Salmond vs Miralles: Was Holyrood worth £414m?

Enric Miralles, the Spanish signature architect, has been buried in the spectacularly moving physical reflection on mortality that is Catalonia’s Igualada cemetery, which the great man designed, for 16 years now.

But Alex Salmond is still picking fights with him. “Miralles was probably the most impractical man I’ve ever met in my life,” he smiles. “He was in a world of his own.”

Miralles was behind the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Salmond was furious in 2000, because cost estimates had risen from £50m to £230m.

When it eventually opened four years later, this devilishly complicated building comprising 114 projected bay windows, a bamboo garden, and mixture of steel, oak and granite, cost £414m.

Miralles didn’t live to see the completion of his masterpiece, dying of a brain tumour at the age of only 45. Holyrood was finished by his project partners from Edinburgh and London-based practice RMJM, and overseen by his widow and business partner, Italian architect Benedetta Tagliabue.

“Miralles had no great record of construction,” Salmond continues. “He won lots of awards and stuff – and understandably, because he had a sweeping imagination which is evident in the building. Miralles used to change his mind about 30 times a day and fax through the changes to RMJM, the poor people who had to put them into effect.”

Added to every construction and engineering firm’s worst fear – the fantastic but ludicrous imagination of a top architect – the Parliament was built around a 17th Century listed building, Queensberry House.

A fabulously complicated design had to be constructed, then, to incorporate a delicate piece of history, as well as on a site full of old vaults and dungeons. It was, says Salmond, “the most appalling site to have to try to build on”.

No wonder the costs escalated so dramatically. Salmond, though, concedes the Parliament “is now obviously terribly popular”.

This got me to wondering, was Holyrood worth the cost, fury and complications?

It’s impossible to provide a fully quantified response, but Holyrood won nine major architectural awards within two years. Most notably, it won the Royal Institute of Briotish Architects’ prestigious Stirling prize – the first building in Scotland to emerge victorious. 

There’s no doubt tourists have loved the building, with 417,090 visiting in 2009-10 alone. However, a few days ago it emerged that only 278,825 visitors wandered the corridors of Scottish power in 2015-16, the lowest since the Parliament’s first full year a decade earlier. As a result, sales in the gift shop, which stocks everything from branded wild cherry and bramble sauce to Jacobean heart necklaces, were down £36,000 – or 12.8% - on last year at £236,000.

The fall was marked in red, meaning there are “significant issues” to address. Embarrassingly, the decline in attendance – 14% lower than had been anticipated – took place at a time when an “public engagement strategy” of events at Parliament were supposed to boost visitor numbers.

If the best part of 300,000 visitors still sounds pretty good, then consider the numbers elsewhere in the city in 2015-16: Edinburgh Castle attracted 1.6m people, the zoo 633,000, while the Royal Yacht Britannia and the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre each drew more than 300,000 tourists.

Still, Holyrood’s spin doctors refuse to acknowledge the negative headlines behind this decline, telling The Herald that numbers “remained healthy” and pointing out more than 4 million people had visited since the Parliament opened.

In fairness, a Parliament can’t renew attractions like a theme park or a zoo, so experts say this reflects the “maturity” of the building. Repeat visits are more difficult to encourage, though presumably much the same should have hurt numbers at the yacht.

The Parliament probably also suffers from being fairly new. Queensberry House aside, it lacks a historical lustre of a castle that, in one form or another, has dominated Edinburgh’s skyline since the 12th Century.

All these figures and awards, then, are something of a mixed bag, meaning the answer to the former question has to be frustratingly caveated. Holyrood’s architectural significance is clear, but its popularity among punters is on the wane, perhaps as a result of the growing anti-establishment politics that is sweeping the world.

It seems clear that Miralles wasn’t worried about cost, about taxpayer money. If we look at it as 4 million visitors for a £400m building, that works out to £100 per tourist over a decade. Even if numbers dwindle to 2.5 million a decade, it seems likely that their spend should pay for the construction within a few decades.

Given this is such a significant architectural monument, Holyrood is likely to be Scotland’s house of power for centuries. Overall, it is probable that Parliament will ultimately boost Edinburgh’s economy, not hurt it.

The expense and hassle, then, was, I would judge worth it.

Miralles might have been totally impractical, but this was why he was a great architect – and why Holyrood quickly became one of Scotland’s greatest treasures.

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