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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 July, 2004, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
The flowering of Scotland

By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine

It's been branded "The Moneypit" - an ambitious but troubled project to build a landmark home for Scotland's devolved rulers. As its official opening looms, we take one of the first looks inside.

It's hard to imagine a more stormy marriage than that between politics and architecture. The bean counters who keep a keen eye on public finances do not make natural bedfellows for those artistically-minded souls who set their sights on skylines rather than bottom lines.

All too often, the offspring of this dysfunctional union - the buildings themselves - emerge into the public gaze burdened by faults and criticisms.

Portcullis House, the new-ish 230m annexe to the Houses of Parliament, was slated for its inflated price tag, not to mention the 75,000 reception desk and 150,000 for some decorative fig trees.

The site is overshadowed by the lumbering Salisbury Crags
Cost over-runs on the Millennium Dome generated more column inches than the contents inside, as did the re-located British Library.

The Scottish Parliament is the latest in this embarrassing tradition of overstretched and over-budget public monuments.

The bottom line for Holyrood, or Follyrood to its countless critics, stands at 431m - something like a 400% increase on its original price tag.

A recent inquiry by the Scottish auditor general found a rush to complete by the original 2001 deadline meant work had started before the design was finalised.

Along the way, both the project's physical architect, Catalan maverick Enric Miralles, and its intellectual architect, Scottish devolutionist Donald Dewar, died unexpectedly.

Late delivery of drawings and Miralles' weakness for changing his mind time and again, bumped up the price even further, as did additional bomb protection work and numerous other unforeseen measures.

But finally, three years after the original completion date, an end is in sight.

Next month the 129 MSPs are due to begin moving from their temporary home up the road, into the campus of impressive new buildings, just across the road from the Queen's Holyrood Palace.


While locals may be jaded by news of developments on site, as the dust sheets start to come away, the newly unveiled interiors are causing a flurry of excitement in the design world.

One heavyweight architecture critic said it was "quite simply, a triumph", noting "some of the most strange and beautifully crafted interiors in Britain for many years".

Inside, one can begin to grasp what at least some of the fuss is about. Oak, concrete, stainless steel, glass and white render are the materials that predominate.

While each of the buildings harbours its own unique identity, the overriding character is that of a contemporary, solid nature; serious but never solemn; relaxed though not informal.

Offices for the 108 backbench members feature vaulted ceilings and window seats that Miralles termed "contemplation spaces" (each of which is said to have cost 17,000). Along the side of each office is a suite of finely crafted oak cupboards.

Committee rooms
One of the six stunning committee rooms
The dotted carpet was designed by Miralles, although since he never stated a scale for the pattern, it was left to designers to interpret the drawings appropriately.

The committee rooms exude playful charm, organically shaped with huge custom-built egg-shaped desks with room enough for 24 people. The ceilings are a complex arrangement of curves and crazy geometries the like of which are repeated time and again across the site.

Projects of this magnitude generate their own myths - perhaps one of which is that on the rare occasions contractors found a right angle when laying out the original frame, it was a cause for mild celebration.

As members walk from their offices to the debating chamber, they will pass through an informal meeting space, covered by 12 huge leaf-shaped skylights, which from the inside sweep down like details of aeroplane wings.

In the debating chamber itself, members will perch behind individual, finely crafted oak-ply desks, with sycamore inlays that are apparently intended to reflect a warm light into delegates' faces.

See a plan of the site

Above, the ceiling is held in place by an extraordinarily complex arrangement of glue laminated oak beams, each built around a steel core, and held in place by 111 steel half-ton nodes, no two of which are the same.

Natural light will be augmented by dozens of spotlights that resemble camcorders, and which descend on metal stalks from between the jumble of ceiling joists.

Underneath the chamber, sits the public reception area - with a low, undulating concrete ceiling said to be inspired by a typical Edinburgh barrel vault. Indented in the grey cast are Miralles' take on the trademark Scottish saltire, which look more like crucifixes.

Whether this hugely ambitious project will prove a cross to bear for the Scottish Parliament remains to be seen.

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