Take the Scottish parliament challenge!

I know how you love a challenge, and now I have a tough one for you: your task, should you manage to accept it, is to


The Scottish parliament building is a major landmark in Edinburgh. It is at the bottom of the Royal Mile, right next to the magnificent old Holyrood Palace, one of the Queen’s residences. Edinburgh is a city blessed with many architectural marvels, and one might reasonably hope that its parliament building might be among them, especially when one learns that the architects had a budget of forty million pounds.

Here you see a wide view of what one might assume to be the building’s front, although it is such a sprawling mass that it is not easy to say what is the front and what the side. Now, I feared that people might complain that I had gone out of my way to make the building look horrible in order to make a point, so to prevent such accusations, I have gone quite the other way, and have taken pains to make the building look as nice as possible. I have framed the pictures of it against a flattering light-blue page background. I have framed the shots nicely. I have photographed on a pleasant sunny day with a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. I have cropped the pictures for nice compositions, and to remove unsightly portions of neighbouring buildings. I have even used a digital graphics package to remove ugly modern passers-by in ugly modern passer-by costumes. I have given the building every opportunity to look good.

I was there the day it opened. The day before, I watched from the side of Arthur’s Seat as workmen put in lots of overtime finishing the building off. They were laying vast amounts of turf around it. The Queen arrived, did her job, and then raced away.

So, can you dig deep enough, or think laterally enough to find something nice to say about it? I don’t want anyone to waste his time coming up with suggestions that are plainly false, so I will point out a number of things that you couldn’t say are nice (not unless you wish to be carted away to the funny farm).

Now, one thing you can say about many great buildings is that they are instantly recognisable icons. Tourist-tat manufacturers can make cheap little models of them, and logo designers can use simple silhouettes of them, and these can quickly convey to the viewer what they depict. Can you recognise these buildings from their deliberately-crude silhouettes?

That’s right, the Palace of Westminister, Sydney Opera House, the Taj Mahal, and the Eiffel Tower. Easy eh? So tell me, can you look at any of these photographs and come up with a simple shape derived from them that would tell the family of a visitor from China straight away what building is intended? Here’s a silhouette derived from the first photograph here.

Not impressive, is it?

So, it lacks shape. Don’t tell me that the shape is good. What else? Colour, perhaps? It is grey. It is a light concrete grey. Already, though, it is changing colour.

You see here a shot of one of the plain vertical slabs of concrete that adorn the building. You might note that the sides of the vertical gap between the two slabs shown are not quite parallel. See also that the concrete has started to stain and discolour in the way that all concrete around the world has done since the invention of concrete. The rain has formed little depressing damp stains on the surface. You can see dark stains, as well as much fainter, longer, vertical stains. These pictures were taken only a year or so after the building opened. Imagine what the building will look like in time. Perhaps they will spend a fortune trying to clean it, and perhaps the front of the building will often be covered in scaffolding for this purpose, but don’t tell me that the surface will age well, or weather well. It won’t.

On the south side of the building is this mysterious extension. Its purpose doesn’t seem to be to house anything. Possibly it exists solely to force pedestrians to give the building a wider berth. It is roofed with turf (already a bit overgrown by the opening day – apparently they had given no thought to how anyone might get up there with a mower), and walled with extremely thick concrete. In places the walls are caged-in boulders, and reminiscent of a sea-defence wall. Elsewhere the images of military bunker and motorway underpass come to my mind. What about yours? In the background, you see the unusual geology museum in its tent-like building, and behind that the massive crags of Arthur’s Seat. You could hardly wish for a more spectacular setting.

This to me says “bunker”.

This to me conjures up the romance of the motorway underpass, although it lacks enough graffiti for the full effect at the moment. The larger steps seem to have some sort of anti-tank blocks on them. Lovely.

On the right in this one you can see the bit that looks like a sea-wall. You can see details reminiscent of firing-slits, and hanging oppressively over the passer-by are the astonishingly thick and heavy-looking roofs. Is the rain in Edinburgh ever heavy enough to threaten a roof half this thick?

Between the parliament and Holyrood are some ponds. Here we see them, complete with their protective black barriers, which I presume are there to stop very stupid people and Americans with good lawyers from falling in. I’m not sure how clean the water is, mind.

This shot is of what I think is the main entrance, but it isn’t easy to tell. Just as there is no obvious front to the building, so to there is no obvious focus on an entrance. The door is quite ordinary and small, and is almost lost behind the depth of the roof, the purpose of which seems to be defence against aerial attack.

No, this really is another view of the building. It may look like an uncommonly ugly industrial complex from a sci-fi video game, but actually this is more of the Scottish parliament building. Everything appears to have been made in the cheapest way possible. The windows are plain and square, the surfaces are flat and unadorned, and the look reminds me of the skeletal look of iron fire-escape stairways. The caged-in section in the middle looks particularly industrial, and I’m surprised not to see steam escaping from it. I certainly don’t envy anyone who has to work in there. I’d like a parliament building to inspire me to want to serve my country. This building looks like it would inspire its workers into escape attempts.

This shot has something of the prison-look about it. The fences shut off the subjects of the country from the building, and appear to fence in the inmates. What do those shapes on the building suggest to you? Number sevens? Hammers? Concrete supports for a viaduct? A gun to your head? This view of the building makes it look remote, desolate, unhappy. I have heard the building described as looking like a 1970s student hall of residence. I am inclined to agree.

Another aspect of the building. It may not seem obvious to you that all these shots truly belong to one building, since they vary so much in look. They are, however, all connected by the theme of unremitting awfulness. The sea-wall look has been continued here. Presumably these stout walls are designed to prevent attack. They are thick enough to withstand quite a blast, I imagine, and seem angled to deflect that blast away from parliament, and into the housing estate next door. If you study the windows carefully, you will see that these ones stick out from the building and are mounted in little bays of very complicated design. These look expensive, but only after careful study. The expense is hard to see, because it has been obscured mostly by the bamboo-like bars over the windows. Again, these may be some defence against rocket-propelled grenades, but it is a shame that those inside have to work behind bars. Perhaps, though, it is good that the bars are there, because although the bays look expensive, it would be a person of odd tastes who found these lop-sided angular embrasures beautiful or elegant.

This view looks to me like a view of a 1970s sports centre. I can easily imagine a large swimming bath in the further section. There is no grandeur of approach to the building. It just goes: traffic island, pavement, door. The doors at ground level are so very plain, and the whole ground floor level looks crushed by the weight of the concrete above. This is not the way to impress visitors.

This bit is at the bottom of The Royal Mile/Canongate. In the bottom left of the picture you can see the sharp-edged steel security fence keeping people away from the walls. In front of this are blobs of stone set into the pavement that I guess are there to stop people ramming the fence with cars. Just out of view are a load of windows that have grilles over them that make them look like air-vents. You can see here more of those mysterious shapes on the walls. One thing that worries me is the thought that I am supposed to recognise what they symbolise. The rows of them here make me think of the rows of icons painted on the side of fighter-planes, representing enemy kills. This building has apparently accounted for twenty-six small white hammers, and thirteen large black ones. I’m sure you can see the significance of these numbers. You can see some people trying to make sense of the decoration on the lower section of wall. Do the decorations look good from here? Is there marvellous symmetry, grand sweep, elegant arrangement? Decorations that look a mess from just across the road are very unlikely to look good close up, and these don’t.

Does this look like an efficient enclosing of volume? How would you like to work in this corner office? How does this hanging mass, with its razor edges and blank greyness make you feel?

This is the best of the ornamentation. The poles in front of the doors look like bamboo from here, but actually they are more solid wood. The degree to which they are bent, and the apparently random way they arranged makes their bentness look accidental. You have to look closely and spot that the mess repeats itself to see that the mess is deliberate. Bending like this of course increases cost. This is a very expensive way to create a very cheap look. The theme is carried on into the cold greyness of the wall, and then again into the insult of the steel security fence. What this has to do with parliaments or Scotland, I couldn’t tell you. I  associate it with tall grasses of the agricultural Far East.

So, does the building fit in with those around it? Well, across the road is Holyrood Palace, partially obscured by other old stone buildings. This is the view that way across the street. Can you see any attempt to harmonise with this view? Any echo of colour, motif, proportion, material, theme, or shape?

So, now it is your turn to contribute. Can you find anything nice to say about it at all, that doesn’t utterly condemn it with faint praise? In my opinion, the following questions have already been answered.

Is it a good shape? No.

Is it a nice colour? No.

Is it nicely proportioned? No.

Is it nicely ornamented? No.

Will it impress foreign visitors? No.

Will it age well? No.

Does it suggest “Scotland”? No.

Does it suggest “parliament”? No.

Is it in keeping with its surroundings? No.

Does it seem friendly, warm, likeable or welcoming? No.

Was it, at least, very cheap? No. I wrote above that the architects had a forty million pound budget. They did, but they went an astounding ten times over budget, and this hideous pile of wrecking-ball targets cost the tax payers of Britain a shameful four hundred million pounds. Over to you.

You can either e-mail me personally using the address pictured in this non-clickable graphic of my e-mail address, or you can leave your reaction on my guestbook.