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Political ambitions

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To open an exhibition entitled 'The Architecture of Democracy' in the week of elections for Scotland's new parliament, the moment that the British constitution embarks on its biggest voyage of reform in nearly 300 years, is to beg a fundamental question about the nature and importance of architecture. Is it integral to the social engine, a shaper of lives; or is it little more than a branch of aesthetics, available only for specialist interrogation?

If Enric Miralles' design for a stylistically contemporary, yet self- consciously national, parliament building in Edinburgh does seriously contribute to the way Scottish politics begins to function, then we will have the most vivid modern illustration Britain can offer of how architecture at its most sophisticated can organise the way people think and behave. If, on the other hand, it comes to be perceived merely as either an attractive or unattractive building in which parliamentarians do much the same kind of work as they would anywhere else, the currency of architecture drops considerably from Winston Churchill's cardinal assertion of social value: 'We shape our buildings, and then they shape us.'

With one room at Glasgow's McLellan Galleries dedicated to the evolution of the Palace of Westminster and, ultimately, the reconstruction of the House of Commons debating chamber after its destruction by a German bomb in 1941, Churchill emerges as a clear-sighted prophet of architectural organisation. He rightly understood the nature of political debate as theatre, recommending that the chamber remain too small to contain all mps so that when attendance was low it would avoid the 'depressing atmosphere' of vacancy; and when a major debate was under way it would be crammed with the drama of significance.

Of even greater relevance to Miralles' new building, moreover, is Churchill's dislike of curved or circular seating arrangements and his advocacy of the oblong arrangement of the House of Commons chamber. The insistent challenge of those who have argued for Scottish devolution over the years is that a new parliament should avoid the futile confrontational nature of Westminster politics. And Miralles was landed with the job of giving that ambition architectural expression. Churchill would have seen this as resulting in fudge debate rather than effective consensus politics. 'It is easy for an individual to move through those insensible graduations from left to right,' he said of circular arrangements. 'But the act of crossing the floor is one requiring serious consideration.'

So it is exhilarating to witness the very latest model (later even than one recently exhibited by Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar as 'final') at the climax of a show lavish with world parliaments. It is huge, beautifully made, and gives a glimpse of how that odd broad curve of a chamber will succeed, or fail, in bringing together fractious Scottish politics within a fragmentary campus arrangement.

In this form the Miralles plan for Scotland's parliament stands like a disproportionately huge (the model is by far the biggest in the show) challenge over the history of political architecture. Norman Foster's Reichstag - transparency revealing itself as neutrality rather than openness - seems noncommittal by comparison. The question of the Scottish parliament is posed by the key bifurcation of the 'Architecture of Democracy' show, which separates all parliaments into types of either the Classical or national. So, is Enric Miralles a perpetrator of the universalising Classicism of which twentieth-century Modernists were the inheritors, or the assertiveness of the national type exemplified by Westminster?

As curator of this show, Deyan Sudjic has, on the one hand, dramatised parliamentary architecture as the most culturally complex form - the defining form, perhaps - of our age over and above churches or museums. And he has found in the coincidence of the Scottish parliamentary debate, a possible synthesis between Classical-rational and national-emotional types. 'You could say that Miralles' architecture attempts to do both,' he says. 'It's a contemporary building, clearly of its time, and it appeals to a wider kind of conversation than specifically Scotland. And yet it does say something about how Scotland sees itself as well - about being outward-looking and open to ideas.'

As director of Glasgow 1999 and that city's Festival of Architecture and Design, on the other hand, Sudjic has here produced a testament to the real value of the year, answered his critics as to the relevance of an architectural festival, and offered a potent testamant to architecture as a defining force in political history.

Alex Linklater is a journalist in Glasgow

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