There shall be a Scottish Parliament

I went to the Scottish Parliament recently – a friend works there and offered to give me a tour. As a resident of England, I didn’t feel particularly strongly about the building, or the process of devolution, aside from thinking it was generally speaking, a good thing, and empathising as a Northerner with the problem of voting Labour in gteat numbers but still getting a Tory government.

The Parliament has been dogged by controversy since it was commissioned. An enquiry into cost overruns said that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but hinted that if blame were to be laid anywhere, the people concerned were now dead, which was handy. Every aspect of the building has been fair game in an unstinting assault that found new and interesting ways to say ‘it’s a waste of money’.

Watching with slight interest from afar, it seemed to be nothing more than a usual everyday story of public sector procurement problems, added to by some traditional tardiness on the part of the Great British Builder, throw in some residual peevishness for the political process that created the need for the building and a lingering ideological hangover for ‘small government’. This crusty old pie of controversy was topped by some cod-architectural criticism: ‘but it looks dead weird and is kind of conceptual’, and had a helpful sprinkling of anti-Europeanism by virtue of the architect being Catalan.

But what was it like? In a word – magnificent. And here’s why:

1) It’s a modern publicly commissioned building where despite the controversy, they haven’t skimped anywhere. The original vision has been maintained, and the finishings are as impressive as the overall structure itself. The care and attention to detail is a joy to behold, from the wood panelled floors that match the lines of structural weight-bearing walls, to stairwells that accept that people meet on stairs and want to chat, and so provide ‘islands’ for such chats to not interfere with flows on the stairs. It’s also not scheduled to need a refurbishment for 100 years, which seems positively grandiose in an age of build liftetimes of about 25 years.

2) It’s a superb mingling of glass, granite, concrete and wood, and all materials feel right when used. There’s no sense of artifice in the usage at all – granite becomes glass becomes wood, or glass is fronted by concrete and it all feels just so. You can’t imagine another way to do it.

3) The symbolism is superb – the mace is reassuringly modern yet traditional. The debating chamber itself has wooden beams in a roof that takes its inspiration from the old Scottish Parliament. That Parliament was signed away by the second Marquis of Queensbury, whose house is now the staff entrance to the building, as a big ‘up yours’ down the generations. The chamber itself has glass panels to diffuse light and heat around the room, and the public gallery is accessible and unlike Westminster, you’re very close to the action.

4) The overall project has a committment to a way of doing democracy. The technology used – electronic voting, automatic closed captioning are not unnecessary wheezes to say ‘look at us’ but enhancements that make the disparity with crusty old Westminster all the more apparent. It’s often pointed out that there simply isn’t time in the UK Parliament to pass more than 17 or 18 Acts in a single session, but with voting done through walking through doors and ringing a school-like bell to summon the kids for lessons, they waste hours and hours each week on the simple process of counting.

5) The food was superb, with a starter coming in at 98p – the surest sign of subsidised food you’ll ever see.

All in all, it was a building that had been craefully thought out, and faithfully executed, combining vision, an confidence in the likely continued relevance of the institution it was built to house and a reassuring sign that this generation can make fine public buildings. We’re a country that has reified the past so much, and been so crap at the future that this bears noting.

It’s also quietly tragic. Pledges to to reform institutions that were quietly dropped (making the Commons Chamber at Westminster semi-circular) or watered down (House of Lords reform) made it through in Scotland; the building is as much a monument to the radicalism-by-proxy of new Labour in Scotland’s governance. Look at us, the building screams, we didn’t wimp out there; a pleasing reverse of a the Tories, with a better policy being enacted there than the rest of the country. Pity we can’t get this one year later.