At the bottom end of the Royal Mile, on land that was, until fairly recently, dilapidated and unkempt, sits one of Edinburgh's multitude of iconic buildings. Not the Palace of Holyroodhouse, but another, more recent construction that continues to divide opinion.
With politics in Scotland currently very much to the fore, the new Scottish Parliament building is well worth checking out. Designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles, the building occupies a former brewery site, and is strikingly (some would say unpleasantly) modern in its use of concrete, steel, wood and glass.
The building remains a controversial structure on the grounds of its cost. Originally budgeted at £10m, and later increased to £40m, the final cost of the building soared to over £400m. It began construction just before the turn of the millennium, and was finally opened in 2004. Unfortunately Miralles didn't live to see his 'magnum opus' completed, having died in 2000, aged just 45, from a brain tumour.
With the old Scottish Parliament having dissolved following the Act of Union in 1707, when the new Parliament first sat again in 1999 the meeting was opened with the words, "The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on 25th March 1707, is hereby reconvened...". After nearly 300 years, the Scottish Parliament was back in action! Today, 129 members are publicly elected to the Scottish Parliament every four years.
Miralles' vision for the parliament building was to create something entirely new, that woudl stand or fall by its own merits, without referencing the styles or structures that are often associated with Edinburgh.
So there was no Robert Adam stonework or William Playfair's Grecian influences - he didn't want the parliament building to invite comparison with older structures, or to seem as though he was trying to copy or imitate the city's iconic styles.
Drawing on cultural influences from Scottish life, history and culture, Miralles created a building that symbolically referenced Scotland - the wooden poles around the entrance and over many of the windows represent the oak or pine of Scotland's forests, traditionally one of the great natural resources of Scotland; the dark shapes around the windows, often described as 'trigger' panels, are cut from black granite, representing the rock of the Scottish Highlands; there are ponds symbolising the lochs of the Scottish landscape, and boat-shaped benches representing fishing boats, one of the country's traditional industries. The inside of the building references even more elements of Scottish culture - look for the whisky bottles in the decoration of the debating chamber!
Not all of the Scottish parliament building was built from scratch - Miralles incorporated Queensberry House, a sixteenth century manor house into his plans. This ancient property had most recently been used as a residential care facility, until Miralles gutted the interior of the space and refitted it for modern purpose.
The house had previously been home to the marquises of Queensberry - a powerful family in Britain throughout history. It was a later marquess of Queensberry who was taken to court by Oscar Wilde in his ill-fated effort at suing for libel, and in the nineteenth century 'Queensberry rules' were implemented in the sport of boxing.
But in 1707, the second marquess of Queensberry played an instrumental role in securing the political union with England. Queen Anne had sent cash to Queensberry and effectively charged him with 'buying' the favour of the political figures who would agree to the union, rewarding them with English land and titles if they consented to unite the parliaments of Scotland and England. "We're bought and sold for English gold | Sic [such] a parcel of rogues in a nation," wrote poet Robert Burns about this transactional element of the process...
I think there's an element of irony, intentional or otherwise, in the use of Queensberry's home as part of the modern Scottish parliament, with a government pursuing an agenda of independence from the UK - Queensberry must be spinning in his grave!
Even if the exterior of the building doesn't wow you, check out the inside of parliament, which is free to visit and open six days a week. The interior spaces are astonishingly airy (considering they're built from concrete!) and have a cool, contemporary feel. The debating chamber in particular is a highlight.
There are so many details in the building, inside and out - look for the recurring motif in the panels around the windows, believed to be based on Raeburn's 'Skating Minister' painting, which can be found in the National Gallery of Scotland; or view the 'thinking pods' built into the MSPs' private offices at the rear of the building, protruding out from the wall; or view the whole building from above, atop the Salisbury's Crags in Holyrood Park, to see its shape, emerging from the land like a tree...
Lovers of architecture (and especially modern architecture!) will be wowed this innovative and provocative building, which won the national Stirling Prize for Architecture in 2005. On a warm, sunny day, casual visitors will appreciate dipping their toes in its loch-inspired ponds, or relaxing on the grass of its landscaped grounds.
Free guided tours of the Parliament building are available, including access to the public gallery of the debating chamber where MSPs engage in the business of managing a variety of aspects of Scottish legislation, and with a variety of exhibitions, tours and special events to educate and inspire visitors.
Today the Scottish parliament building is just one reason to venture to the bottom of the Royal Mile.
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