Architecture, Brutalism, Edinburgh, Enric Miralles, Humor, Opinion, Politics, Progeria, Queensberry House, Scottish Independence, Scottish Nationalism, Scottish Parliament, Scottish Parliament Building, SNP, Unionism
Progeria is a devastating but fortunately highly rare genetic disorder in which children age up to ten times faster than normal. Sufferers of progeria usually die of old age before they reach their twenties. During my stroll around the Scottish Parliament this afternoon the word “progeria” comes to me repeatedly, as the altogether ablest metaphor for this building. The parliament is distressed – it looks like it is a hundred years old – but it was opened only thirteen years ago. You would scarcely suspect that it is still a teenager.
We are walking up to the parliament from the Arthur’s Seat ring road, but imagine that we were approaching from the Royal Mile. We would pass Queensberry House, a small mansion which is as fresh and creamy as a syllabub from the farm door. This seventeenth-century building was reconstructed at the same time that the rest of the parliament was built, but you can see immediately that it is far more durable than its companions. Far more serious, in fact, in putting itself forward as a building. Queensberry House was, with a tidy irony, used as a geriatric hospital until 1995. Now the entire parliamentary campus resembles a geriatric hospital of sickly buildings and Queensberry House, with its glow of health, stands apart as if in its familiar role of nurse.
But we are walking up from the ring road. There are peculiar earthen mounds with concrete lips and a pretty screen of trees that is, effectively, a cloakroom where all beauty must be left. We are now crossing slabs of grass – the botanical equivalent of the parliament’s concrete. If you pause beside this noticeboard, you will be amused by the contrast between the architect Enric Miralles’ appeal for “biodiversity” and his provision of so much monotonous lawn. “The area attracts a variety of birds such as goldfinches and chaffinches, as well as insects including small copper and common blue butterflies, cardinal beetles, ladybirds and bees.” The grass has today attracted several bored romantic couples who sit there without speaking and a single bickering family.
We walk over to the ponds. What is so annoying about the Scottish Parliament has already commenced – this implicit understanding with the visitor that it is like a terrible literary set text for Highers students, full of user-friendly symbols that have to be identified and interpreted. The window cladding that is “meant to symbolise” that democratic icon of the minister skating on Duddingston Loch; those roofs that are meant to evoke upturned herring boats and the spirit of community. So what are these ponds supposed to mean? We traipse back to the noticeboard to find out. “The shape of the ponds resembles the outlines of the Parliament’s towers and roofs when viewed from above.” This does not sound very allegorical to me and so, with the ponds, we have presumably caught Miralles during an interlude of playfulness.
I will tell you how I have interpreted these ponds and what they symbolise. They symbolise a bitter mistrust of the Scottish people. The flat land around the parliament’s entrance supplies an obvious venue for large protesting crowds to congregate on. The ponds break up the space, forcing any advancing crowd to disperse and be repelled and squashed into corners.
If you step forward and look down onto the waters of these ponds, what do you see? Across the surface there briefly forms the vision of a happy family opening Christmas presents in the privacy of their home, before, unseen behind them, a Named Person sneaks sinisterly up to the window to watch. Next, the waters shift and we see some football fans having fun, before police constables on horseback gallop up to enforce the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. I told you so – these ponds are all about distrust of ordinary people!
It is time to enter the parliament building. The security is initially off-putting, but it turns out to be very quick and commonsensical.
The foyer of the Scottish Parliament is gloomy and disheartening and faintly suggestive of a mausoleum. I state all of this admiringly. The one thing to be said for concrete is that if it is deployed on scale, as it is in Basil Spence’s Main Library building or in the now-ruined St Peter’s Seminary near Cardross, then you have that dank majesty which no other material can quite attain. The foyer offers a masterclass in concrete’s unique Gothicism. Indeed, I would even say that the progeria – the lack of any twinkle of youth anywhere in this building – is central to the aesthetic.
The ceiling is low and as pallid as dough. The saltires that bend and stretch across its surface remind me of Salvador Dali’s melting clocks. There will be an unnerving moment when you suddenly wonder how all of that weight is being held up. Supposing that it just smashes down like a fist into the earth.
Upstairs, I do not take such a kindly view of the debating chamber. There is so much of that waxy wood everywhere that you might have the fleeting horror that you are trespassing in a timber yard. The space is airy and pleasant, recalling the interior of the Assembly Hall on the Mound, and at first you puzzle over the MC Escher visual paradox of a huge theatre in which the audience is on the stage and looked down on by the audience. Not a play within a play but an audience within an audience.
Yet I dislike how this space belittles our elected representatives. There is something about it that is definitely in sync with the distrust that is signified by the ponds outside. The MSPs are seated in a standard classroom layout, all around the teacher’s desk of the Presiding Officer. It makes our representatives look like children. The MSPs are further dwarfed by the steel and wood beams above them. These hang oppressively, almost predatorily, like a row of beaks poised over goldfish. In this respect, one of the juiciest symbols in this building is unintended. What better way of symbolising the parliamentarians’ beloved European Union than by placing them all beneath this nightmarish descending menace.
There are no MSPs here today, but contractors who are making adjustments to the window panels. One of them is writing at an MSP’s desk. I ask the security attendant about them and he answers, a little defensively, that “all buildings need maintenance.” He knows that I know that most buildings do not require this much maintenance. In 2014, the Scotsman reported that the parliament had a repair bill of over a million pounds per annum between 2007 and 2012. The newspaper chronicled the architectural mishaps:
High-profile problems include a 12ft-long wooden roof beam that swung loose above MSPs during a debate in the chamber in 2006. In May 2011, a granite block came loose on a wall and was left hanging above the glass roof of the MSPs’ restaurant, while last year, a skylight window crashed down four floors from the ministerial tower. Other issues include leaks, damp and blockages in the sewerage system.
In 1999, when construction on the Scottish Parliament started, it had long been common knowledge that concrete ages badly. This is often because the rebar, or steel reinforcements that are buried in the flesh of the concrete, cannot be protected from rust. There are other reasons why concrete corrodes, but the first question that Miralles should have asked himself was this: can you think of any concrete building from the twentieth century that has lasted a decade without dilapidation beginning to whisper under its eaves? There are many structures in Edinburgh that were built over a century ago and still acquit themselves with style and grace. Mansions and villas, tenements and townhouses, churches and schools. These were all made from the sandstone that was quarried in Craigleith. The briefest glance at the city’s portfolio of concrete buildings shows that the architectural knowledge of the nineteenth century is yet to be improved upon.
Bute House was completed in 1805 and it did not require serious building work until 1903. By comparison, Edinburgh University’s concrete buildings have generally come with a forty-year working life. Spence’s Main Library was opened in 1967 and by 2006 it was due a seven-year, £37 million refurbishment; the Appleton Tower was built in 1966 and renovated in 2006 and 2015. The library had a do-over partly because it was way too small for the student body, but when I was studying there from 2001 the building was a flight of ruinous Gothic fancy. It looked like its concrete exoskeleton might survive a nuclear explosion intact – the trouble was, it also looked like it would be beautified by one.
The Scottish Parliament has graduated from the same school of architecture, a school which in 1999 the very birds in the trees could see was patently inadequate. In 1999, however, the parliament was a fad and a novelty. It was built for the awards and the sensation and the media coverage. It was otherwise built to be inhabited by concrete robots, who would age at the same rate as the building and be sustainably damaged in harmony with it as the granite blocks dropped on their heads. The vulgar notion that more than one generation of human beings might have to use this parliament clearly did not filter through to the design team.
When you scrape away all of the quirk from the Scottish Parliament’s exterior, the granite jigsaw pieces and the fake-bamboo latticework, then there is the same humdrum ambiance of any technical college from the 1960s. Visitors who do not know anything about the building will no doubt assume that it dates to around then. In its old age, the parliament displays youthful follies that are still to be ironed out. The glass ceiling over the debating hall’s public antechamber is caked in birdshit; the building’s Canongate flank is inset with engraved quotations that are now so worn or blurred that several of them are unreadable. The consequent splatter of concrete and stone might as well be more birdshit.
Enric Miralles and Donald Dewar, two of the main figures behind the construction, both died before the project could be completed. Perhaps they were both consigned to the same personal hell and, now as guests at the Palace of Versailles, they have to spend the rest of eternity hunting amongst its architectural splendours for a single lump of battered concrete.
Bovis was paid to put up the parliament and they had no financial incentive, other than a reputational one, to ensure that it stayed up for longer than the opening ceremony. Indeed, as the costs of the project overran, the incentive was to build the building as cheaply as possible, biasing the construction towards the short term. But we need to look further than the materials. For example, the National Library of Scotland complex on the Causewayside was completed in 1989, using traditional sandstone, and it got to twenty-five before its own progeria brought it to its knees. Linda MacMillan, the NLS development manager, observed that, “The stone that was chosen probably wasn’t the right one. It is very soft and starting to fail, and so are the glazing units and the roof.” There seems to be a deeper and more amazing problem that, as a people, we have lost the knowledge that we once had to produce durable buildings.
With the Scottish Parliament building, this almost unique reversal in human progress – the fact that our buildings are obviously inferior to those of our ancestors – corresponds all too plainly with the Scottish nationalism that is merely another manifestation of the ongoing crisis in the Enlightenment. Indeed, the parliament’s architecture expresses the inadequacy of Scottish democracy through and through. It was no accident that a parliament whose voter turnouts would remain stuck at around 50%, a parliament whose exact powers most of the public would today struggle to specify, was allocated an insubstantial, ersatz building.
Unionism, for all of its current travails, still has more of a permanent place on the landscape than the many petty assaults after Devolution. During the Enlightenment and the Victorian period, when Edinburgh’s ruling class had prioritised social progress over the narcissism of identity politics, they had hewn stone from the ground and created buildings that would last for centuries. In the era of Scottish nationalism, you typically take one look at a new building and see that it will be standing for less time than you will.
You might reply, “Careful what you wish for. Surely it’s a virtue that these unlovely buildings are so flimsy. You wouldn’t want them to last for centuries?”
That the Scottish Parliament is decaying in its teens somewhat prejudices it as a venue for the debate between progress and parochialism. If Scotland did vote for independence during the next five years, I can picture Nicola Sturgeon, with all of her habitual gall, announcing that it was time for the nation to build a new parliament for a new age. The money in an independent Scotland would be tight and so the budget for this new parliament would be far smaller than that which Miralles et al had enjoyed. Sustainably, the new parliament would be made out of sand and recycled plastic carrier bags. Scotland, as a Biblical nation, would turn to scripture for comfort: “Through wisdom is an house builded; and by understanding it is established.” In these words, Scots will find it confirmed that the Union is indeed set in stone.