As its name suggests, the United Kingdom is a supposedly integrated old thing made up of the nations England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But since 1997 the shape of the country has been shifting. That’s when Tony Blair and the Labour government began the process of “devolution”—giving limited powers back to Scotland and Wales. Since the newly elected representatives of the people wanted new edifices for their assemblies, a Scottish Parliament Building opened in Edinburgh in 2004—a structure of highly unconventional design for which its architects have recently been awarded the £20,000 RIBA Stirling Prize. And an unusual new building for the National Assembly for Wales officially opened in Cardiff on March 1, St. David’s Day.
Expressive opportunities were undoubtedly created by the (popular) spirit of devolution joining up with a perhaps slightly exaggerated postmillennial idealization of democracy (excusable), and the new buildings must be seen as their deliberate manifestations. But similar forces first came into play a very long time ago. Nikolaus Pevsner’s fascinating book A History of Building Types (1976) traces the development of government buildings toward “single, rigidly special functions” starting with the grand town halls of Florence, Siena, and Lübeck in the late Middle Ages. Towns—new economic powerhouses—must have been first to require useful and expressive buildings. Nations, on the other hand, were represented by royal palaces that needed to convey only the egos and tastes of kings. The courtiers and functionaries who attended to national governance were routinely relegated to subordinate outbuildings, side rooms, and even palace cupboards.
So the specialization of national buildings for assembly and government only began to emerge with the decline of royal power. Pevsner traces its birth from the Irish Parliament of 1739 (built in Dublin before Great Britain and Ireland became united in 1800, it’s now occupied by the Bank of Ireland). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Jefferson, Latrobe, Kent, and Barry produced designs that pointed the way for the great ceremonial capitol and parliament buildings of Washington and London. Others did the same in Ottawa, Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna. In the twentieth century Le Corbusier at Chandigarh, Oscar Niemeyer at Brasília, and Louis Kahn at Dhaka shifted Modern architecture toward ceremonial sculpture in the name of democratic government. The twenty-first century has continued the expressionism of sculptural invention in the designs of the parliament buildings of Edinburgh and Cardiff.
For Scotland the original notion of adapting a historic neoclassical building in Edinburgh’s center was soon abandoned in favor of a site for a new building at the craggy edge near the Palace of Holyroodhouse. From an entry of 70 architects, a short list of five led to the choice of Catalan architects Enric Miralles and his wife, Benedetta Tagliabue (who became principal designer when Miralles died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in 2000). Their firm, EMBT, was teamed with the Scottish firm RMJM as executive architects. No specific designs for the project were required; judging was mainly on the basis of the architects’ resumes and portfolios. Reportedly, the selection panel was particularly swayed by Miralles’s singular design for the City Hall of Utrecht, the Netherlands.
Since completion the Scottish Parliament Building has been denounced in some quarters for its huge cost overruns, and vilified for its design. In reality expenses rose due to a continually enlarging and enriching program, with public outrage the result of politicians being unwilling to come clean about the situation (much like what happened with the Sydney Opera House). The design is breathtaking but so complex that I’d suggest paying it a visit—photographs don’t do it justice. (They do show that Miralles and Tagliabue aren’t in the grain of their compatriot, Gaudí, whose work always photographs brilliantly.) The architects use strange personal shapes, like the repeated one on the facades that resembles a Hebrew letter, and strange forms, such as the clusters of rough round sticks in the eccentrically shaped, almost obsessively repeated window bays. My sense of strangeness vanished when I was invited into the office of Linda Fabiani, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, and saw how her inglenook window bay has levels usable as a private seat, shelving for books, elevated footrests, and a place to contemplate some evocative architectural elements and the dramatic Salisbury Crags opposite. The interior’s remarkable richness of detailing delights Fabiani. Sliding doors over her storage wall are notched to allow a few main file drawers to be pulled out when the doors are closed. Her carpet (as in other parliamentarians’ offices) is a rich pattern of tiny colored triangles designed by Miralles that contrasts with the oak floor.
The large part of the Scottish Parliament open to the public speaks eloquently. Skylights are like the upturned boats of Lindisfarne, the Holy Island of ancient Celtic monks. The Debating Chamber, the hallowed space of democracy, has impressive grandeur. Shaped ambivalently like a rough pointed oval, its curving rows of Members’ places suggest conciliation rather than confrontation. The steel-reinforced oak trusses supporting the roof all seem different in depth, width, and direction; cross-linked, they tip up asymmetrically for the daylight that floods in. With the main materials unstained oak and glass, the chamber’s atmosphere feels less like a designed interior than a clearing in the woods. If Alvar Aalto could return from two generations ago, he would love it. His architectural spaces were usually more “rational” and never as complex, but I’d nominate the architect as Miralles and Tagliabue’s most direct antecedent.
Devolution gave Wales less autonomy than Scotland, which has a new Parliament for 129 Members; Wales has a new National Assembly for 60 (perhaps to be increased soon). The building was supposed to have opened three years ago, but there was a hiatus while its architect, Richard Rogers, was accused of overspending by the Welsh finance minister and fired, then exonerated and reinstated. (Wales doesn’t have a great track record with important architects. When Rogers was awarded arrears on his fees, the normally tactful past president of the RIBA said, “The incompetence on the client’s side frankly beggars belief.” Government and business functionaries got Zaha Hadid sacked in 1995 after her outstanding scheme won the Welsh National Opera competition. A few years earlier an Alsop & Stormer competition-winning design for a National Centre for Literature in Swansea was dumped without explanation, to Will Alsop’s public fury.)
The National Assembly now stands on Cardiff Bay at the edge of an overcomplex new road layout that eats up too much landscape and next door to the Wales Millennium Centre, the pompous replacement for Hadid’s opera house (by local architect Percy Thomas, it has courses of rough Welsh slate for walls and square meters of cutout Welsh writing on the facade). In the middle distance is St. David’s Hotel, a showcase building by Patrick Davies, a former Rogers staffer.
Connected on the landward side to an existing secretariat building, the Assembly expresses itself as a soaring horizontal roof that is figured by arching structural dimples and penetrated by a funnel hanging over a glazed framework around a monumental staircase descending to the bay. Its great ideas are the public circulation envisaged going up and down that stair, and the lantern-cum-lightwell funnel that penetrates two levels to the Debating Chamber. But the world changed while the National Assembly for Wales was under construction. Visitors are now directed through a security maze alongside and can’t go up the axial stair from the bay. The suspended funnel, one of Arup’s most gravity-defying structural engineering achievements, as it hangs through a thin roof, is confounded by an infilling ring of security glass to separate Assembly Members from the public. The glass looks like it might be holding up the funnel, even if it isn’t. The Welsh National Assembly is still radiant, unconfined, and monumental in a good sense. Its eventual cost was only about 10 percent of the Scottish Parliament. All of its neighbors on adjacent sites haven’t arrived yet, but Cardiff has got its best building so far.