Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament Building is perhaps one of Scotland’s most controversial works of architecture. Inflated costs, delays in construction and unconventional design decisions have led to a national building which divides opinion. In fact, as a student of architecture in Edinburgh, one of the first questions I am often asked after revealing my subject of study is ‘what do you think of the Scottish Parliament Building?’
Scottish Parliament building as a protest space
In 1997, Scots voted in favour of a devolved Scottish Parliament, and the building constructed to house it became a symbol of the democratic freedom of the people of Scotland. Notice that green spaces around the Parliament were designed in the form of a shallow amphitheatre. This was a reference to Greek democracy in the architect’s Enric Miralles’ mind.
In the time since construction, the Scottish Parliament Building has seen a number of peaceful demonstrations. Supporters of Scottish Independence have held rallies in the years prior to and since the 2014 referendum. The summer saw the Equality Network and the Scottish Trans Alliance’s Trans Rights Rally. And, of course, the site has been one of many to oversee a Climate Protest, where protestors camped outside the Scottish Parliament Building to encourage the government to respond to ‘climate crisis and ecological breakdown.’
The focus of these protests, diverse in nature, have served as reflections of the interests and concerns of the people of Scotland over the years, with the Scottish Parliament Building a constant backdrop overseeing the ever-shifting political and cultural landscapes.
Wildlife and Landscape
The surrounding landscape of the Scottish Parliament Building, overlooked as it is by the rugged Salisbury Crags and iconic Arthur’s Seat, was tremendously important to Miralles, whose design proposal was informed by this interest. Despite the often contemptuous attitude of the public towards the Building, the maturing landscaping surrounding the built form is a welcome addition to those living and working in the city centre.
In good weather concrete benches serve as lunch spots, while the lawns are favoured for soaking in the sun. The pools facing the Parliament, whose practical function is to deflect potential ramming vehicles, also poetically reference Scottish seas and lochs. On a calm day, one can notice the Holyrood Palace reflected in the water. To many a visitor’s surprise, the pools are popular not only with ducks and pooches, but also the local children, who seem to fill the ponds as soon as late spring sun comes out.
Manicured lawns sit alongside more rugged areas of indigenous wildflowers, grasses and plants. Trees of rowan, oak and lime, planted at Miralles’ request over twenty years prior, now grow tall to rival the mature trees lining the grounds of the Holyrood Palace opposite. The lush evergreen trees block the views and noise of traffic while serving the purpose of visually connecting the Parliament to the Holyrood Park beyond. Hidden from a public view are the old Queensberry House gardens that were central to Miralles’ layout. Get a glimpse of this secluded garden on a free tour of the Parliament.
Far from being merely cosmetic, the grounds enhance the urban biodiversity, providing vital habitats to a number of native species. According to the Scottish Parliament itself, these include ‘goldfinches and chaffinches, as well as insects including small copper and common blue butterflies, cardinal beetles, ladybirds and bees.’ The abundance of green space links the Parliament to the historical Canongate, which is busy reinstating its former gardens that disappeared with industrial age.
Maintenance and Upkeep of the Scottish Parliament
Just as the cost of construction was controversial in the public opinion when the Scottish Parliament Building was in its earliest stages, the cost of continued maintenance and upkeep years later remains a point of contention among its critics.
In 2014, the Scotsman reported ‘the repair bill for the building has now topped an average of £141,000 per month.’ Architectural writer David Black has criticised what he perceives as a ‘designed obsolescence with a commercial objective,’ citing ‘water seepage into the basement’ as well as moving cladding panels, ‘a beam collapse in the debating chamber’ and ‘windows cracking’ as evidence in his argument to demolish the building and ‘redevelop the site, possibly around 2020.’
The criticism links into a wider debate surrounding the shortening life-cycle expectations of contemporary buildings. With the climate emergency becoming a more urgent focus for British architects, the question of longevity is naturally imperative.
Visiting and Accessibility
From personal experience, one tends to discover that those who have visited the interior of the Scottish Parliament Building have kinder words to say about Miralles’ work than those who haven’t. It is therefore fortunate that doing so is easily achievable, now as ever.
The Scottish Parliament Building is open 6 days a week to public access. Additionally, the Parliament offers a wide range of free, guided tours to the public. Areas of focus vary from the historical and political, to the architectural, artistic and photographic.
School groups are also widely encouraged to visit the Parliament Building. This serves to educate children not only on their country’s history, but on contemporary architectural design. As someone who remembers the school tour as their first lesson in architecture, I can personally attest to the value of encouraging school children to study such an enigmatic and significant Scottish building.
The Daily Record, ‘Hands Off our Parliament protest Westminster “power grab”’ : https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/hundreds-gather-outside-holyrood-hands-12241318
Naturvation, ‘Landscaping and green roofs in Edinburgh’ : https://naturvation.eu/nbs/edinburgh/landscaping-and-green-roofs-edinburgh
The Scotsman, ‘Cheaper to tear down Scottish Parliament by 2020’: https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/cheaper-to-tear-down-scottish-parliament-by-2020-1-3265721
The Scottish Parliament Visits and Tours : https://www.parliament.scot/visitandlearn/24228.aspx
Love the Scottish Parliament and want to hear more about it? Join our Old Town tour where our expert guide will demonstrate the inspirations of the late genius Enric Miralles.
Not sure if you like the building? Come with us just as well, we have converted many a Miralles sceptic!