Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Out-Law, Dis-Order, and In-Justice Captured in Concrete: the Design of the Scottish Parliament Building

This post is the latest in an occasional series that contrasts traditional and modern architecture. The principles that underlie the two modes of design are explained in an earlier article: Cacophony and Monotony are the Twin Principles of Modern Design. Whatever Happened to Harmony?

Here is the current Scottish Parliament building, designed by a Spanish architect and completed in 2004.

Wikipedia tells us on the page devoted to the building:
A major public inquiry into the handling of the construction, chaired by the former Lord Advocate, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, was established in 2003. The inquiry concluded in September 2004 and criticised the management of the whole project from the realisation of cost increases down to the way in which major design changes were implemented. Despite these criticisms and a mixed public reaction, the building was welcomed by architectural academics and critics. The building aimed to achieve a poetic union between the Scottish landscape, its people, its culture, and the city of Edinburgh. The Parliament Building won numerous awards including the 2005 Stirling Prize and has been described by landscape architect Charles Jencks as “a tour de force of arts and crafts and quality without parallel in the last 100 years of British architecture.”
As usual, you have architectural experts asserting that it is good, while most of the people who have to look at it on a day to day basis struggle with the ugliness of it. This is the pattern of modern culture. The people who appreciate such things are the elites who flatter themselves that they are cultured, and hence set apart from the great unwashed masses. Typically they had to go to university to have good taste educated out of them.

In regard to the stated aims: I am curious as to how this speaks visually of Edinburgh, the Scottish landscape, the Scottish people, or Scottish culture. Could anyone looking at this building without knowing what or where it was discern anything Scottish about it? I am struggling to see any of these things myself. It reminds more of a hurriedly erected seaside hotel that might be seen in the home country of the architect, Spain. 

Contrast the above with a building previously associate with the Scottish parliament, in Parliament Square, Edinburgh, built in the early 19th century.

The design visibly speaks of the function of the building – the formulation of law in accordance with the principles of justice and directed to the common good and the maintenance of order in society. Law and order – the two go together. The design incorporates the universal principles of harmony and proportion. The principles of harmony and order are derived from an analysis of the pattern of the cosmos and what in common perception makes it beautiful. “Cosmos” is a Greek word that also means both “beauty” and “order”: the ancient Greeks assumed that these things went together and were universal, which is to say, that they were apprehended by all people.

As universal Christian principles, developed from those of the ancient Greeks, the principles of harmonious proportion are appropriate to Scotland too. The Scottish landscape is in my opinion as beautiful a part of the cosmos as one can find. Therefore, the mathematical principles of cosmic harmony and order that become the design basis for this building are deeply connected to the Highlands of Scotland or the Western Isles.

The Isle of Skye in the Hebrides
The design of the building is also characteristic of the traditional architecture of Edinburgh, a city that attracts many visitors because of the beauty of the Georgian and neo-classical architecture of its center. Most of it was built out of a locally quarried sandstone, and thus incorporates into itself the very fabric of Scotland’s geography, and hence also its people and culture.

The principles of harmony and proportion - which I describe in my book The Way of Beauty, and teach in my course The Mathematics of Beauty at Pontifex University - are apparent in the Parliament Square buildings and the others in New Town. See how the three stories of different dimensions work together harmoniously in accordance with the mathematical principles of musical harmony.

These buildings will continue to be an attraction long after the modern version has been razed to the ground and forgotten.

Edinburgh’s Georgian ‘New Town’, the architecture that characterises the city.

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