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Holyrood or bust


The publication of Lord Fraser's long-awaited report into the Scottish parliament debacle has highlighted a catalogue of drastic mistakes stemming back to the project's earliest days. With almost no party involved escaping criticism, Ed Dorrell looks what the report had to say about the architects involved

Attempting to get your head round what went wrong at Holyrood, one of the most extraordinary examples of a flawed construction project, is not easy. The challenge lies not in pinpointing any single major source of cost and time escalation but in comprehending the enormity of the project's endless and intertwining problems. As Lord Fraser says in his report published last week: 'What could go wrong did go wrong.' This conclusion in itself must come as a relief for the two architectural practices involved in the debacle - Enric Miralles' EMBT and Edinburghbased RMJM - as they, probably correctly, feared being used as scapegoats for the project's extraordinary problems.

Indeed, the news hacks who wrote the first stories upon the publication of Fraser's report correctly picked out a quote that seems to leave the architects in the clear:

'Tempting as it is to lay all the blame at the door of a deceased and wayward Spanish architectural genius, his stylised fashion of working, and the strained relationship between his widow and RMJM, this conclusion would be wrong.' If Fraser picked out any group in particular for criticism, it was not the architects but the Scottish civil servants who blindly managed the scheme from its inception with next to no experience of projects of this magnitude.

This, however, is not the be-all and endall. For although it seems reasonably clear that only a small share of the blame should be apportioned to the architects, they were clearly still at fault.

The Fraser report - surely one of the most detailed investigations into a oneoff construction scheme in living memory - paints an extraordinary picture of the project as a whole, and of Miralles in particular.

The image that emerges is one of an amazingly flairful architect in Miralles, who designed a building that may soon be considered a masterpiece but who failed to understand the demands that this extraordinary project would put upon him and his design team.

From the very beginning, it seems, drastic mistakes were being made by all involved.

For example, according to the Fraser report, all on the original architectural shortlist claimed that the building could be brought in within the £50 million of taxpayers' money ringfenced for the scheme. Whether Miralles was choosing to pull the wool over people's eyes or had simply messed up his calculations is unclear, but what is certain is that this was never going to be achievable.

A recent investigation has shown that it would have been impossible to build Miralles' designs for less than £250 million.

That the pricetag has now reached £440 million is another matter.

Fraser writes in his conclusion: 'It is far from clear whether the architect had the budget in mind when drawing up designs of such complexity.' There was, he adds, a 'disregard by the architect of the constraints of brief and budget that they were supposed to be designing'.

Fraser, however, paints Miralles as the kind of individual who neither knew nor cared that prices were on the rise as long as the building would fulfil its architectural potential. A genius, certainly, but not someone you would want looking after your mortgage in the local bank.

Miralles could not, and would not, 'work in straight lines and to timetable, and would instead have sudden creative bursts'. While this may seem an endearing characteristic in an architect at the moment of appointment, it soon became apparent to others on the project that he would prove to be a problematic figure. For example, between July and November 1999 Miralles attended just six of the 15 design meetings, a move that left the project somewhat rudderless in its early stages.

The Catalonian architect's inability to respond to deadlines is perhaps best illustrated by the astonishing statistic that in the 22 weeks that followed his appointment, his 'Mediterranean attitude' to timekeeping had ensured that the project had already fallen eight weeks behind schedule.

In 1999, project manager Bill Armstrong's patience with the architect's erratic behaviour ran out and he resigned. In his letter of resignation, Armstrong wrote that 'a stand must be taken to either bring Miralles to heel, or to accept his inadequacies. He does not believe he has any. The progress will drift, the costs will increase, the design team will make claims, the contractor will make claims. And the project will become a disaster.' Sadly, however, the event which left the design and construction team most in disarray was Miralles' premature death in 2000.

Fraser concludes that by then the designs should have reached such a stage that the project could proceed smoothly without him, but this was not the case, and instead caused yet more delays.

If there is just one architectural lesson to learn from this entire fiasco, it is that practices should be wary of going into joint ventures. Fraser's report paints a picture of two practices that were at times verging on all-out war. He concludes that RMJM, headed up by Brian Stewart, and EMBT, both before and after Miralles' untimely death, found it exceptionally difficult to work together and communications were, at best, strained. This situation led directly to many of the reasons for the extraordinary cost escalation and delays.

Fraser writes: 'In short the joint relationship was a misnomer. In reality the picture discloses two teams separated by geography and working in quite different ways. The consequence was that the performance of the architects fell well below what could reasonably have been expected.' Not only did both the Barcelona and Edinburgh parts of the architectural team have running battles throughout the project over the division of fees, they also failed to agree on many of the elements of design. These problems reached a crescendo when the two offices, which Fraser describes as 'dysfunctional', provided their Scottish parliament superiors with two completely unrelated plans for the debating chamber's roof, a move that left bosses astonished.

In short, an 'us and them' mentality developed in the design team that, together with the lack of coherent leadership from Stewart, Miralles and his widow, Benadetta Tagliabue, directly led to the final £440 million cost. Morale among more junior members of the team was 'non-existent'.

Although the architects at the heart of the parliamentary project must shoulder much of the responsibility for the extraordinary failures, almost every senior figure in the project has to take some blame. The difference is that Miralles and Stewart have, however dysfunctionally, created a building that has already entered the communal conscience of the Scottish nation. Stirling 2005?

You would be mad to bet against it.

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