$782 million buys Scotland a rare parliament building


Overrun: It's architecturally remarkable, but it cost 10 times the original estimate.

October 03, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

EDINBURGH, Scotland - For a parliament that only recently came back to life nearly 300 years after being shut down, Scotland's has made up for some lost time in a big way.

One of its first acts, after it got up and limping along five years ago, was to take control of the construction of a new parliament building, which was supposed to take two years to build and cost about $73 million - a figure that left many Scots aghast.

Had they only known.

Five years and $782 million later - three years past its hoped-for opening and more than 10 times its estimated cost - workers are putting the final touches on the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood, in anticipation of the official opening by Queen Elizabeth II on Saturday.

One of the least powerful parliaments in Western democracy is now the owner of one of the most expensive such buildings in the world.

"Mind you, now, this is no wee building," said Stewart Stevenson, who represents the wee district of Banff and Buchn in northeastern Scotland and has been one of the harshest critics of the overrun costs.

"The fact of the matter is, that even if we had built a brick shed of this size with no architectural merit, there was no prayer it could have been built on estimate." Oh, he loves the building. Just not the cost.

The building's design, by Barcelona-based Enric Miralles, who died at 45 during construction, was inspired by the small, upturned fishing boats that line the Scottish coast.

Architectural critics are in general agreement that the Holyrood complex is the most unusual building constructed in Scotland in at least a generation, with gently undulating concrete, wood and stone floors, and glass walls that offer a stunning view of Edinburgh's landscape and allow sunlight to stream through almost shadow-free.

The main debating chamber is nearly all wood, with a buttressed roof and windows all around, including the whole of one of its walls.

But 10 times over budget?

"I bear the scars of the cost, but I'm doing a victory roll," said Jamie Stone, one of three Parliament members in charge of dragging the building to completion. "Some second-rate edifice is not something the people of Scotland deserve, and in 10 years' time, nobody will think of the cost, but they'll still have a first-rate palace."

Some of the reasons for the cost were nearly impossible to avoid. Thanks to the fear of terrorism, for example, windows in the new building were required to be blast-resistant, and other security measures pushed up the cost.

But mostly, according to a judicial inquiry completed last month, civil servants intent on secrecy and inexperienced with such a large contract were responsible for the unexpectedly high price.

The way the contract with the construction managers was formed, all risk for overruns rested with the public. And, as all involved now agree, the original estimate was an unrealistic wish.

"So the cost was higher, but what a finish," Stone said. "I would hold it on par with what it must have been like to build an 11th-century cathedral. This is the White House, the U.S. Capitol, a lot of things rolled into one."

The other reason for the enormous cost is the desire here to have a parliament building that is more than an office, a place to do business with constant reminders of the outside world that is supposed to be served.

Visible through one of the building's windows is a store called "Bagpipes Galore," not some gimmick but a busy place that reflects a slice of Scottish culture.

Through several windows is a view of Holyrood Park, a 650-acre city park that contains Arthur's Seat - the remnants of a volcano that erupted 350 million years ago - and Salisbury Crag's rock face. The park is the very picture of Scotland's inner landscape.

The Holyrood complex, really a series of interlocking buildings, suggests leaves and boats, and the windows, covered with sticks of wood, complete the organic theme.

Windows that jut out of members' offices, with a seat set inside them, were created with the idea that it would not be such a bad thing for people making decisions about the future of Scotland to have a place to just sit and have a good think about what they are doing.

"It could have been constructed more cheaply," said James Mackenzie, the Parliament spokesman. "I'm not so sure more thought could have gone into it."

Scotland, of course, is not alone in wanting its primary government building to say something.

In 1999, the 19th-century Reichstag reopened in Berlin as the new seat of German government. The building is capped with a giant glass dome, visible throughout the city, and was designed to convey the principle of open government. Its main chamber is topped with a glass roof, with public areas above, a reminder to members of the people they serve.

Its reconstruction, though, was completed for $165 million.

Scotland has been a part of Great Britain since 1707, and it was not until 1998 that the British Parliament, after a referendum, gave Scotland's 6 million residents its own.

As part of "devolution," Scotland - along with Wales and Northern Ireland - has a parliament with its own powers on matters such as education, health and prisons (though devolution in Northern Ireland has been suspended).

"We are a real parliament with real powers, and so it's fitting we have an impressive building," Stevenson said. "It leads people to wonder, though, how this parliament will get on with its future decisions."

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