Thursday, 21 February 2008

A good vision doesn't die

The Scotsman, 7 December, 2002

An intricate little model of a desk and chair sits on the table top, as if ready to be placed into a miniature debating chamber. Next to it lies another tiny construction, strips of soft wood twined together with extraordinary precision, to make a perfect miniature of an open and oddly welcoming perimeter fence.

There are models like this everywhere, on the working surfaces in front of the 30 or so designers, and nearby in the dark recesses of a corridor many more are piled up together: scale replicas of buildings, whole or in part, sections of walls and rooftops, tiny pergolas and neatly-finished balsa wood bay windows.

Still more of these delicate constructions are laid out in the airy old drawing room which looks over the rooftops towards La Rambla. One is a vast construction of Utrecht town hall - the building which was realised from this model has already won three architectural awards. And, next to it, four townscapes placed together represent just a few months in the evolution of the Scottish Parliament.

These are the Barcelona offices of EMBT - Enric Miralles Benedetta Tagliabue - the architects responsible for the design of the parliament buildings. And many of the structures, so haphazardly on show, represent the practice's work at Holyrood in Edinburgh.

It's a toytown environment, something from Gulliver's Travels, but straight away the office interior gives the lie to one of the myths which has developed around the new Scottish Parliament. Its architect, Enric Miralles, may have died more than two years ago, but those who suggest his influence on the building has been lost are wrong. The models emphatically prove that his design team, his philosophy and his grand plan - those upturned boats, those poetic little leaves - remain the foundation of th e Scottish Parliament.

Plans for the site are much changed since EMBT won the design competition in 1998, in association with the Edinburgh firm RMJM, but according to Benedetta Tagliabue, this is natural and expected. Ultimately it will create a building of great symbolism and significance, designed to last 300 years.

Tagliabue is Miralles' wife (she deplores the word "widow"), the mother of their two children, Caterina, seven, and five-year-old Domenec. She was also his business partner who by now has heard so many objections to the project, they wash over her. "Criticism is infinite," she says. "There are so many opinions, but you can't let them destroy your life."

Since her husband died with dreadful swiftness from a brain tumour in July 2000, she has often remained in the background of the Edinburgh project, leaving the day-to-day work on site to EMBT's joint project directors, Joan Callis and Karl Unglaub.

But, as the Parliament emerges from the ground, she has this week stepped back into the limelight, with a public lecture in Edinburgh, looking forward to the future of the new Holyrood.

She is adapting well to her unaccustomed new prominence. Now 38, Tagliabue was an award-winning architectural student at Venice and Columbia Universities. But Miralles, eight years her senior, was simply a stellar figure, Professor at Harvard and Frankfurt, a design philosopher with admirers all over the world.

"It is true it was sometimes difficult to live next to him, he was a genius, a strong personality," she admits with a smile. "When you are next to a person who is a strong personality, well, you are invisible.

"I was always next to him, and I had this role, which I accepted absolutely, of being next to him but being invisible, because he took all the light, let's say. Sometime I would think 'Do I change Enric?' But, it was not him choosing that this was happening, because he wasn't egocentric, it was just he was so special that it happened."

Now she is "visible" at least the first lesson she has learnt is this: "Visibility is not very important. You just have to be able to change and adapt."

That she is at ease in the limelight was made plain on Thursday in her lecture in Edinburgh, delivered to an audience of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland which had gathered to discuss the future of Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

It was an acutely sensitive address, which began with slides of her own home in Barcelona's old town, linking deeply personal experience with a wider philosophy of design. She was wearing - as always - a necklace made by her children of colourful plasticbeads; to demonstrate the essential linkage between the natural and built environments, her visual aids included family snaps and free-hand sketches of Edinburgh made by Miralles from his hotel room.

For cynics, it was stuff to mock; for those impressed by the passion and sensibility which Miralles brought to the design of the Scottish Parliament it was a heartening restatement of belief.

Good news of any sort is long overdue for the buildings' supporters. The first cost estimates of �40 million - albeit for a cube of a building in central Edinburgh - have increased tenfold according to the worst calculations. The opening date at Holyroodremains unknown and the next session of the parliament has been booked into the Hub at the opposite end of the Royal Mile, a decent place for a Festival party, but an unlikely seat of government.

Not all the criticisms which have arisen have been directed at the architects. Those sympathetic to Miralles suggest key people within the government machine were responsible for implementing a construction management process which was flawed, and this has been responsible for vastly inflated costs. To make matters worse, there has been a lack of clarity in the numbers game: some rises may have been justifiable - who knows? - the information has not been made easily available.

Yet for the first year of the project, all went smoothly, as EMBT developed Miralles's initial concept into a workable design for the Scottish Executive. But, after elections in May 1999, the parliamentary body came into being, and the architects had a new client - the parliament itself.

Things changed rapidly as MSPs developed a vision of their own for their new home. Staff accommodation, which had catered for 400, now provided facilities for over 1000; the debating chamber was enlarged, and its shape changed. Press and broadcasting suites grew in size; and an education department was developed, so that children could come and see how their country was governed.

MSPs expressed their nationalistic pride in other ways. Scottish granite was specified for cladding, though the stone had not been quarried commercially in Scotland for years. Portuguese granite was available off-the-shelf at a fraction of the cost. Yet all of this change was possible within Miralles's scheme because the design was "elastic" says Tagliabue. Surely though this never-ending design spec, within a pliable design, impacted on the fundamental questions of delivery and cost?

"But it's not simple," she interjects with a smile. "This was a process which was chosen to be an open process, with a manager of construction, managing a huge number of builders. The choice was made to make this open. So you have more open possibilities, and things are not necessarily fixed in time."

Even the opening? It is not, she says, her role to comment on the opening. "There is nothing to hide, and nothing to be ashamed of," she says. "The building is there and it will be there."

The important thing was at the outset to win the design competition, as a kind of preview for the project itself. Then "we really had a situation", she reckons.

"It would have been absurd not to have listened to MSPs' demands. If they needed more space, if they needed a different way of working, if the shape of the chamber needed to be changed - this was the first time they realised how they would work together.

"My husband and I were happy to implement these things. And we are able to do that. It is not losing its fundamental idea, it can change a little - and so it did change.

"But it is an Enric Miralles building, absolutely."

Cost considerations, she adds, have sometimes held her team back. "You have to imagine us working with every part of the package. We were told always, 'You have to finish the drawings for this part of the building'; or 'The contractor has looked at the drawings and he found that complicated - please go and speak with him.' So we have sat down to find solutions. All the time we have had to stay on top, to find the best solution for the people working on site. This was our task and it is still going o n."

There is a strength of vision here that has been evident ever since EMBT have been concerned with the project. Back in 1998, the panel who witnessed the final presentations by the three shortlisted architects were unanimous for Miralles, despite the factthat his competitors Richard Meier and James Stirling-Michael Wilford had a much higher profile.

"He believed passionately in the project, who saw the connection between the environment, the building and nationhood," says one prominent observer of the process. "There was no question that Miralles was by far the most impressive presentation. He was head and shoulders above the rest."

Above all, the Catalan architect - perhaps with an understanding which comes from being a member of a small national group - struck a bond with the then first minister, Donald Dewar. Tagliabue recalls the EMBT presentation.

"There was point at which Enric became almost aggressive towards Donald Dewar. The conversation became very deep. Mr Dewar had put a problem to Enric - I don't remember exactly what - but he asked him how he would react as an architect to such and such asituation. Enric responded strongly. He said: 'You are a politician, you know how to work in your profession; I am an architect, I know how to work in mine. This way of working is very similar'.

Mr Dewar was very serious in what he was doing - I have great respect for him still - and Enric was very serious, very deep and with an ideal. This is not easy to find, in any profession, but they shared this ideal. And in that moment, which was not an easy moment, they both discovered that."

It was a real bond? "This was the point," she replies. "They understood. It was a political ideal for Mr Dewar, a dream, and for Enric it was too, to fulfil the desires of a nation and to make architecture which was capable of making everyone happy."

But now it is time to put ideals into action, and if Tagliabue has not made her points plainly enough in her office, she can demonstrate them ably in the city beyond.

So we begin a tour of EMBT work in Barcelona. A short walk through the teeming streets of the Old Town, brings us first to Mercado de Santa Caterina, a vast and complicated renovation of an historic building.

"Everything here was to be torn down or destroyed," says Tagliabue, looking beyond the ancient perimeter walls to the cleared site beyond.

"But it is important you keep memories."

It is a project as close to Tagliabue's heart as it is to her home, and she and her husband became involved with the project at first simply because it was on their doorstep. Miralles conceived the solution, setting the medieval framework of the crumbling market against his signature pergolas. It's making waves, causing excitement; the market will be complete in 2004.

After the tight spaces of the Old Town we move out of the city along the Avenguda d'Icaria, where again, great twisting forms jut into view, Miralles's pergolas punctuating the space of the avenue. "They gave him this project in the year of the Olympics," says Tagliabue. "He was young, they had to give him something." The development has just picked up a retrospective award for the best architectural project in Barcelona in 1992.

Finally we arrive at Parque Diagonal Mar, opened this year, in redeveloped land which bears a passing resemblance to parts of London's Docklands. Here EMBT have used groundwater to create a lake and the illusion of the sea lapping up to the foundations of the bleak tower blocks which surround the site. Fountains burst from hard standing, and massive flower pots are suspended in the air to create foliage over their metal supports; rolling greenery surrounds the artificial waterway.

"It's about inventing a part of the city," says Tagliabue. "It was just a drawing when Enric died - but people are very happy."

The park has been developed by the American property giant Hines, and in a children's playground at the south end of the 14-hectare site, the corporation's chairman, Gerry Hines, has built an unfinished wooden house, his tribute to the dead architect.

When we have returned to her office, this last revelation makes it easier to turn conversation to Tagliabue's own sense of loss after her husband's death.

"Maybe I will understand his legacy in more time. He was a genius also in dying," she says, with a smile. "But it's true. He was incredibly strong during his illness, absolutely conscious he was going to die. I was always hiding things from myself, thinking there would be a medicine, or some natural remedy. But he was very controlled - he knew he would die from the very first moment, even if his condition improved, but he was very serene."

For a brief period during his illness the couple stayed at Hines's house in Houston. It was, remembers Tagliabue, a beautiful time.

"It was short, but seemed very intense, a different part of our life. We had friends, many of them doctors, coming to us, we could be almost happy in this tragical moment. Enric was the first to say: 'Don't think about sadness, think about being happy, staying with the children and all those things.' It was an incredible lesson to me. He left me strong. I lived this experience, I lived no other. I think he prepared me and everybody else to survive well, which in a way is very generous."

And, of course, beyond all this trauma, she has, in her own terms, become visible. "I came through this very tough lesson, let us say, with this understanding: one day to another, we change, the unexpected happens. We are here now, we are not here tomorrow. I think it is important to understand life first. To understand that we are in life."

She laughs again. "It is enough. We are alive."

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