Kirsty Boyle is Parliamentary Assistant to Stuart McMillan MSP (West of Scotland) and Richard Lochhead MSP (Moray). She previously worked for the Scottish Parliament’s Media Relations Office and has worked in the Holyrood complex since June 2007. She has conducted numerous walks through the Scottish Parliament building with officials and here she talks to WAN about the realities of working in a parliament, whose design has seen both protest and celebration in equal measure. The following article contains personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of either MSP or the SNP.
The Scottish Parliament. Infamous for its ever rising cost, which pinnacled at £431 million, and for the 'chamber beam incident' of 2006 where an oak beam came loose from the ceiling of the Parliament's debating chamber. But despite it's failings, time has told that there is much more to the building than over-blown budgets and dubious woodwork.
Designed by late Catalan architect, Enric Miralles, construction of the building by EMBT/RMJM (Scotland) Ltd, a Spanish-Scottish collaboration specifically created for the project, began in 1999. The choice of architect, location, design and construction company were not without their detractors and Parliament management were severely criticised during the Fraser Inquiry into the handling of the project. Winning the Stirling Prize for Architecture in 2005 forced many people to view the building in a new light and appreciate its craftsmanship. Although the announcement that RMJM have been contracted to complete the 2014 Commonwealth Games village in Glasgow raised a few eyebrows.
Legend has it in the first design meeting, Miralles, threw some twigs and leaves onto a table and declared; "This is the Scottish Parliament”. Whether true or not it is a conceivable notion given the abstract nature of the Parliament.
"The chamber rarely fails to impress and regardless of how often I have taken visitors there I relish their reaction when they get inside"
Often referred to as just Holyrood, the Parliament complex is made up of several distinctive and individual buildings joined together by the Garden Lobby. The MSP block, Queensberry House, the Canongate building and the Chamber are all accessed through this bright space which acts as a reception area for official events as well as an informal meeting place for all building users. The preferred location for media interviews, the Garden Lobby provides the now recognisable backdrop of the staircase seen in most media shots of the building.
The MSP block serves to house non-ministerial members and up to two staff each within individual office pods. Within the offices are custom-built furnishings as well as the distinctive feature windows which include “contemplation spaces” or glorified filing cabinets in most cases. Constructed from stainless steel, oak and framed in oak lattices the windows provide little light and are at such an angle that blinds to shade from the full glare of the sun have been added in recent months.
Contrast this modern wing of the building to the mid-seventeenth century Queensbury House and we see tourists delighting at the example of an Edinburgh Georgian Townhouse. It was the home of James, 2nd Duke of Queensbury who lived there with his children, including his eldest son who was chained up for being a “wild madman”. The story goes that upon returning from an evening canvassing, James found his son, having escaped, devouring the flesh of a young kitchen boy who was roasting on the spit. The fireplace where this incident reportedly took place can still be seen in the wall between Parliament’s allowances office and the Garden lobby. Always a winning feature of any school visit.
The family stayed in the house until 1832 with James remaining unpopular throughout Scotland for accepting a bribe of £12,325 to push through the 1707 Treaty of the Union with England. Following on from being a family home it was a refuge for the destitute, an army barracks and a geriatric hospital. Some may be of the opinion the site has come full circle in the character of the current occupants.
Currently hosting the Presiding Officers and Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body staff Queensbury House is also home to the Donald Dewar Room. A room in tribute to the late first First Minister of Scotland containing his personal collection of books and memorabilia.
Moving to the main feature of the building and the area most guests are keen to see, the Debating Chamber is a stark contrast to its counterpart in Westminster. Designed in a horseshoe shape to avoid a confrontational style of debating and echoing many European Parliament styles, the debating chamber allows the governing party to sit in the middle with the opposition on either side.
There are 131 desks in the chamber, one each for the 129 MSPs with one each for the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General. They are provided with an oak and sycamore desk that is fitted with the electronic voting system. The public gallery has room for 255 members of the public, who are admitted to all sittings of the Parliament as well as committee meetings, and a special area for school visits up close to the MSPs. The media section allows 34 to be seated alongside the Presiding Officer’s gallery of 18 guests.
Modern technology as it is means all proceedings are broadcast live on the internet so a number of cameras and banks of lighting is also a main feature of the chamber. The vast number of lights is usually one of the first things visitors to the chamber notice and comment upon. The panels of cut-out shapes around the chamber allow light to beam into the area at night, giving the effect that the Parliament is still occupied. It is these insights into Miralles’ ideology that often fascinate visitors to the building and put just as many off.
The chamber rarely fails to impress and regardless of how often I have taken visitors there I relish their reaction when they get inside. Some say it feels larger than when seen on television and some say smaller, but all are nevertheless impressed with the sheer scale of the chamber and the sense of importance and pride felt by most Scottish visitors.
In this day of heightened awareness of the environmental impact of new buildings it is only fitting that the national Parliament should lead the way. The building attempts to achieve a number of green targets. Around 80% of the electricity used comes from renewable sources and solar panels on the Canongate building provide heating for water throughout the complex. High level of insulation allows the building to retain heat in winter and a computerised cooling system aims to keep the temperature down in the summer. Concrete floors and walls act as an outlet to heat in the evenings with water coolant systems buried beneath the building providing further cooling methods.
Water has proven a problem on a number of occasions within the building. Regular leaks in the roof around the complex call for a plentiful supply of buckets and ongoing works to stem frequent mishaps. A more serious downpour in the early days of the building caused a stream of water to cause problems from the fifth floor offices in the MSP block down to the ground level. Fortunately the situation was rectified but it does not stop staff on days of heavy rain, a regular occurrence in Scotland, playing 'guess where the leak will be'.
The constant issues surrounding the fabric of the building have provided countless hours of material for comedians and journalists alike but there is a more serious underlying point here. It has been suggested the materials used in the building were fine for Miralles’ Spanish climate but in Scotland the harsh weather conditions the building is regularly subjected to, often within one day, questions the suitability?
The longevity of the building has been called in to question on a number of occasions and once again as the exterior wood was taken away for treatment due to severe weathering. More and more recently visitors have remarked on the poor condition of the exterior of the building. This once again throws open the debate as to the location of the Parliament.
Of the short listed locations Holyrood appeared the most central, contributing to the environmentally friendly nature, however the Royal High School site on Calton Hill is also relatively central. Having stood since the mid 1820’s and survived many Scottish winters it is inevitable direct comparisons will be drawn.
If the site or exterior of the building is not currently under fire it will most likely be the pigeon problem. The intricacies of the building make for ideal shelter for a host of birds. Falcons and Hawks are currently working in the complex to eradicate this problem over the next few years.
"It is not a 'normal' office block, there are no straight corridors and it allows for an atmosphere of anticipation during heated political moments"
However much the Parliament building is questioned the fact remains Holyrood is a symbol of progressive governing in Scotland. 2009 has seen devolution in Scotland reach 10 years with every indication that people in Scotland are proud to have reached this milestone.
Regardless of future governance in Scotland a building needs to enthuse staff and visitors alike. Have we got that with Holyrood? From the visitors I have encountered the answer would be yes. While opinion is split, the debate forces people to consider the tardis-like qualities in the complex. Surely that is a positive effect of such an important building.
From a working point of view it a pleasure to work in such an historic and interesting building. It is not a 'normal' office block, there are no straight corridors and it allows for an atmosphere of anticipation during heated political moments. The layout of the inter-connected buildings means you barely notice the hundreds of people working inside on a day-to-day basis and the relaxed atmosphere is always remarked upon by visitors. Many make direct comparisons to Westminster and the way in which Holyrood feels more welcoming, more open and above all more accessible. This transparent attitude is one of the most important factors that drives the building and the ethos of the Scottish Parliament. From conversations with visitors and constituents alike, this is being realised and this is what people appreciate. It certainly makes for a more pleasant working environment and gives one a sense of immense pride when showing visitors around.
Questions still remain as to how future-proof the building may be, but perhaps that is somewhat reflective of politics on the whole. Nothing is certain in either case, but what we can be sure of is that the Scottish Parliament is a building that will continue to be discussed, and that's what good architecture should create.
To view images of the Scottish Parliament click here.
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