A bridge too far for Unesco

By David Black

In 2009 UNESCO, the Paris-based organisation which designates world heritage sites, tore a strip off the burgermeisters of Dresden for their proposal to build a bridge across the River Elbe. This would ruin one of the classic views of the ‘Florence on the Elbe’, it was claimed, albeit a largely reconstructed faux Florence, the authentic Dresden having been smashed to smithereens by British and American carpet bombing in the closing months of the second world war. The bridge-building burgermeisters were unapologetic, and they had more than two thirds of the citizens on their side. They also had the backing of the German courts. None of this impressed UNESCO. Dresden was stripped of its World Heritage Site status. Nothing daunted, the Dresdeners built their bridge. It opened to traffic this weekend.
UNESCO perhaps had a point, and a protest movement which included the author Gunter Grass had very sensibly suggested a tunnel might be a bit less obvious. Moreover, this is a bridge which will never win a beauty contest. That said, the pontificating heritage boffins in Paris have not exactly covered themselves in glory. For one thing, it’s really most amusing that UNESCO itself is housed in a rather tired-looking 1950s accordian-shaped megablock in the otherwise fashionable 7th Arrondissement. It was co-designed by a bunch of once trendy post-war ‘name’ architects chosen by a committee of worthies, and is not without merit, but no-one with a functioning brain could possibly suggest that it was sympathetic to its wider urban environment. Moreover, try looking towards the Seine from the Eiffel Tower and you’ll see a bridge remarkably similar to the one across the Elbe which has caused such offence. Shouldn’t Paris, too, be stripped of its World Heritage Site status? Seems only fair, if you ask me.
Then there’s the tricky issue of the cherry-picking. Take the case of the Scottish Parliament Building, which was purportedly built at Holyrood – the more accurate geographical designation of its site would be ‘The Watergate’, which lies immediately outside the Holyrood precinct, but for some reason they just won’t use the correct name. Wimpish ICOMOS, which has been advising UNESCO since 1972, refused to be drawn into the controversy on the grounds that it was too ‘politically sensitive’. Telling the residents and politicians of Saxony that their bridge is a ‘national disgrace’, on the other hand, would appear to be not in the least politically sensitive.
The Scottish parliament is a building which, as initially conceived, had elements of imagination, and insofar as there was a stupid and inflexible political determination to build something on the Watergate site rather than occupy an exisiting parliament building on Calton Hill, the other-worldly lyricism of Enric Miralles’ competition submission clearly had an aesthetic which other entrants to the somewhat restiricted competition lacked. Unfortunately the Miralles scheme was handed over to the civil servants’ favourite architects, RMJM. The aesthetic was debased, and all hell broke loose. The Watergate building was more or less doubled in size as lyricism gave way to concrete corporatism – albeit a state corporatism disguised by such cosmetic flourishes as bamboo window bars which gave the place the air of a Texan correctional facility, and ‘hair dryer’ Zimbabwean black granite panels. The costs went berserk, notching up world-record budget over-runs which made Utzon’s Sydney Opera House look like a bargain basement deal.
The most galling thing about the Scottish Parliament Building is that it isn’t even Scottish. It was entirely Downing Street’s baby, fronted by Tony’s man in Scotland, the late Donald Dewar. The underlying dynamic, you’ll be pleased to hear, was rumbling discontent amongst certain non-London-metropolitan Labour heavyweights over the cost of that most banal of iconic indulgences, the Millennium Dome. This was something of a headache for the chablis and seared polenta set, and doubtless ruined many a New Labour lunch at The Ivy. Peter Mandelson got a lot of gripe from the gritty northern comrades, so some wonk came up with a cunning ruse. Why not build similar modernist icons in Cardiff and Edinburgh? We could throw in a couple of baubles for Liverpool and Newcastle while we were at it – that should shut them up.
Holyrood was planned as New Labour’s ‘Cool Britannia’ gift to Scotland. We were all meant to be eternally grateful for such largesse (notwithstanding that it would be paid for out of the Scottish assigned budget!) but it backfired disastrously. As the farce became ever more baroque, London sought to maintain a distance from it, and it became a ‘Scottish problem’ – Edwina Currie even started prattling on about how the Holyrood debacle was proof positive that the Scots were congenitally incapable of looking after anything, never mind themselves. The Fraser enquiry carefully avoided any references to Westminster’s role, and fatuously concluded that ‘no single person’ was to blame. Even the pro-Labour Herald dismissed Fraser’s jesuitical report as ‘a whitewash’.
If Holyrood wasn’t Scottish politically, no more was it Scottish materially. The cement was shipped in from Wales – but at least that was in the UK. The steel was Japanese, the glass was Italian, and the famous ‘pod’ window frames were made from American oak which had been shipped out to cheap-labour Thailand for fabricating and laminating. The granite was meant to be Scottish – or at least a token amount was said to come from the Kemnay Quarry – but it was alleged that most of it had been imported from the South African town of Boschpoort. Desperate measures had to be taken to validate the bogus Scottish building – an award set up by the late Andy Doolan to encourage good Scottish architecture was diverted to this particular damage limitation exercise, and other awards would follow. Even the Cockburn Association, which was founded to protect Edinburgh’s heritage, spinelessly declared itself an admirer of the building.
Most scandalous of all, in 2005 the Royal Institute of British Architects was recruited to provide a stamp of approval in the form of the swanky Stirling Prize. One of the judging panel, Joan Bakewell, would later inform me she’d had reservations, but had been brought into line after she was persuaded that the building was at the cutting edge of sustainability. If so, she was well and truly duped. The list of foreign components above, and a thermal read-out by Scottish gas which showed leaking hot-spots all over the place, more than off-set all the guff and humbug about its energy use being from 80% renewable sources – presumably this energy use included the electric fans wilting MSPs had to use when it became overheated in the sunshine. Then came a final reckoning. One of the debating chamber roof beams crashed down, narrowly missing what was left of Scotland’s Conservative interest.
The curse of Holyrood was soon spreading like a bacillus. The BBC became infected when it commissioned a documentary, The Gathering Place, from the programme-packaging company co-owned by Kirsty Wark, one of the members of the design selection panel responsible for the appointment of poor Enric Miralles, whose reputation would be well and truly truncheoned by the Holyrood disaster. One piece of essential information missing from Ms Wark’s programme was a rather crucial point of law – the European Commission had declared the decision of the panel of which she had been a cheerleading member to have been an unlawful infraction of EU regulations. The day the Commission issued its ruling was a thin news day in Scotland, but for some reason the BBC failed to mention that the Scottish Parliament was conducting its business in an illegal building on its 6pm bulletin, leading instead with a highly important story about a pantomime horse race somewhere in the West of Scotland.
There is even reason to believe the Holyrood bug might have crossed the Atlantic. In March 2006 Bovis Lend Lease, the company which had been responsible for the construction of the Scottish Parliament building – and which had waxed fat as the cost of the project had risen from an orginal £10m-£40m to upwards of £400m – was appointed construction manager for the $360m World Trade Center Memorial at Ground Zero, in New York City. One of the conditions imposed upon those bidding for this emotionally-charged contract was a requirement for full disclosure of ‘contract performance history’ – basically, a run-down of other major projects the party submitting the tender had been previously involved in. Checking the Bovis Lend Lease website at that time revealed nothing whatsoever about its involvement in a project in Scotland which had allowed that same company to trouser millions of pounds at the Scottish taxpayers’ expense.
Shouldn’t the citizens of New York have been told about this? Don’t expect an answer anytime soon. Too many of the great and the good – Bill Clinton, Barbara Walters, Al Pacino, etc etc – were involved as trustees and board members of this project to allow the least squeak of a scandal to emerge in such sensitive circumstances. If Bovis Lend Lease did, indeed, launder its list of past contracts to play down its Holyrood dripping roast it certainly wasn’t going to be made public, and will no doubt remain as one of America’s best kept secrets. I would quote PR Newswire’s press release about how ‘honored and humbled’ Lend Lease was to have overseen the project, but it would only make you queasy. Within three months Bovis Lend Lease had reconfigured the budget at somewhere between $672m and £973m – as Yogi Berra might have wise-cracked it was just ‘that old feeling of deja vu all over again’ – at least to those of us who had watched the Holyrood budget ballooning out of control.
For the moment, back to Europe, and the slow, excruciating implosion of the Scottish Labour Party which began with public disenchantment over its crass mishandling of the Holyrood project, and ended with an outright electoral triumph for the SNP, notwithstanding the fact that the electoral system had been carefully devised to prevent any single party from sweeping to power. Lord George Robertson’s notion that devolution would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ didn’t seem to be working too well. As an American politician once said when confronted with an unexpected defeat. ‘Ah well, the people have spoken – the bastards!’
In Paris, meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament Building would be forever the dog that had no bark as far as UNESCO and ICOMOS were concerned. In 2008, when there was some anxiety about the poor architectural quality of proposed major developments in Edinburgh, particularly at the site of the South Bridge fire and the so-called ‘Caltongate’, where a company headed by an English Heritage commissioner wanted to demolish listed buildings on the Royal Mile, a crack team was sent in from Paris to look into the dreadful philistine things that were being done to the city in the name of architectural mediocrity. A solemn report was duly written and published, but since this was the weak-kneed bunch which had kept its lip buttoned when the Edinburgh World Heritage Site was being desecrated within sight of the oldest inhabited royal palace in Europe (from which New Labour had cynically purloined the name ‘Holyrood’ for a parliament building on the Watgate chosen by an illegal selection process) who was going to pay them the least bit of attention?
Meanwhile, as such World Heritage Sites as the ancient Mosque and Souk of Aleppo and the citadel and Roman city of Palmyra are being shelled and pounded from the air, the Paris-based guardians of the built patrimony of the world are getting all tetchy with the Germans for building a rather boring bridge. Zut alors!