The Scottish parliament buildings have caused a major tink since they were built after huge delays and a whopping budget blowout. An account from: Damien Nowicki

“Whether you love it or hate it, at the end, I just want you to make your own mind up.” It’s not often that your guide presents a disclaimer before taking you on an official tour. But it was with those less than inspiring words that our group took off around what is arguably Britain’s most controversial building in Britain’s most beautiful city.

It was for security reasons that a castle was first built on the narrow volcanic crag that became Edinburgh 1000 years ago. The Old Town is essentially a single road – the Royal Mile, stretching lengthways from the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the bottom to Edinburgh Castle at the top.

From the Old Town you have a sweeping view over the city sprawl; from down below the historical centre sits up proudly, parallel to the crags behind it.

Although the arrangement isn’t necessary for keeping out barbarian hordes these days, it does create the views that allow striking designs to shine. And the city has those in abundance, with the castle and palace, as well as the Scott Monument, National Gallery and St Giles Cathedral, to name a few. There’s no doubt that any new building in this city has a tough act to follow.

Scots voted in favour of setting up a national parliament in 1997, and it was soon clear the new building was not only going to need to stand up to the capital’s other architectural triumphs, but was going to have to represent an entire nation.

Expected to cost about £40m, naïve estimates, building delays and extra security following 9/11 pushed the final price tag of the building up to a whopping £430m. It severely damaged the Scots’ reputation for reliability with money. But overspending has plagued many architectural achievements since the Pyramids – if you’re a visitor, your only question will be: is it any good?

The first thing you notice about the complex (the Scottish Parliament is actually a collection of four buildings and four towers) is that it’s extremely complicated. Unlike smooth-surfaced modern favourites such as the Sydney Opera House or Bilbao’s Guggenheim, it lacks a distinct, recognisable outline that will come up well at dusk in tourist photos.

Spanish architect Enric Miralles, whose widow took over when he died of a brain haemorrhage in 2000, stuck to the principle that Scotland is a land, not just a collection of cities. Therefore, he wanted the parliament to fit in with the surrounding landscape. Follow the path up the Salisbury Crags, behind the city, look down on the parliament and you can see how this has been attempted. At the Royal Mile end the complex reflects its surroundings. The 17th century Queensberry House has been refurbished and the MSP building nearby is much the same shape and design as nearby residential buildings.

The roofs of the leaf-like towers, which supposedly mirror upturned boats, elegantly reflect the arch of a bridge in the distance, while the bizarre-shaped windows look out over grass left to grow wild and landscaped stretches that reach like long fingers to the mountain. It is structured chaos like nothing else, and the unconventional appearance isn’t to everyone’s liking – my companions soon decided it was a turkey. While I don’t find it loveable, its immense detail is certainly intriguing. There’s always a new feature to find.

Architects have lauded the Scottish Parliament as an impressive innovation. While it’s unlikely that the £20,000 prize would have gone too far in covering its cost, Britain’s 2005 Stirling Prize for building of the year has done plenty to restore the beleaguered building’s good reputation. I’d recommend you take a tour before making your mind up and, anyway, they’re free of charge. It’s almost impossible to describe what you find on such a tour, as this is a vastly complicated building where almost nothing is straightforward or recognisable. With the building’s vast detail, what is understandable is why it was completed almost three years late and over budget.

The debating chamber’s domed roof is supported by a structure of laminated oak beams joined at 112 stainless steel connectors, each one slightly different. Instead of spotlights, the towers have long, white lighting rigs hanging down in clusters.

Each MSP office has its own ‘think-pod’ jutting out of the side, a kind of Tasmania-shaped space where politicians are actively encouraged to sit and think creatively. The public foyer has off-kilter crosses pressed into the ceiling. The MSP Foyer looks like its ceiling has been ripped open by a cyclone, leaving only a hole and loose tin sheeting. Even the building’s air vents have abstract shaped-holes.

Problems still hinder the Scottish Parliament. In the first week of March the debating chamber was closed after one of the steel supports fell loose. The government spent more than £100,000 in following weeks, holding sessions elsewhere, while engineers sought to fix the problem. Teething troubles aside, this building will, like any work of modern art, have its champions and detractors. In order to make your own mind up, it’s worth taking a closer look.

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