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20 March 2000

Si monumentum requiris, pay up

New Statesman Scotland - The new parliament building is under attack, but its brave, big vi

By Alistair Moffat

One of the most demonised figures in the continuous bombardment by the Scottish press of the Holyrood parliament is not a minister or an MSP, or even a Scotsman. Enric Miralles is the Catalan architect whose design for the new parliament building was chosen by Donald Dewar, Kirsty Wark and a panel of worthies picked for their discernment, taste and, it turns out, boldness in matters of commissioning new buildings.

The reason for the demonisation is that the costs of the project have escalated to £260 million; that is two, three or four times (it depends on which newspaper you read) the original cost. As Hollywood producers might remark, the Holyrood budget left town. In addition to profli-gacy, Miralles has also been accused of being too busy with half a dozen other large building projects. “He has taken his eye off the ball,” scolded one Scottish tabloid.

Now, aside from the perils of commissioning an architect who is not particularly busy, the most surprising thing about all of this fuss is that anyone should be surprised that a large public building project should go over budget. It is a natural condition of such projects to do so. And by some distance. A wealthy American cartoon producer once told me that after the success of his greatest creation, Inspector Gadget, he gave his wife an unlimited budget to decorate their new home. “And she exceeded it,” he muttered.

My family and I recently built a new building and it went over budget. In the planning stages, our new barn looked impressive, indeed, innovative. Innovative in that we were building it on a piece of ground where, until the first spade went into the turf, there had never been a building before. But it soared over budget by £300.

I forgot the roof.

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It may be that Miralles forgot something just as important but not quite so obvious. It happens all the time. Despite computer modelling, new materials, pre-fabrication technology and all the rest, building is still essentially a primitive business with a profound ability to incorporate howling mistakes that are not discovered until you get to them. Anyone who has had anything at all built knows this.

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In any case, there is no relationship between success and the budget. No book, television programme or film ever recommended itself to the public because it came in on budget. “Shame about the story and the casting but, hey, it came in on budget,” is not often overheard in crowds exiting a cinema. Equally no one walking around Renaissance Florence remembers or even knows that the great Medici building projects consumed vast chunks of their fortune. All they see is architecture and sculpture that lifts the soul.

That last sentiment no doubt lay behind the bold choice of Enric Miralles two years ago. What Dewar, Wark and the others wanted was something new and inspiring for a new Scotland. They could have chosen a tedious Palladian design, porticoed and pedimented: the sort of frowning, sober-sided classical parliamentary edifice seen in a hundred capital cities. This would have offered cost accountants plenty of opportunities for comparative studies of estimates and quantities, and because builders know how to build these boring buildings, it might have gone only a wee bit over budget. And it would have joined the pillared ranks of post-classical timidity that infect most European cities. The Scottish Parliament needed to avoid looking like the head office of one of the older banks or a grand Italian post office. It needed to look utterly distinctive and to be itself alone. The Miralles design is unique, and that is fitting.

The site for the new building is also suitably impressive. Next door to Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s Park and the majestic Salisbury Crags with the Radical Road at their foot, the setting demands a building to complement it and not cower behind a safe, traditional facade which, in those weasel words, is “in keeping”.

Aside from the cost, the only problem for the Miralles building is that it has been difficult to visualise. By and large, the public has not been shown decent photographs of the plans or the model. Only some poorly lit black and white pictures have appeared in the national papers, and the model needs to be seen in the flesh, so to speak. That has created a PR difficulty as costs have mounted. Those who complain feel that they are paying for something that looks vaguely like a collection of upturned boats. While this should reassure them that the place does have a roof, it doesn’t positively sell the design. That has made the building an easy target for the whingers.

What the architect, his 129 design consultants in session on the Mound, the builders and the Scottish executive should do now is fix an upper limit on costs and not move from it, get it finished properly and get it opened on time. Our grandchildren will not care that the building went over budget, but they will care that it looks beautiful and is worthy to house their parliament. And the moaners should shut up and let Miralles put it up.