes: MSD Design; emergency doors, blast panels: Booth Industries; structural sections: Corus Tubes; paints, coatings: Keim; lighting: RSL (foyer, MSP, offices), Erco (chamber/committee rooms), Louis Poulsen (QBH), Bega (landscape), Elliptipar (MSP), Thorn (car park), Glasbau Hahn (foyer), Lutron (controls), Discreete (software).

Click here to order this issue.

Click here for a print version of this page