Saturday 4 December 2010

A tour of the Scottish Parliament Building

In 1707, the long-chreished dream of Stuart royalty - a United Kingdom - was formed, when the Scottish Parliament voted to disband itself. Its members were absorbed into the English Parliament under the Act of Union. In 1999, due to popular pressure and a sucessful referendum, the Parliament was reconvened. Five years later it got its own new building. The building was delivered over time and well over budget, and the unfortunate saga of its construction dominated coverage of the first few years of the new devolved Parliament. Its powers are limited, with the juicy stuff - war, the economy, tax rates, foreign policy, broadcasting - remaining under the control of Westminster; but its ability to engender negative headlines in the unsympathetic local press seems limitless.

Parliament from Regent Road, Arthur's Seat behind:

The building splits opinion. I like it for its boldness, complexity and difference, though I acknowledge it has flaws. All that concrete will surely not weather well.

The wall of quotations is fun:

For such a bold and radical building, all jutting angles, it sits modestly in its surrounding landscape.

Parliament from Radical Road, Calton Hill behind:

Its site with rising hills all around - Arthur's Seat, Calton Hill, the Royal Mile - means that unlike, say St Andrews House, boldly situated on a cliff on Calton Hill, it is dominated rather than dominating.

1930s St Andrews House above Waverley Station:

Shall we go inside?

The heart of the Parliament is the debating chamber, where legislation is debated, amended, and passed into law:

You might be wondering where all your money went in the construction of this building. Look closely at the quality of the workmanship in the details of this bracket holding up a beam in the debating chamber:

Although over budget at £418 million, there is no way you would get this quality throughout from the original estimate of £40 million. A construction company would laugh in your face if you tried to get a building like this for £40 million. The original estimate was, I think, set deliberately low so as to be politically acceptable to the electorate - but as we now know, this move backfired as the construction cost inexorably rose.

Now the chamber may be the main space in the Parliament, but I think my favourite spaces are the committee rooms:

This looks to me like Dr Evil's lair. Do you think perhaps that underneath the table's central recess is a scale model of Fort Knox?

Lets take a closer look at the building. The parliament is formed of three main buildings around a central square that is open to the south. To the north is 17th century Queensberry House (the white building in the middle of the picture below) with the Presiding Officer's offices; to the east, the towers with committee rooms and debating chamber; and to the west, the block of MSP offices. Connecting these three spaces is the garden lobby with its unusual roof lights.

Here's the view from beneath the unusual roof lights:

All good buildings have their own myths. The one associated with the Scottish Parliament pertains to its construction. Apparently when the builders came across a right angle in the plans, they halted construction briefly for a celebratory dram...

Another part of the parliament with its own myth is Queensberry House. This was the Edinburgh pad of the Duke of Queensberry in the 17th century, and it is steeped in the history of the Act of Union. When he was out at the old Scottish Parliament in 1706 attempting to pass the Union through Parliament, a mob surrounded his house, preventing him from returning home. When the mob dispersed and he got back, he discovered that his disturbed son had roasted an unfortunate kitchen boy to death on a spit meant for roasting hogs.

Bricked-up vault in Queensberry House - the old kitchen?

Queensberry House was restored and incorporated in the new Parliament, and the modern buildings were built around it. For traditionalists who visit Scotland to see the old castles and quaint countryside, Queensberry House is the only part of the parliament to recommend itself.

From the towers, you can also see the old Royal High School that was earmarked in the 1970s as the site of an anticipated Scottish Parliament. However the referendum in 1979 failed on a controversial clause, and it was to be 1999 before devolution happened. The site also changed to its more modest location at the foot of the Royal Mile.

Classical profile of the old Royal High School on Calton Hill beyond Queensberry House:

There's not much more of the Parliament to see. The first part to be constructed was the MSP block, and its unusual windows became the symbol of the Parliament building:

From the MSP block, you get a good view back over the garden lobby rooflights, Queensberry House, the towers, and the odd decorations around their windows:

Well that's it. I hope you have enjoyed the special tour!

One last look back in the fading light:


PurestGreen said...

Great tour! I have never been for a proper tour of the place but have been in once to take notes for a meeting and was stunned by the the amazing sound quality. A speaker at one end of a room could be easily heard by someone at the back - clear as a bell. I still think the outside is hideous, and you're right about the concrete - in another 20 years is will look like something from the 1960s.

RamblingTart said...

Wow! It is most unusual and not quite my cup of tea, but it still is quite stunning and definitely memorable.

Robert Craig said...

You can see that the external concrete - which was the same colour as the granite panels when built in 2004 - has already discoloured slightly.

I like to think that the building, currently reviled, will come to be an icon, similar to the Sydney Opera House: but for that to happen the institution it houses will have to be held in more affection by the general populace :)

Spockgirl said...

I linked over here from your comment on Scotland Here and Now and glad I did. Excellent tour. Wow... to the debating chamber. It reminds me in a way of the innards of a grand piano. I have more thoughts on the building itself but won't waste your space. I'll have to return for another visit (to your blog I mean).

Robert Craig said...

Grand piano - haven't heard that one before!