Once a symbol of new democracy north of the border, the £400m building now inspires scorn, anger and cynicism among the Scottish electorate. No British building has ever received as much criticism as Enric Miralles' ill-fated creation. Although some interest in its artistic qualities began to sneak out last year among architectural critics, this was seen as a side issue by the Scottish public. For taxpayers, the focus, not surprisingly, was on how much it would cost and when, if ever, it would be finished. This led to unprecedented pressure on politicians, civil servants and most of all the project team – on two fronts. The first was to get it finished and not to break the £400m budget. And the second was a public inquiry headed by Lord Fraser examining just how the project got so out of control.
The Fraser inquiry, which started in November and adjourned before the Christmas break until next month, has been seen as the Scottish equivalent of the Hutton inquiry. Its subject matter may be less significant than the apparent suicide of a government adviser and the reasons for Britain going to war in Iraq, but Lord Fraser's digging has unearthed enough drama, passion and suspicion to fascinate the Scottish public. In a bid to sum up the first 18 days of proceedings so far, Building, which has scrutinised the project over the past year, highlights four main themes to emerge so far from the inquiry.
Bellyache over an architect
The inquiry opened by considering the decision to use the Holyrood site for the parliament building – which was never subject to public consultation. But the focus soon shifted to the appointment of the joint venture between Miralles' firm EBMT and UK architectural practice RMJM. Miralles' scheme was only rated 44th out of 70 applicants by the then project manager Bill Armstrong, and failed to meet the insurance tests set for the contract required for such a project. Miralles' joint venture with RMJM was also called into question, as it had been formed during the architectural competition, which was claimed to be against procurement rules.
The inquiry also heard that politicians deciding on the contest wanted an "international superstar" rather than homegrown talent, but doubts soon emerged about Miralles' vision for the project. Local architect James Simpson, who worked on part of the scheme, summed these up by claiming Miralles ignored the brief "in material respects". Simpson said at the inquiry: "Either the competition judges also failed to appreciate this or they deemed it of no importance. Whichever was the case, this was disastrous."
Money no object
Much of the criticism of the scheme up to the start of the Fraser inquiry had centred on the procurement method adopted for the project. But once the inquiry started, it was the decision to appoint Bovis Lend Lease that raised eyebrows.
Politicians wanted an ‘international superstar’ rather than homegrown talent
It emerged that Bovis' price for the construction management role – £6.2m – had been £926,000 higher than rival Sir Robert McAlpine's. (Armstrong told the inquiry that this was a breach of Scottish Office procurement rules). This led to Bovis being excluded from the running for the role, only to be reinstated weeks later by the project sponsor, civil servant Barbara Doig. Doig was called back to give evidence on these events at the inquiry and denied any impropriety in the Bovis decision. Despite this denial, Lord Fraser declared he was "at a loss" to understand why Bovis had been appointed.
The inquiry also heard that McAlpine had never been given a debriefing from the client after failing to win the contract, which also broke procurement rules. Such evidence has led to suggestions that McAlpine may take legal action.
Heads in the sand
A pattern emerged in the early stages of the project whereby civil servants heard the advice of consultants and then promptly ignored it.
This began with the appointment of key team members (see above) and continued with the thorny issue of the scheme's budget. Cost consultant Davis Langdon & Everest, which was represented at the inquiry by partner Hugh Fisher, had repeatedly advised the Scottish Office that the budget was rising in early 1999.
When Armstrong quit, his only communication was a Post-it note with one word: ‘Bye’
The disparity between the QS's figure and the client's came to a head in the run-up to a crucial vote in June of that year. DLE advised in May, one month before MSPs voted to go ahead with the scheme (and won by just three votes), that the cost of the project would be £136m. However, at this vote the first minister, Donald Dewar, said the budget would be £109m. Both Doig, who kept the DLE costing away from ministers, and the head of the executive secretariat in charge of the project claimed that they would be able to "manage" down the costs. Lord Fraser expressed his confusion as to why civil servants had not at least told Dewar about their actions.
Professional relations between the client and the project team were far from the partnering ideal. Armstrong, an experienced project manager brought out of retirement to oversee the scheme, appeared to fall out with Doig and Miralles. When he quit in late 1998, his only communication to Doig was to leave a yellow Post-it note on her door with one word: "Bye". Armstrong also claimed at the inquiry that Miralles was already behind in his work within months of his appointment and claimed the Catalan architect would go straight to Dewar if there were any problems without consulting the project team.
Miralles' relationship with RMJM also appeared strained, with the architect's appearances in Edinburgh being less than the Scottish practice had expected. RMJM chief executive Brian Stewart admitted to the inquiry with some understatement that he "would have liked to have seen more of him".