Threads of our nation

For the 25th anniversary of Parliament House, art consultant Nola Anderson revisits the building to reflect on the stories of our country that are woven into its very fabric.

Twenty-five years on, Parliament House has lost none of its appeal: it was designed by an architect who knew the uncommon value of blending content and architecture, an architect who knew the value of telling stories. To Romaldo Giurgola and his firm, Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp Architects (MGT), this was the secret of architecture: “It’s really important when the elements in it start to talk to you … it has to do with the human being, not with an abstract entity.” This was a building meant to be read and enjoyed, and it certainly rewards a few hours spent discovering its stories.

These begin with a grand national epic, introduced in the external Forecourt by the large stone mosaic representing a gathering of peoples designed by Michael Nelson Jagamarra. At the time of the commission, this Pupunya artist’s work had already raised the profile of Western Desert painting, and his later work continued to explore the complex interactions between indigenous and western art.

Jagamarra’s mosaic is surrounded by a water feature by Robert Woodward, famous for his 1961 El Alamein Memorial Fountain in Kings Cross as well as the Forecourt Cascades at the High Court of Australia. The Forecourt has an expansive, exciting feel. It’s a great musical chord announcing the opening of the performance. Here are the introductory notes of the grand themes to follow: the land, the place, the people, our art and our culture.

This storyline is developed along the building’s north/ south axis, in great sweeps of architectural and artistic expression, with some wonderful ‘anecdotes’ along the way. The white marble facade introduces an eloquent note of classical grandeur, but the glazed roof structure directly behind it assumes the role, and name, of that distinctly vernacular feature, the Great Verandah. The architect has sensed that the Australian public likes to take its grandeur with a twist of irony.

At the top and centre of the marble facade is the coat of arms, made in transparent tubular steel, designed by silversmith and sculptor Robin Blau, whose design is now one of the most recognised versions of this national symbol. There is eloquence, function and architectural logic in this piece, which offers proof if any was needed that the process of commissioning works of art can be a catalyst for exceptional creativity.

The tubular stainless steel medium lets Blau play with designs within designs: the graphic patterning within the emu and kangaroo echo the vocabulary of Aboriginal bark paintings – reinforcing the blend of Indigenous and European references in the progress from forecourt to entry – and the zig zag of the sculpture’s supporting truss echoes the peaked struts of the glazed verandah behind. There is one last theatrical gesture that makes this solution inspired: being transparent, the great central flag pole that stands atop the building can be seen behind it. And what can’t be read at this point, but which gives a delicious complexity to the structure, is that this glimpse will be echoed in a surprise deep within the building itself.

The story develops through the portico and into the main Foyer, the geometry and design of which gradually brings the building’s proportions to human scale. Directly across from here is the Great Hall, the public meeting space, at the far end of which is the tapestry, the great Australian archetypal landscape, designed by Arthur Boyd and fabricated by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop. The 1980s had seen a vigorous continuation of the great Australian landscape tradition in Australian painting, which Giurgola was keen to use. “Imagine,” he later remarked, “people were in the middle of an abstraction in New York, and here you had people like Fred Williams and Arthur Boyd. I came here and everybody was working on the landscape.”

Landscapes feature strongly in a number of other major commissions in the project, including Mandy Martin’s large canvas on the southern wall of the Main Committee Room. Using the Australian tradition of landscape painting works well: the works can be ‘read’ by all who see them, but they also work as an emblem of what makes Australia distinctive, one of the key themes throughout the whole building. It’s another example of creating content within the architecture. At the centre of the great axial design is the Members’ Hall, with a floor level fountain in black granite at its centre and a flat mirror-like pool that reflects the roof top flag pole above, visible through a glass atrium. Symbolically, this is where the business of the two houses of parliament and the executive intersect.

There are some elegant intellectual and visual conceits in this space which work as the 'kicker', or central idea, for this grand story. Using a fountain here brings us full circle back to the idea of the fountain in the Forecourt, as does the view of the flag through the skylight, first glimpsed through Blau's transparent coat of arms at the entrance. It's a beautifully resolved sequence.

Such a careful development of storyline, or content, within architectural design has been one of the outstanding features of the work of MGT. Founded to enter the international competition for New Parliament House, MGT included an Australian architect working with Mitchell/Giurgola in New York, Richard Thorp. The company was an outgrowth of the original New York and Philadelphia firm of Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, founded in 1958 by Romaldo Giurgola and Ehrman B Mitchell Jr. Romaldo Giurgola was the senior design partner for the Parliament House project, with Thorp as project architect. They were joined by a team of those who had already worked closely with Giurgola in New York and Philadelphia, including partner Hal Guida and Pamille Berg.

Giurgola's philosophy and vision have been described as a variant of humanist architecture. Pamille Berg has noted that one of his guiding principles has been to "quietly entrench the resonance of content into a project". While definitions of a humanise approach in architecture have changed over time, one of its key elements is the insistence that architectural design must draw inspiration from the building's public role, its social and cultural context.

This is why a walk through Parliament House offers so many stories, from the grand epic described above, to the elegantly constructed short stories such as the gallery level of the Main Committee Room discussed below. This principle also lies behind the commissioning process for the works of art for the project, which Giurgola led, as the inception and coordination of the Art/Craft Program for the building was part of the architectural firm 's contracted scope of work from the Parliament House Construction Authority.

An Art Advisory Committee met frequently for comment on and endorsement of the proposals put to it by MGT's arts program unit, headed by MGT associate Pamille Berg, in collaboration with the then curator of the Parliament House Collection, Katrina Rumley. Giurgola, who sat on the committee, was closely involved with the commissioning process of every artist, which was overseen by Berg and her MGT ream. The remarkable outcome of this process is the degree to which the art and architecture form one part of a complete expressive language, a situation rarely seen in architectural practice of the 20'h century and onwards.

This approach to integrating art and architectural design is seen throughout the building, from significant works of art to smaller works which may not at first be immediately obvious. Thousands of visitors, for example, will have run their hands over Australian sculptor Anne Ferguson's carved Carrara marble draped 'seed pod' finials which complete each balustrade of the two main Foyer marble staircases. They will have enjoyed the sensation of touching smooth polished marble, but may not have consciously registered the role the finials play in bringing the descending procession of balustrade verticals to an elegant 'close'. But there you have it, art in the midst of climbing the stairs.

The blend of art and architecture offers many more delights, and the building's design lets you discover these as you go. On many occasions it is a surprise to find a glimpse of the outside world from deep within the building. Looking back through the northern doorway, you can see all the way north towards Mount Ainslie from deep within the gallery of the Great Hall. There are glimpses onto the internal courtyards through the huge windows along the curved wall from the first floor public circulation spaces, where you might see Melbourne sculptor Geoffrey Bartlett’s 1984 work Two points of view. Bartlett is also well known for an earlier commissioned work, Messenger, which stood for some years in the moat of the National Gallery of Victoria.

External natural light is also used to accent key features within the building, such as the view of the flag from the Members’ Hall, and the skylights within the chambers of the House of Representatives and Senate. There are other, less obvious and perhaps more delightful examples. One such is the first floor level of the Main Committee Room foyer. Here is the famous, and very large, Tom Roberts painting with its suitably long title: The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall and York 9 May 1901.

The work is the centrepiece of a suite of ‘history’ paintings within this space which together tell the story of significant moments in our parliamentary history. Roberts’ work starts off the sequence, which also includes WB McInnes’s work showing the inauguration of the federal parliament in 1927, and Ivor Hele’s painting to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II opening parliament in 1954. The Roberts painting, however, is the star, positioned on a wall and viewed from a semi-circular ‘balcony’, dramatically lit by a corresponding semi-circular void above, cutting through to a skylight. This is a piece of architectural theatre setting, right in the middle of the building. There is also a play on shapes between the architecture and painting: the shape of the balcony and roof void repeats the semi-circular stage and archway within Roberts’ painting. You can almost hear the audience clapping.

As with all good stories, some of the pleasure is in the familiar detail which bears the telling over and over again. This is a building that rewards time spent looking around: at the details of the bronze hand rails in the Great Hall gallery which delight with a subtle rhythm of vertical lines and counterpoint accents; at how these details are varied and repeated, fugue like, within other fittings, the bronze fittings which fix stair rail and light fitting to the wall, or how marble is polished and wood burnished to a high lustre. In this building, such detail abounds, revealed with quiet modesty for those taking the time to look.

Nola Anderson, a consultant working in the arts and museum sector, has written extensively on Australian art practice, including an article on the art of Parliament House for Craft International to mark the building’s opening in 1988. Quotes in the article have been taken from Romaldo Giurgola, in Architecture Australia, January/February 2006.

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You are invited

Join in the celebrations for the 251h anniversary of Parliament House at the Parliament House Open Day to be held on 24 August 2013. Originally scheduled for 14 September, the event has been moved because of the federal election on that day. For more information on 25th anniversary events, including Open Day, visit: 25years.aph.gov.au

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