AD Classics: Scottish Parliament Building / Enric Miralles

  • 14 Feb 2011
  • by
  • Public Facilities
Skylights of the Garden Lobby. Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body - 2012

Ten years after its completion, the reputation of the Scottish Parliament Building is finally being redefined. Among architects and the academic elite, it has long been heralded as a masterpiece of abstract modernism and perhaps the finest work of Enric Miralles‘ all-too-short career. For the general public, however, it was initially known mainly in infamy for being overdue, over budget, and for having its commission awarded to a non-Scottish architect. Only now is it beginning to receive the public acceptance it deserves, as the genius of the architecture emerges from the shadow cast by its mired construction process. 

The desire for a Scottish parliamentary home emerged with the political resurgence of Scottish nationalism in the latter half of the twentieth century. Its mere existence was controversial, as it represented a move toward autonomous government within the United Kingdom that was not and is still not universally accepted. In 1997, a popular referendum approved the project, and a year later, a widely publicized competition was held for the job. The designs of five shortlisted architects were released to the public for their approval, and while a concept put forward by Rafael Viñoly actually won a greater share of the public support, the selection committee awarded the commission to the Spanish-Catalan architect , whose design had finished in a close second.

© Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body - 2012
© Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body - 2012

Much of the appeal of Miralles’ proposal was his articulate incorporation of Scottish heritage into a radically adventurous design. Drawing inspiration from the Scottish landscape, he borrowed the forms of upturned boats from a nearby shoreline, as well as motifs from the flower paintings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Scotland’s architect-turned-national hero. [1] These became the basis for the massing of the building, as well as the form of the iconic canoe-shaped skylight apertures in the Garden Lobby. In addition, Miralles keenly invoked allusions to the Saltire, or the Scottish cross, in ceiling impressions and details. 

© Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body - 2012
The Garden Lobby. Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body - 2012

More than a single structure, the Parliament is actually an entire campus of interconnected spaces. The debating chamber—the heart of the complex—is physically separated from the other programmatic areas, which include an office building for the MSPs, a press tower, administrative areas, and a restaurant and dining area. Tying these separate buildings together is a spectacular, sky-lit ground floor that provides continuous circulation around the site.

Site Plan

As a work of architecture, the Parliament is an almost overwhelming sensory experience of complex shapes, materials, and structural devices. Every feature of the building is uniquely detailed, with certain themes and clear sightlines unifying the highly abstracted and seemingly random design. Soaring spaces are juxtaposed with intimate, human-sized niches that create an exciting and unpredictable maze of architectural stimuli.

Window seat in an MSP office. Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body - 2012
MSP Office Building. Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body - 2012

There are simply no afterthoughts in the design, and the attention given to every surface, joint, and opening is remarkable, as one can tell from the inventive structures of the debating chamber ceiling or the custom-made furnishings built for nearly every room. This universal level of detail, while unfortunately the cause of high construction costs and many delays, serves to emphatically reject the establishment of spatial hierarchies; each room is as thoughtful, unique, and important as every other. The effect is striking, and the whimsical expressions of the architect achieve an impossibly difficult formal clarity amid dazzling complexity.

Debating Chamber. Image © Wikimedia Commons - Mogens Engelund

While the demanding architectural specifications had unfortunate scheduling and financial side effects, many of the other controversies around the construction were undeserved. An often quoted starting estimate of £40 million, used mainly by opponents of the project to disparage the £414 million final bill, was merely the estimate of a consultant for a siteless, shapeless office block of approximately the requested size. [2] The first estimate of the Miralles-designed building began at £109 million, and many of the further cost increases were the result of the ever-increasing spatial and programmatic demands of the clients. Requested office capacity more than doubled during the design phase of the project, and extravagant amenities, such as the multi-million pound media spaces, were added later as well. Unfortunately, little of this mattered in the ensuing public outcry that shrouded the building in disdain and made the Parliament into a symbol of government excess, mismanagement, and irresponsibility.

Courtesy of EMBT/RMJM

For some members of the media and the public, the unconventional and shocking design only made matters worse. Upon its opening, it was derided by some as an architectural travesty, eventually being ranked fourth on a poll of UK buildings the public most wanted to see demolished. [3] Interestingly, though perhaps not too surprisingly, the building’s reception in the architectural community was markedly different. Most critics instantly recognized the brilliance of the design and attempted to defend the groundbreaking project against the extreme costs and delays that threatened to overshadow it. This professional reception showed clearly in the series of major architectural awards that quickly came to the building, perhaps most notably the 2005 RIBA Stirling Prize.

The MSP Building

Charles Jencks, then serving as a judge on the Stirling Prize committee, analyzed the project’s site-sensitive design glowingly: “In the era of the iconic building, [the Scottish Parliament Building] 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.” [4]

MSP Office Building. Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body - 2012

The rift in perceptions between the architectural elite and the general public has somewhat narrowed over the years as it becomes easier to appreciate the building’s successes outside of the disastrous back story that dominated its early days. For Miralles, who tragically died of a brain tumor in 2000 without seeing its completion, the Parliament has emerged as his magnum opus. The whimsical and impulsive design remains uniquely unparalleled in the world today, and the building continues to exert tremendous influence onto the field of architecture.

© Dave Morris Photography

[1] The Scottish Parliament. “About the Parliament Building.” Accessed 12 Sept. 2014 from http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/visitandlearn/9983.aspx.

[2] “The Holyrood Inquiry: A Report by the Rt. Hon. Lord Fraser of Carmyllie QC.” Sept. 2004. Accessed 17 Sept. 2014 from http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/SPICeResources/HolyroodInquiry.pdf.

[3] Mills, Rod. “No Horray for Holyrood ‘ugly’ partliament parliament building should be razed, says poll.” 14 October 2008. Accessed 12 Sept. 2014 from http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/65983/No-Hooray-for-Holyrood-ugly-parliament-building-should-be-razed-says-poll.

[4] “RIBA Stirling Prize Winners: The Scottish Parliament (2005).” Architecture.com. Retrieved 17 Sept. 2014 from http://www.architecture.com/StirlingPrize/RIBAStirlingPrizeWinners/TheScottishParliament(2005).aspx.

Architects: Enric Miralles
Location: EH99 1SP
Bendetta Tagliabue: Architect
Rmjm: Architects
Arup: Structural Engineers
Area: 30000.0 sqm
Year: 2004
Photographs: Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012, Dave Morris Photography, Wikimedia Commons – Mogens Engelund

Cite: Langdon, David. "AD Classics: Scottish Parliament Building / Enric Miralles" 14 Feb 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=111869>
  • Dennis

    what an absolute mess.

  • H.Roark

    Proof reading would make this post considerbly more coherent, truly fascinating to hear that each scotish adult contributed 6 million dollars…

    • jim

      Yes, interesting to read that by this logic it would have cost $30billion….. Reckon there would have been a bit more of a fuss if that were the case

  • Ivan Milosevic

    a true masterpice..

  • http://uptodayarch.blogspot.com up_today_arch

    For completely understanding of this building plans and sections are also necessary…

  • h.a.

    please, a little more rigour about the cost would be desirable considering the polemic around the project. It is important to say that the cost increase was due to an extension in the required surface, not only the architect’s fancy design.

    • Calum

      Also, strict new security guidelines came into force quite far into the process, which meant an (expensive) rethink as to the layout, so that didnt help with the budget either.

  • andrew

    the spaces was mind blowing, one need to go there to experience Enric masterpiece.

  • Dan Donn

    The Scottish Parliamentarians should be ashamed of their behaviour during the construction of the masterpiece. They and they alone are responsible for the spiralling costs and I believe could be accountable on a level for contributing to Miralles untimely death due to the demonisation he received throughout the UK causes by the Parliamentarians objections which undoubtedly had politically motivated means.

  • Dennis

    please explain why this is a “masterpiece”? i think this is (yet another) example of a building praised by architects and loathed by the general public. i must be one of the few architects who dislike it. it doesn’t respond to context or history, it will age very badly, it combines too many elements, and quite frankly it looks cheap. it seems Miralles was going for the “Bilbao effect” in a city that doesn’t need it. there is nothing timeless or masterful about this.

    • h.a.

      dennis do you know edinburgh? for the rather conservative people it is something bined together with anything smelling new. But this building, unlike to the gugenheim (which I have visited three times as well) is totally integrated in its context. saw it this weekend from the hill above and it is amazingly mingled with the fragmentary old town, precisely for being so fragmented an varied in textures, shapes and responses to different sides. It even overlaps with existing buildings. The scale is as well appropirate

    • PR

      Enough said ;)

      And if I may, I’ll add that calling this ‘modern’ is a bit far-fetched. Yes, it is ‘contemporary’. We may also say that it is ‘de-constructivist’, ecletic, ‘neo-expressionist’, ‘neo-something-else’… But modern… not quite.

  • Andrew

    Very true Dan Donn. Dennis if u have been to the building and experience the building by urself u have all the right to say this building isn’t a masterful work, but if u don’t please do not judge the work just by the posted pictures. It requires a lot of skills to bring all this elements together and a unique masterpiece for Scotland

  • andrew

    very true Dan. And Den, if u have been to the building and experience the spaces and architecture you have all the right to comment the building isn’t masterful, but if u are not please do not judge the this building based on he posted pictures. It requires a masterful skills to bring up all this materials and creating this masterpiece for Scotland.