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Homage to Catalonia

Costs have spiralled and critics have condemned it, but Enric Miralles's Scottish parliament will be a masterpiece, says Jonathan Glancey


Climb to the top of Arthur's Seat, look down on festive Edinburgh and you will see one of the world's finest cities shimmering on both sides of the railway ravine that saws through its green, granite-lined chasms; those glorious, man-made punctuation marks: castle, university, cathedral, school of divinity, North British Hotel, Calton Hill. Here, like almost nowhere else, architecture, engineering, town, gown and landscape seem all of a piece.
But step slowly down to the old town, and further on to the new, and the reverie is broken several times by new developments that seem far bigger and bolder than they should be. Edinburgh is changing and, sadly, there is little or no gentility in the changes. Not only are its fine, 18th-century shopping streets now lined with the glib chain stores, bars and cafes you can find anywhere, but its latest architectural adventures seem overweight, overambitious, out of scale and out of place.

If you are here for the festival, take a look at the new Calton Square office and leisure development at the foot of Calton Hill. Or make your way to the new row of stone-clad offices and steely restaurants and bars that culminate in the Scotsman's ambitious new home on one of the sloping ways from the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace.

There is, though, one new building, still largely under wraps, that is a masterpiece in the making. Not just a great building, but one that addresses Edinburgh specifically and offers something out of the ordinary.

This building is, of course, the new Scottish parliament. It is a glorious design, but derided by the press for being costly and late. True, its cost has risen from a nominal £10m at the time it was first seriously mooted in 1997, to £40m when its design was approved, to £100m when its scale was tripled, to £300m more recently, and to £345m today. This is a lot of money - but what a building. When completed, some time next year, it will be the finest new building in Scotland for many years. And, it needs to be completed to be seen. This is a rich, complex and crafted design, as much landscape as architecture, a building that will connect the city centre emotionally and physically to the hills beyond, expressing Edinburgh's embodiment of Scotland's political and cultural will.

These are big claims. While the parliament building has been (slowly) rising, those muscular commercial developments have been invented, designed and built, no doubt on time and to budget, yet without showing more than a cursory delight in Edinburgh itself. History mattered, though, to Enric Miralles, the big-spirited architect who won the competition to design the new parliament in summer 1998. Miralles, a Catalonian architect practising in Barcelona, died, aged 45, in 2000. So, too, did Donald Dewar, the force behind the new building and the Scottish parliament itself.

Dewar wanted something special, and Miralles and his wife, Benedetta Tagliabue, made sure he got it. Working with Scottish practice RMJM and engineers Ove Arup, Miralles developed the design of a building and landscape (the two will be inseparable) that take their cues from sources as diverse as upturned boats along the Scottish coastline to the delicate flower paintings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. In fact, if you can imagine the new parliament building as a successful amalgamation of the work of Scotland's architect-hero, Mackintosh, and Catalonia's architect-saint-in-the-making, Antoni Gaudi, shot through with the originality and sensitivity of Miralles, you will have at least some idea of what to expect.

Every day that passes reveals some new and unexpected detail of Miralles's posthumous masterpiece. Here, an extraordinary courtyard, there, a wall with windows like you have never seen before. It is hard to make sense of such an original design. Luckily, Murray Grigor, director of some of the best contemporary films on architecture, has made a short video on the creation of the building on show daily at the Tun, the swish new Edinburgh home of the BBC and some smart restaurants and bars.

Grigor's film offers an intelligent appreciation of Miralles, Dewar and the unbridled quality of the architectural designs. Surrounding the film screen are models of the building and some of Miralles's magical coloured drawings. This is no soulless, commercially driven, computer-glossed monument in the making, but one that will yet win all brave hearts.

Which makes it all the sadder that, however hard they may have tried, Scotland, and even Edinburgh's own architects, continue to display less sensitivity towards the capital than Miralles, the outsider. Calton Square, the titanic new £100m office and leisure development designed by architects Alan Murray and newly completed at the foot of Calton Hill, may boast handsome roof gardens. And it may well be a big improvement on the kind of poor, postmodern offices that have disgraced the city in recent years. Yet it feels too big and blustering. From pavement level, its two powerful buildings seem to be squaring up for a fight. Perhaps Calton Square is redeemed by its five-star hotel, health and fitness clubs, 12-screen multiplex, 190,000 sq ft of offices and, above all, its roof gardens. It is good to look down on modern buildings and not see clumsy clusters of rooftop air-conditioning equipment, lift motors and the like. How much better, though, if the site had been broken down to a more intimate scale and the buildings had been made more a part of Edinburgh's ceaselessly intriguing cityscape.

Equally, the big, new, late-flowering postmodern buildings by architects CDA that include the new headquarters of the Scotsman are too big and wide-mouthed for the city. These architectural guppies belong more to the 1980s and appear to ignore the landscape. True, the Scotsman building is generously built, well finished and boasts ocean liner-like balconies from which journalists can gaze lovingly at the hills beyond. But how much more in tune with those hills is Miralles's design, featuring garden paths that appear to lead beyond the city and into the stirring landscape beyond. It is nice to know, too, that the parliament gardens will bring sweet-scented Scottish flowers to the heart of the city. Miralles was entranced by plants with names such as Sticky Catchfly, Tufted Loosestrife and Biting Stonecrop.

The Scottish parliament is growing from its site like some memorable flower. Branches, tendrils and shoots can already be seen. Hopefully, it will create what Miralles liked to call a "dialogue across time", an "extended conversation" between the city, its citizens and the buildings. "It is not," he said, designed to be "a building in a park or garden, but of the land."

As the burghers of modern Edinburgh race towards a new horizon emblazoned with the alluring colours of big business, bigger money and buildings that might belong almost anywhere, they might yet stop to take a leaf, albeit an expensive one, from Miralles and RMJM's fine garden. One day, they will all feel very much better for it.


The Guardian
Monday, 11th August 2003

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