By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

THE PARLIAMENT'S CHAMBER IS AN IMPRESSIVE VOLUME, BUT ITS ROOF SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN DESIGNED BY AALTO AFTER A HEAVY NIGHT OUT

OPINION

Offered the opportunity to visit Edinburgh to see how the place has fared since I was a student there 40 years ago, I jumped at it. Apart from flying visits, I hadn't been back since my studies. Edinburgh is much transformed - quite a lot for the better. It's much cleaner for a start. Our hotel was in the Grassmarket, underneath the castle, which in the past was a dark, dank, stinking sink, populated with sinister herds of roaming drunken derelicts.

Now (on Friday nights at least) the new bright bars are full of drunken would-be yuppies - cleaner and less frightening, but more noisy. Next morning, the city's cleansing department was on hands and knees gathering litter from the pavements.

Seeing Edinburgh's wonderful structure and topography again made clear how bad our planning tuition was. Edinburgh's 18th- and 19th-century planners were all determined that no vista should be without termination in monument, sea or mountain.

They imposed a rational Enlightenment grid over the topography, bridging the chasms and leaving the lower levels (like the Grassmarket) to services and the poor.

Down there, life seemed almost medieval, even in the middle of the 20th century. Our tutors, uninterested in the challenge of bringing light to the depths, were busily conniving in the destruction of some of the earliest gems of 18th-century planning, like George and St James' Squares - one was largely replaced with lumpen academic boxes, the other with a monstrous shopping centre.

The dreadfulness continued for many years and still does. The 10-year-old Festival Square, clumsily designed largely under Terry Farrell's aegis, is second-rate, coarse and empty.

Yet it is only a 10-minute walk from Charlotte Square, Robert Adam's delicate late 18thcentury masterpiece, one of the finest urban spaces in Europe.

Now the city is apparently looking for central sites for tall buildings. If that were rumoured in Prague, there would be an international outcry.

Of course, one of the main reasons for wanting to go to Edinburgh again was to see the new Parliament building.

It has certainly had impact.

The bottom end of the Royal Mile, once scarcely visited, is now packed with tourists.

They crowd around the entrance and are admitted in groups. Miralles seems to have enjoyed introducing apparently arbitrary pinch-points in all his routes, and because the plan's parti is based on no more than a handful of leaves and twigs thrown on a table, spaces and their relationships often seem totally illogical. There are, of course, some impressive volumes, such as the chamber itself, but, even there, the roof seems to have been designed by Aalto after a heavy night out, and glare can be overwhelming.

Detailing throughout is totally arbitrary, and very expensive - there seems to be no reason at all for the strange scab-like excrescences over the windows, except perhaps that Miralles was frightened of openings. It is quite the most wilful building that I have ever seen. The full story of the Parliament's catastrophic design process is yet to be told (libel laws are very tough in Scotland).

I went straight from Parliament to Benson & Forsyth's Scottish Museum, a masterpiece of construction, urbanity, geometry, display, logic, poetry, space and light.

It's a really fine building - finished on time and to cost - and a great addition to one of Europe's finest cities. I want to go back.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters