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Context is what you make of it


The choice of Enric Miralles to design the new Scottish Parliament building is unexpected, in the sense that it would scarcely have been predicted before the competition took place, but not entirely surprising. The decision avoids a number of difficulties: first, choosing an English- based architect. It is a sad fact that there is considerable public hostility to the English in Scotland, as evidenced by the delight with which England's defeat by Argentina in the World Cup was greeted north of the border, as the 1966 victory was greeted with disgust (at least by Denis Law). Second, it avoided choosing a Scottish architect (although Miralles will work with the admirable Edinburgh office of rmjm). Third, it avoided making a choice between similar forms of architecture: the Miralles scheme is, no doubt, the most distinctive; Edinburgh is to get a touch of Bilbao in the night.

It is always interesting with this sort of competition to discuss the context in which particular architects place their designs. How 'Scottish' is this winner? How much does it relate to the topography and geography of its immediate surroundings, the overall Edinburgh context, and the place of the building in the wider landscape? Given the way in which it responds to these different factors, how much does the design then owe to the influence of other European parliamentary buildings, and indeed to other parliamentary buildings round the world?

One of the problems about the conservationist view of the world, in its narrowest sense, is that the immediate local context excludes all other design considerations. At its worst, it requires demolishing old buildings only to replace them in an attempted replica style, even if it means 'stretching' the fabric to create rational floor heights. What a major national or civic building does is to remind us that context is as broad as it is long, and that it is the spirit of the building, and of the place, which really matters.

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