Until I moved into an Airbnb apartment next door, the Scottish Parliament hadn't been on my Edinburgh itinerary at all, but a chance view across the lane while waiting for the elevator piqued my interest, as it did also for George G, who recognized the view in our One-Clue Mystery this week.
In a city filled with large stone buildings both old and ancient, the Parliament is a newcomer, only opening in 2004, a few years after the 1997 referendum that gave Scotland its first legislature and executive in 292 years. A new building was decided on because the pre-1707 Parliament House, a few blocks away, was not only too small but in full use as a courthouse.
When we visited, we were invited to sit in the galleries of the Debating Chamber, above, and observe the action. And observe is it: no photos allowed while in session. Listening to a half-hour debate on land reform and the rights or not of large landowners led me to the thought: This debate could have been held, in the same terms, in 1790 or 1860!
Its seemingly perfect symbolic location, at the far end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle and across the street from the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the royal family's official seat in Scotland, was actually nearly accidental.
Three other sites around the city were proposed, but just before the final decision was made the large brewery that occupied the Holyrood site announced that it was moving and that the land was for sale.
The next step was an architectural competition, with five of the world's star architects in the running; the final choice was Enric Miralles, an Italian whose design had proven popular when the public was invited to view models of all the proposals. Even so, in the long run the design proved more popular with architects who gave it a number of prizes than with the public.
Miralles' design consists of four basic elements. An entrance building faces Holyroodhouse, with lobbies, visitor services, a cafe and exhibit spaces, all connected to the debating chamber and office buildings. The debating chamber is, essentially, a roof over the space created between the entrance building and the final two elements, an office building for members and Queensberry House, a historic mansion that serves as office space for the Parliament's leadership.
The debating chamber roof, as seen in the title image above, greatly resembles a giant glass leaf, which makes the interior space airy and light. Overall, the design of the complex is designed to "achieve a poetic union between the Scottish landscape, its people, its culture, and the city of Edinburgh. Part of that plan is the sidewalk wall that runs from Queensberry House around to the visitor entrance.
Different sections of the wall offer suggestions of Scottish landscape, history and even the skyline of medieval Edinburgh, just above.
The thoroughly modern spaces within the building and the views to its other parts keep up the air of a busy place while at the same time hinting at ancient and cathedral-like spaces.
Exhibit spaces highlight a timeline not only of Scottish history but especially of its 20th-century struggle to regain a parliament and the ongoing struggle over either independence or greater autonomy within the United Kingdom. And, as a working legislature, the Parliament complex is also frequently the scene of demonstrations.
And a moment's return to those unusual windows on the Members' Building: they are actually an upside-down representation of a traditional Scottish 'crowstep' gable. If you look closely, you'll see that half project further out from the facade than the others. The deep ones are attached to the private offices of the Members of Scottish Parliament; the shallower ones are on the outer office where staff work. The deep ones are actually intended to be a sitting space, on the steps, where members can sit and contemplate!