Monday, December 19, 2005

Build high for happiness

While waiting for horrors on BBC4 last night, the Dr and I found Demolition, in which Kevin McCloud scoured the country for ugly buildings to X-list and tear down.

It was an odd programme, with McCloud fully in favour of X-listing generally, but less keen on the actual buildings proposed. There was some attempt to defend the dreary, grey concrete blocks so unloved by the public, so it became "tell us what you don’t like, and we’ll tell you that you’re wrong."

Though some interesting points were made about architectural fashions (and how, as a result, much top Victoriana was lost in the 80s), the arguments were pretty lightweight. And they failed to appreciate why some buildings just don’t appeal.

Wikipedia: Buckinghamshire county hall taken from the Grand Union Canal basinOf Aylesbury's vast and ugly county hall, Janet Street Porter was keen to point out that the interior’s lovely. But we didn’t get to see inside. Nor did we hear what it’s like to work in the building, or to clean and maintain it. Or whether it’s efficient to heat and run, or how often the air conditioning breaks down… Nothing on the practicalities, which is surely so important to whether a building “works”.

McCloud was also embarrassed that the new Scottish Parliament Building had made the show’s “dirty dozen.” An expert was duly wheeled out to answer the plebs. Having entirely failed to convince them, he muttered that people lack the wit to appreciate good bricks. Better visual education was what’s wanted.

But this is missing a fairly fundamental point about what the Scottish Parliament building is for and what it represents.

The look of London’s own parliamentary palace earned much scorn and criticism in its day. But Barry and Pugin soldiered on, knocking together a gothic folly festooned with history and majesty. It’s terribly Empire and still feels like some fusty old gentlemen’s club, the few women there barely on sufferance.

What Joe Public thought didn’t have to matter: the palace was built about the same time that the Duke of Wellington was planning gun placements in London to see off the Chartists.

Scotland, though, is a new parliament and one hard fought for. It’s a response to years of having Top Schemes like the poll tax tried out on it. Specifically, it’s about fair representation, “the people” having a say…

Which isn’t reflected in the design of the building, nor the way that design was selected. Then there’s the poor management and spiralling cost of the whole project, and the failure to find any villains to pin it on. Hardly of and by and for the Scottish people, is it?

I think there’s even an argument that, just like when under us terrible tyrants, the Scots have had something rubbish dictated to them by those who claim to know best. Which might explain why folk are so angry about it.


Will said...

I think much of the annoyance is the result of the sheer ignorance of the people behind the Scottish Parliament building. To think that they could possibly achieve what they want with a budget of around £40m was pie in the sky and they should have known so. I worked on a student union extension project that cost £5m and that wasn't an eighth of a parliament!

Nimbos said...

There are many things I like about the Scottish Parliament - the entrance lobby and the debating chamber look stunning (from the inside). But the whole thing looks a bit confused. There’s no coherent silhouette, for one thing. I think that helps to alienate it from the people it was built for. As “one man’s vision” I can see that it can appeal to the architectural community even if the architect and the First Minister who commissioned it both died before completion, but it’s not for them. It remains to be seen whether its ramshackle collection (reminding me more of how Whitehall Palace may have appeared before it burned down) works as a coherent whole and whether the novel materials chosen are as durable as they need to be.