A Parliament for Scotland: Visit to Holyrood

Perhaps part of the “open and transparent” ethos of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood (and akin to Westminster) are regular guided tours and visits are hosted by employees of the institution. I was lucky enough to gain a last minute place on one of the visits, having last visited some years ago.

Rather than being focused on specifically the architectural design of the building, the guided visit was more informative in understanding how the processes of the Scottish Parliament (many unique to Holyrood, and most at least distinct from Westminster) operate. The quirks of this self described “modern” system prove a strong counterpoint to the oppositional arrangement and archaic processes of Westminster. The voting system in the mainn chamber for example, in addition to being electronic, is all carried out at the end of the day. MSPs also have a strict time limit for  addressing the chamber, with an actual countdown clock high on the wall and omnipresent, to ensure they cannot filibuster.

But, the differences lie deeper than merely the operations of debates, and this is the main reason why I was so keen to visit the building. The unicameral nature of the Scottish Legislature imparts far more significance on the role of committees in checking and challenging the laws passed by the main house. These committees are manned by a cross section of MSPs and perform the role usually allocated to a second house in holding the government to account.

If the aim of my own project is to create an architecture to foster an actual second house of government for a future Scotland, it will be imperative to learn from these committees as they are today, how they operate and how the architecture of Holyrood facilitates this (and promotes their “values”). Moreso, what will happen to the current web of committees which oversee legislation within the main house? Will these have to be duplicated or incorporated into the second house? Will they remain, providing additional checks and oversight?

Admission into one such committee room was helpful in understanding these processes, and the architecture which frames these deliberations. Far from just some standard meeting room, the arrangement of seats, space for “witnesses” to be called and give evidence, and the system of broadcasting and recording used in the room to be live streamed mark out the space itself.

Having studied the design history of the building, it was also interesting to hear other people’s responses to the architecture, and to hear the official line on the design building from the guide.

One aspect that was continually referenced was the untimely death of the architect Enric Miralles, and how much of the building was then designed from interpretations of his original work posthumously. this obviously opens the door to a slew of intertpretations of the supposed “meaning” of the built form itself, with only vague hints from Miralles left guiding these thoughts.

Factually of course, this is correct. Miralles tragically passed away before the building was complete, and was the driving creative force behind the architecture. Many of his interventions have remained unexplained, or more often the likely symbolic emphasis of each pieced together from scraps of design notes, or records of conversations and internal critiques. There is an air of mystery around much of the the form of the building, especially within the details themselves, where the legacy of Miralles vision had to be interpreted piecemeal. The strange roof forms in the MSP’s lobby: are these the upturned forms of boats so essential to the character of Scotland? Are they watching eyes staring down at the MSPs? Are they a continuation of the leaf and branch motif present in the plan-form of the building?

This speculation is all well and good, and they air of mystery and guesswork around the design I’m sure adds to the experience and attraction of the parliament building as a tourist destination. However, due to the function of the architecture, this is deliberation on “meaning” is no throwaway tourist hook.

A parliament, perhaps more than any other building, acts as the symbolic reflection of the nation state, the values of that state and an interpretation and distillation of its history. In the same way in which sacred and religious architecture fosters metaphorical meaning, the form of a parliament building uses architectural techniques to put forward an ideal image of a complex imagine community of people: the nation.  With the complex nature of the Holyrood parliament, a child of devolution, constitutional reform and  almost-independence, the symbolism of statecraft is all the more pronounced.

Importantly however, the lack of confirmation from the designer on the “meaning” of the architecture allows even more room for projection. This means, that the design of the building can become even more politicised than it already is,  the notions of interest groups being projected onto the architecture with little or no way of refuting them.

This holds a dual significance however. It also allows individual visitors to project meaning themselves. In allowing them to decide between different interpretations, and marrying these with  their own, personal, one, this  cements their relationship with the building. This process provides scope for a personal connection far deeper than just accepting the symbolic meaning dictated to them by the architect.

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