Design: Dockers vs Miss Jean Brodie, final round

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Arguments of the choice of a site for the new Scottish parliament have left precious little time for the public to have their say, writes Nonie Niesewand.

The Scottish Parliament doesn't open until January 1999 but unless the site is chosen soon there won't be a building for the 100 to 129 MSPs to debate in. There still isn't a location, let alone an architect. The Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar, is expected to announce the location this week with little public discussion of the relative merits of the competing sites. Time may be of the essence, but so is money. In assessing the four short-listed sites, the Scottish Office has realised that it underestimated the size of building required. So the total costs will spiral beyond the budgeted pounds 40m to between pounds 50m and pounds 65m.

In September, after the "yes-yes" vote for Scottish devolution, there were two sites under consideration, Calton Hill and Leith dockside. Leith, or the gateway of Edinburgh as its enthusiastic backers call it, can be seen from the Firth of Forth and from Fife, and is bang opposite the Scottish Office. But MSPs don't fancy the schlep out to docklands and transport there would need a big overhaul.

The popular Calton Hill version, by architects Page and Page, is close to the city centre, Princes Street and the mainline railway station. Their design includes a natty little debating rotunda to tie in with the old St Andrew's school, which could become the offices.

The trouble started when key figures in the Scottish Office and Edinburgh city council became locked in conflict over these two sites. The Scotsman newspaper was clear: "The site for Scotland's parliament must be Calton Hill... not anywhere else." As the argument increasingly began to resemble dockers vs Miss Jean Brodie, a third proposed site at Haymarket was introduced. Unlikely to be a runner, it would require building over railway tunnels. Just before Christmas a fourth potential site, Holyrood, was entered when its present occupants, Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, announced they would move HQ. This tips it tactically into the lead.

Whatever site is chosen will affect the type of building. You can't build Alexander the Greek Thompson neo-Classicism on the dockside, anymore than Calton Hill will deconstruct. John Pelan at the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland illustrates the point when he says that he'd vote to get Frank Gehry to build an incredible Parliament in Leith.

Alas, that isn't a runner. Writing to Donald Dewar on 11 December about the need to extend the consultation periods over the four sites to make the decision-making more democratic, the President of RIAS George Wren quoted Thomas Jefferson: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of Society but the peoples themselves. And if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion."

In the calm between Christmas and New Year, four feasibility studies of each site went on public view for a few days each in Edinburgh and Glasgow as the pros and cons were assessed by four firms of architects. Expressing the hope that as many people as possible will see the exhibition, Donald Dewar jocularly remarked: "It will make a good break from the New Year sales." Let's hope that in the rush they don't end up with the architectural equivalent of a bargain basement.

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