words Marcus Fairs
On September 14 1128, David I, King of Scots, was hunting beneath a rocky outcrop when the stag he was pursuing turned and fought. The king was thrown from his horse, landing at the stag’s hooves. To protect himself, the king lunged for the beast’s antlers but instead grasped a crucifix that had miraculously appeared on its head. The stag retreated, leaving the king clutching the cross. That night, a voice in a dream told the king to build an abbey on the site.
“I only heard that story after Enric died but I often wonder if Enric knew of it,” says Benedetta Tagliabue, explaining the pattern of stylised crosses set into the cast-concrete vault beneath the new Scottish Parliament building. “It’s based on the cross of St Andrew but I think it really came from some sketches Enric was working on at the beginning, about the apparition of the cross between the deer’s antlers.”
Tagliabue is the widow of Enric Miralles, the parliament’s architect, who died of a brain tumour in July 2000, when building work had barely started. Tagliabue now heads up the Barcelona-based architecture practice Enric Miralles Benedetta Tagliabue (EMBT) and has personally overseen the realisation of her husband’s building, which is due to open formally on October 7.
Icon met up with Tagliabue in February to tour the site of the building, large parts of which are now complete. It is one of the most extraordinary buildings built on these islands in recent years, both in terms of the richness of detail it contains and the breathtaking quality of the workmanship. “It’s incredible,” says Tagliabue, who is used to working to extremely tight budgets in Spain. “We never had a building that was respected so much. Normally you have to fight for every detail.”
Yet what becomes clear during our visit is that the building is also a mystery to be unravelled. Miralles might have left detailed plans for the building but he took with him to the grave the stories and legends that inspired his designs. It is this that gives the parliament its unique power.
The building is at Holyrood, where the Royal Mile – Edinburgh’s medieval high street – peters out beneath the dramatic escarpment of Salisbury Crags and close to the ruins of King David’s abbey. It sits beside the royal palace of Holyroodhouse where, on 9 March 1566, Mary Queen of Scots saw her jealous husband stab her lover to death. The palace was equally cruel to the young Stuart pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie who, in 1745, held court for a mere six weeks until a botched attempt to invade England forced him into the celebrated flight that made him a folk hero.
It was in this emotive and ethereally beautiful hollow that Scotland’s politicians decided six years ago to build their new parliament – the first in Scotland for 300 years and the result of the newly installed Labour government’s policy of devolution. They chose as their architect the wilfully poetic Catalan Enric Miralles, who ignored all prevailing notions of architectural good taste and instead offered a design that was indescribable without the use of metaphors such as upturned boats at Lindisfarne, leaves floating on water, and the converging paths of Highland chieftains.
The building is set to become as steeped in legend as its historic neighbours. It is already haunted: a few month’s after Miralles’ tragic death, Scottish first minister Donald Dewar, the building’s political champion, died himself after a pavement fall.
Since then, the project has been dogged by scandal and farce as the architects struggled to honour Miralles’ designs and the client body ramped the brief, tripling the size of the building. The initial £40m budget has soared to something over £400m – around £80 for each of Scotland’s five million inhabitants. An official inquiry into its procurement, chaired by Lord Fraser, has over the past couple of months thrown up tales of intrigue, incompetence and infighting.
None of this seems to trouble Tagliabue. On a foul day of rain, snow and a flesh-penetrating wind, she is infectiously – almost abnormally – cheerful. “It’s beautiful, no?” she says of the weather, laughing. And of the inquiry – which over the preceding days has exposed fierce rows over fees between EMBT, local executive architects RMJM and the client – she says: “It’s a game. I try to see it as a game.” And she laughs some more.
Entering the building from the side that faces the palace, we walk into the undercroft that will serve as the visitors’ reception area. It resembles a crypt and is capped by a long, low vault of cast concrete set with the legend-inspired crosses. This atmospheric space, which will be open to the public, is directly below the main debating chamber and is the exact opposite of the approach employed by Foster & Partners at the Reichstag in Berlin, where the public are invited to look down on their politicians from the glass dome above.
“The politicians will not be visible when they are in the chamber but you will sense them above you,” says Tagliabue intriguingly. “It’s like a cave under the landscape,” she adds, while the debating chamber above is “like a boat” – leaf-shaped in plan and capped by an extraordinarily complex timber roof. In Miralles’ original designs, the chamber and adjacent committee rooms were compared to the upturned vessels the architect once sketched on a tour of Scotland (he visited the country as a student) but since then they have been described as ships at anchor in a harbour, Charles Rennie Macintosh watercolours of flower petals and Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp.
Such is the profusion of similes that it is now difficult to distinguish those coined by Miralles himself from those invented by fellow writers struggling to make sense of this inexplicable building. Shortly after presenting his final designs, Miralles himself declared: “I will use no more metaphors now because for the first time you can look at the building with realistic eyes.”
Yet Miralles’ metaphors were probably designed to intrigue rather than explain and the building is as much a product of the architect’s unique imagination as it is a catalogue of visual references. It is an abstract work of art and as such is open to multifarious interpretations. Take the casement windows that cover the western flank of the office wing that will house members of the Scottish Parliament: they have been compared to hens pecking corn, Scottish terriers, maps of Australia and Gilbert Stuart’s 1782 portrait of William Grant skating on a frozen loch that hangs in the Royal Scottish Academy. Miralles would no doubt be delighted.
We move on to the heart of the debating chamber itself, an intimate and resonant space crafted in Scottish oak, and out through the politicians’ entrance, which is flanked by a deep light well and protected by a soaring cantilever supported by a row of inclined concrete columns. These strongly bring to mind the work of Catalonia’s other great eccentric architect, Antoni Gaudí, but Tagliabue suggests that the comparison is simplistic.
“Er, maybe,” she says. “But not a direct influence. Although we love Parc Guell. It is a masterpiece. But with Gaudí and [his ceramicist] Jujol there was really an incredible relationship between an architect and a craftsman.”
This is a cue for Tagliabue to hint at the frustrations of building in Scotland. “In Spain there is still a very good relationship between architects and craftsmen who really know how to build. The Igualada cemetery – the project that made Enric famous – was built by three men: two masons and an ironworker. At the Scottish Parliament, with so many people in the middle, it is impossible.”
In Spain, EMBT works hand in hand with skilled tradesmen on site, resolving details as they go along. Construction in the UK is far more proscriptive and complex elements such as the parliament’s cast ceilings and timber roof beams have been prefabricated off site. This helps explain some of the delays, cost overruns and design changes that the press have so gleefully reported, but the resulting building is beautifully built even if it owes more to machinery than artisans.
One can imagine how Miralles might have been driven to distraction by this were he still alive and Tagliabue suggests that the building is less alive and spontaneous than she would have liked. “Our early projects were done with nothing – very, very low budgets, but sometimes that makes you more inventive; you could be much more interactive. It’s actually quite here difficult because the quality is so high. Usually we do this with poverty, which can often really help.”
There has been much sniping over the choice of the Quixotic Miralles and it is likely the appointment was an emotional decision as much as a considered one: there are obvious parallels between the autonomous province of Catalonia and newly devolved Scotland; and Miralles’ home town of Barcelona is the physical benchmark for every aspiring city. Miralles’ exuberantly organic style drew comparisons with Gaudí but whereas Gaudí’s architecture was a physical manifestation of his beloved Catalonia and religious faith, Miralles’ outlook was more cosmopolitan. He was able to promise Edinburgh a building that was born of the Scottish landscape and which expressed Caledonian pride and history without resorting to bombast or provincialism.
Tagliabue leads us onto the building’s Canongate facade, which is covered with sketches and abstract forms cast into the concrete. Some clearly represent the Edinburgh skyline but others are unfathomable. “We knew when Enric was alive that he wanted a special wall that would be a narrative, that would tell a story. But we didn’t know how it would be. There were just a few sketches.” EMBT commissioned artist Soraya Smithson – the youngest daughter of architects Peter and Alison Smithson, to interpret Miralles’ ideas into what is now known as the Constituency Wall. “It’s based on Enric’s drawings, collages and inscriptions,” Tagliabue says. “It is full of hidden stories. The idea is everyone has to work out the story.” No doubt the Scots will continue to be beguiled by this wall, and by the building itself, long after they have forgotten the rows over cost and delay.