Sketchbook: Brave new world

Parliament is returning to Edinburgh - and the city is rising to the occasion with stunning modern architecture. Illustrations by David Tazzyman.

Pat Kane
Friday 25 June 1999 23:02

Edinburgh is restored to history. Scotland's capital-in-waiting waits no longer. This city's classical theatrics, its rationalist terraces and portentous promenades, all its undeniable urban poise now makes sense.

Forget about Glasgow's self-promotion, its conferences, exhibitions, skinny-latte froth and typographical fury. It can't compete with the facts: Edinburgh builds for posterity, Glasgow for prosperity. In Glasgow, the grand construction of the year is the Buchanan Galleries - the biggest mega-mall in Europe, profit embodied in a graceless hutch of steel, glass and stone. But Edinburgh is building a Parliament.

How can the hustlers and bustlers of Glasgow compete with a building programme that has the nation's identity as its design brief? Enric Miralles' design for the Parliament at Holyrood, its surfaces rippling with power, is marked by a necessary, thrilling ambition.

The other buildings presented here - their revitalising energies beautifully captured by David Tazzyman's illustrations - have a kind of self-consciousness: a balance between Scottish traditions and Scottish modernity.

But Edinburgh isn't, say, Berlin: there are no wide-open spaces blasted empty by realpolitik, which the architectural imagi-nation can colonise: Edinburgh must repeat the balance of its Old and New Towns - one planned by Enlightenment philosophers, the other as chaotic as any organic city.

The Museum of Scotland was the crucial first act. To almost universal acclaim, it has set the tone: a 21st-century building evoking a millennium of national history.

And recall the excitement of Miralles' design, of Edinburgh resuming its continuum with Europe. After three centuries of complaisant service to the Union, Scots can't believe they're getting something right all by themselves.

In Edinburgh's rebirth, they are.

Pat Kane is associate editor of `The Sunday Herald'

Dynamic Earth Centre

Edinburgh is where parents haul children - to toil round an old Castle, to talk to wild-haired professors at the Science Festival, to be dragged up and down Arthur's Seat.

But the Dynamic Earth Centre, opening in July, is more than a monument to the municipal passion for "hands-on learning" (smells, bleeps, simulated earthquakes). It's an architectural opportunity realised: that is, we have a new public arena in Edinburgh. Housed in a gigantic, glass- walled Teflon-coated tent called the Stratosphere, it also reminds us that Edinburgh moves these days on uncharted, tectonic earth - no question.

Symbolism just won't be suppressed in the architecture of the New Edinburgh. Between the site for the new Parliament, and the site of the existing Holyrood Royal Palace - the first institution stumbling into a walk, the second barely exhibiting life-signs - will be the Stratosphere. Add that to the poetry centre, and the New Scotland will start to sound like the New Age Scotland.

Dynamic Earth Centre, 112 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, enq 0131 550 7800

The Hub

We call it Edinburgh Festival Madness. Every year, amid mime-artists in chains and Peruvian flute orchestras, the panic starts. What the hell is going on? Doesn't this culture-blitz have a command centre? Why are

you giving me that flyer?

The Hub - which opens on 5 July - is the solution to the sprawl of Festival, a place to gather thoughts, meet pals and bin leaflets. The exterior is one of the most familiar but most neurotic of the city's street-shapes: Augustus Pugin, who worked on the Houses of Parliament, tricked out this 19th-century Presbyterian church like the castle in a dark fairy tale.

Inside, it's the ideal assembly room for the thrawn Edinburgh aesthete. How can enjoyment be found among the bibulous and garrulous, unless the trappings of the Kirk - buttresses flying, pulpits looming - remind us that pleasure has its price?

The Hub's carnival of craft decoration mustn't fool you: John Knox could rip down its wicked frippery in an instant.

The Hub, Castlehill, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, enq 0131 473 2010

The Museum of Scotland

How to shape a building to hold the significant artefacts of a people, from first scratchings to techno-imaginings?

First, make a container, a cylinder, where Scottish history can swirl around, dynamic but observable. Let the outside be scored with local detail - baronial slits on sandstone surfaces, old Museum talking eagerly to new. Inside, create surprising space - and the atrium here stretches upwards to a skylight, a long continuum towards the present-day displays.

But you want to be a little awed by something called a "national" museum. And you are. Walking away - still considering its fragments of Scotland, icons dropped in artfully-composed pools of light - you keep keeking over your shoulder at the commanding bulk. There's where the old stories have ended up; there's where the new ones begin.

As much as a Parliament building, the brute presence of the Museum of Scotland signifies one word to the newly-empowered citizens who visit it: permanence. Well, perhaps another word, too: irreversibility.

The Museum of Scotland, Chamber Street, Edinburgh, enquiries 0131 247 4422

The Scottish Poetry Library

It seems almost cornily appropriate. Several years in the planning, the Scottish Poetry Library's new premises find themselves just yards away from the location of the new Parliament, which was decided only last year. Appropriate, because from Burns to Macdiarmid, from Lochhead to Crawford, the greatest Scottish poets have all been fuelled by dreams of their nation restored to self-government.

And now their unacknowledged legislations - nestling among over 18,000 books of Scottish and international poetry - will be readily available to the average MSP, just over the road. If the architect Malcolm Fraser's design was a poem, you'd have to call it a baronial haiku: granite lecterns, solid-stone stairs, untreated oak beams - but all within a spare steel rectangle, sheeted with glass, that lets light pour in from somewhere over the Salisbury Crags.

And here's a nice thought. Reeling from the latest policy in-fight, one would hope to find a few soulful MSPs taking refuge beneath this deep- green ceiling, their noses deep in some Kathleen Jamie or some abstruse Turkish poet. We shall see.

The Scottish Poetry Library, 5 Crichton's Close, Edinburgh, enq 0131 557 2876

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