We review the Scottish parliament building.

Miralles' magnificent mess
Miralles' magnificent mess

What sort of parliament building have Scottish MSPs moved into this month? That is, putting aside all the uproar about the £431m cost, the protracted delivery and two official investigations, one of which was due out on Wednesday … what is the architecture like?

The clear answer is that Enric Miralles, the late Catalan architect, has given them one of the most exciting buildings of the past decade. An architectural masterpiece, even. And also, it has to be said, an architectural mess.

One big relief is that in the most important places the building rises to an exhilarating level of achievement. These are the main debating chamber, and even more so, the MSPs’ lobby, where they meet their constituents and other petitioners. Nearly as inspiring are the six committee rooms and the MSPs’ private offices, with their curiously hen-shaped windows. All these are compellingly sculptural spaces in organic curvilinear forms, resplendent in daylight and lined in natural oak and sycamore. They have a warm, natural, engaging appeal like that of a violin or an upturned boat, with none of the institutional formality associated with government buildings.

To house 129 MSPs along with about 1000 civil servants, the parliament is understandably large, amounting to 29,300 m2 in area. No less understandably, it is complex in nature, as it brings together so many diverse functions, from public debating halls through visitor facilities and dining rooms to MSPs’ private rooms and administrative offices. Miralles has revelled in the inherent richness, intricacy and complexity of the buildings, playing up their visual excitement. But his creative abandon is also his undoing, as he has allowed the complexity to run riot as swirling cascades of crashing forms, spaces and motifs. The sad result is an architectural jumble, which envelops the splendid spaces mentioned above and baffles the visitor.

Enric Miralles has given MSPs one of the most exciting buildings of the past decade

The main debating chamber is a wonderful lofty hall with just the right balance of spectacle, warmth and intimacy. The MSPs’ desks are laid out in a horseshoe arrangement, while above and behind them curves a wide gallery for the press and public. Virtually everything on view, from MSP’s desks and roof trusses down to floor, wall and ceiling linings, is made of natural oak and sycamore, and combined with the hall’s curving elliptical shape this gives it a tactile, organic character. On top of that, the whole scene is enlivened by daylight, which streams through extensive glass walls and rooflights.

The dominant feature is the array of giant roof trusses in laminated oak that undulate along the length of the hall. Instead of rising up to a central ridge, the trusses drop down at their midpoint in huge V-formations, as if they were suspended from the roof rather than supporting it. As they snake through the roofspace, they evoke the ribs of a large upturned boat. And at their joints are 112 large elaborate connectors in silvery polished stainless steel that double as functional engineering components and fascinating abstract sculptures.

Even more wonderful is the MSPs’ lobby. This is a hall set between the higher blocks that is large enough to absorb official receptions yet irregular in outline and low enough to encourage intimate conversations. The upturned boat theme reappears in this roof, although here the timber ribs support glass rather than boarded timber hulls. One curved side of each hull is lined in stainless steel and projects down below the flat plastered ceiling, and this flap scoops daylight and sunlight and bounce it across the hall below. More than that, as the flotilla of 13 upturned glass boats varies in size, shape and orientation, it projects a shifting kaleidoscope of daylight, sunlight and shadow patterns below.

The six committee rooms are simpler spaces focused on a large doughnut-shaped desk. They are located at the tops of the four central blocks, where they benefit from plenty of daylight and views through skylights and windows on three sides. In each one, a vaulted ceiling in white plaster curves upwards to the skylight in an irregular organic shape like the inside of a conch shell or Le Corbusier’s Ronchamps Chapel.

Miralles' creative abandon is also his undoing, as the complexity has run riot

The MSPs’ private offices are all contained in a six-storey rectilinear slab block to one side. They are like monks’ cells, as each was precast in concrete as one piece including a vaulted ceiling, though any austerity is masked by lavish furnishings in yet more oak and sycamore. Each room comes with a weird sculptural bay window that resembles a pecking hen.

The architectural jumble comes in the corridors, staircases, lobbies and external courtyards that twist themselves through the narrow spaces left between the tight-knit collection of irregular building forms. These circulation spaces have ended up being contorted, baffling and disorientating, particularly for visitors. The most disappointing of them is the narrow central courtyard opening off Canongate, which is hemmed in by the sharp overhanging prows of the surrounding towers. It is Miralles’ homage to the narrow alleys and high tenements of medieval Edinburgh, but none of this comes across in the curving irregular spaces and forms faced in an amalgam of granite panels, clear-glass window walls and stainless-steel sheeting, along with a utilitarian floor of steel grilles. The courtyard is cramped, amorphous and gloomy – sinister pit rather than uplifting patio.

More critically, the building is also a mess when viewed from outside. The 10 buildings vary between one and six storeys in height, eight are new and two historic; seven are curvilinear in plan and three are rectilinear, and they are all packed tightly together. The result is that every view is quite different – and quite incoherent. The only unifying theme is the grey granite cladding, but this is overlaid by a curious outer layer of large scales or plates. Some of these are composed of seemingly random scattering of wooden sticks, while others are of near-black Belfast granite, but all are formed in yet another whimsical curving shape and only serve to add another layer of bafflement to the building.

Being the centre of government, the parliament building is Scotland’s most important building. No doubt only a tiny proportion of the nation’s 5 million inhabitants will actually visit it, but all have the right to expect some instantly recognisable icon of their national democracy – the Scottish answer to Big Ben. The debating chamber and the MSP’s lobby provide just such iconic images, but there is none on the building’s exterior.

A vaulted ceiling curves to the skylight like the inside of a conch or Ronchamps Chapel

Finally, the irregular, sometimes contorted shapes of the buildings pose a more practical problem in the long term. Government buildings are prone to change over their lifetime as one party replaces another in an election and proceeds to eradicate all evidence of its predecessors, and this suggests an adaptable loose-fit shell. The Scottish parliament building has been built to last 100 years. Whether its architecture will last that long without further changes is debatable.

Today, though, such misgivings are premature. Scots can justifiably take pride in an inspired variant of a government building and await the reinvigoration of democracy it promises to inspire.

Project team

The Scottish parliament
structural engineer
services engineer
quantity surveyor 
Davis Langdon
construction manager 
Bovis Lend Lease