The Scottish Parliament

I have often considered writing of my bitter distaste at the missed opportunity represented by the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, however I have only ever seemed to catch the issue on one of its topical ebbs. As I result, I will throw topical caution to the wind and engage simply in what can be broadly termed as yet another rant.

In actuality, I composed a draft of a similar piece when the issue was mentioned briefly - but insightfully - in Brian Taylor's column on the BBC politics website some months ago:

"We have, incidentally, lost something in that regard since Holyrood moved to, well, Holyrood.
The Mound was the spot for demos since MSPs had to travel on foot from their offices at the other side of the Royal Mile, braving tourists, pipers, citizens and, occasionally, horses."

Very true indeed. When the Holyrood parliament building was being constructed, it was occasionally branded a 'palace for politicians' - a rather paltry palace! It was then I considered that a palace is not necessarily marked negatively for its splendour, which should be expected, but rather its perceived isolation.

Even by the low, innovative functionalist standards of modernist architecture, the Scottish Parliament building has managed to fail. Its terrible and quickly decaying appearance, complete incongruity to its setting and straightforward bad taste are matters of perception; its function is not.

Regret may be terrible, but it is difficult to avoid in this case when considering what might have been. New Parliament House, the former Royal High School on the Mound, was famously rejected despite being both owned by the state and furnished in anticipation of a positive outcome in the 1979 devolution referendum. A Doric masterpiece based on the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, the centrepiece of the acropolis of the 'Athens of the North' is widely considered one of Scotland's finest Greek revival buildings. It now lies empty, awaiting an ignoble fate as a possible Scottish National Photography Centre.

Another respectable choice would have been Donaldson's College, a remarkable structure in the West End - which Queen Victoria once commented was rather better than most of Her palaces - which was being put up for sale at the time, and is currently in the process of being converted into flats. Few buildings could be quite more Scottish than this. Clearly capturing the spirit of the nation was not much on the minds of the Scottish Parliament building's political masters, handing the contract to an underqualified Catalan whose overall impression for the project seemed to be some vague idea about upturned boats - perhaps the Scottish Office had a sense of irony, or perhaps the proposed Leith site had its ideas Tip-exed out.

The Holyrood site is quite simply inadequate by any standard. Only a few years old, it is beginning to look worn and dirty; strange inaccessible areas of glass ceiling are covered in never-to-be-removed pigeon shit: quite a sight as you walk down its corridors; the chamber itself is nothing worth commenting on - not so much as a rendering of the Royal Arms on the wall, and with a displayed mace which looked rather more like the base for a 1970s breakfast table than a symbol of regal authority, more suited to the ceremonial opening of a comic villain's lair than a home of democracy in an ancient nation.

Our Celtic cousin, Johnny Taff, has managed to design something rather more iconic in his Senedd, home of the Welsh Assembly, in Cardiff for a mere £70 million (albeit equally liberal with the original budget assigned). The building has been well reasonably well received by the public and despite any objections I may have regarding appropriateness and taste, it is innovative and interesting. As with the Scottish Parliament, it was placed with regeneration in mind: this time, in the Cardiff docks area, and has also contributed massively in this context.

In Northern Ireland, Stormont is an excellent home for a terrible institution; albeit somewhat out of the way on its own rural estate. An spectacular building which finds good public use as a venue for concerts and other events in its ground, Stormont falls down in terms of connection to the greater body of the nation. Nobody will stumble upon it, and I cannot imagine many demonstrations are held on its well-tended and overly policed driveway.

Perhaps the Mound really was the assembly Scotland's politicians never truly had.

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Previous Articles

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The Scottish Parliament - Possibly the most controversial structure in 21st century Scotland. A missed opportunity, a tragedy destined to happen or just an underrated work?

A Toast to Glasgow - Some views of Scotland's largest city and northern Britain's great Victorian metropolis.

A Defence of Propaganda - War-time optimism, reclaiming terminology and a nod to the fine work of Abram Games OBE.

St Andrew's House - Art deco at the political heart of Edinburgh.

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