Designs for Scottish parliament building unveiled

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SCOTTISH MPs will debate home rule in a towering veil made of transparent mesh in the year 2001, if the Australia-based practice Denton Corker Marshall is chosen to be the architect of the new Scottish parliament.

Alternatively, they may be under scrutiny in a glass lantern with their talking heads beamed onto huge outdoor wrap-around screens, if UK-based practice, Michael Wilford and Partners is chosen.

The first designs for Scotland's new parliament were unveiled at the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh yesterday as five finalists from a shortlist of 12 revealed their ideas for the most important public building to be commissioned this century.

On Monday six other centres in Scotland will exhibit presentation boards from the five rival architects. The public is invited to comment and a winner will be chosen next month by a Select Committee of MPs.

"At this stage we're not choosing a scheme, but choosing a firm to work with," says Professor Andy McMillan. He is keen to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to designs which the architects say are still fluid. Nevertheless what you see is pretty well what you are likely to get, with some modifications, because nobody could afford the time to start all over again with a blank piece of paper. Besides, the finalists have spent a great deal of time working on the exacting brief from the Scottish Office.

The Secretary of State, Donald Dewar is pleased with the results: "The ideas are imaginative and exciting and give me confidence that we shall find a team to provide a fitting home for the parliament."

So MPs could find themselves in a glass tower looking up at an elliptical saucer if Rafael Vinoly, the New York- based architectural practice is the winner.

Canvassing opinions in just a fortnight is a challenge. So the canny Scottish Office restricted the finalists to presenting their ideas on six big presentation boards rather than expensive scale models. Some architects are better at story boards than others.

Expressing Scotland's history while delivering modernity is the architectural challenge. The palace of Holyrood, where the Royal Family stays when it visits Edinburgh, will be the new building's nearest neighbour. It must have been the inspiration for EuroDisney: turretted towers flourished with flagpoles dominate.

Of all the schemes, Wilford's has been most sympathetic to Holyrood, giving it an axial symmetry while turning its face upon the palace. One historic building, Queensberry House, stands on the site. At one end of the Royal Mile side looms Salisbury Crags. At the other, Edinburgh Castle.

But ex-pat Scot, James Gibson, from Denton Corker Marshall, is keen on the fact you will have to look down upon the Parliament: "It's not hierarchical. We don't look up at it. Scottish people like to take an overview of the whole process of parliament."

So the firm's building is less obvious, shaped like a teardrop in silver perforated mesh, folding in on itself. When Scottish Office civil servants saw the design for the first time, they called it "Scotland's Guggenheim" but James Gibson says it is neither iconic, nor precious.

For over a century Scottish buildings have been given to English architects to design. So does this disadvantage London-based Michael Wilford, who plans to send his core team headed by Laurence Bain to Edinburgh if he wins?

"There is no bias expressed in nationality," declares one observer. "They're are looking for a great architect who has the capacity to deliver by 2001."