Architecture and the Architect

Parliament House’s design was selected through an international two-stage competition conducted by the Parliament House Construction Authority. The Authority was established by the Fraser government to construct a new building as the “provisional” Parliament House, original opened in 1927, with alterations and extensions over the years, was inadequate to accommodate the needs of the parliament.

The competition drew 329 entries from 28 countries, with the winning design a visionary approach from the New York-based architectural company of Mitchell/Giurgola. , with the on-site work directed by Italian architect Romaldo Giurgola

Parliament House, Canberra. Conditions for a Two-stage Competition (April 1979) began with the following frontispiece:

The importance of this event is not to be measured by that of the foremost building of the Commonwealth but by the opportunity to establish an architectural standard not only for a great new Democracy of scope, scale and modern advantages, [but also for] climatic conditions differing radically from any prototype in Europe or elsewhere.

(Walter Burley Griffin)

Many examples of civic design were done during periods in history in which autocratic rulers wielded immense personal power. Lest we conclude that this is a prerequisite for great and powerful work, we turn our attention to the conditions which surrounded the development of the capital of the newest of the great nations, Australia’s Canberra.

Here flourished, and continues to flourish, one of the greatest urban designs ever produced, conceived, nurtured and grown in circumstances fiercely democratic. Yet so strong was the original concept of American Architect Walter Burley Griffin, long-time associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, that the integrity of the plan survives and reasserts its relevance to the modern day.

Griffin’s competition entry drawn in 1912 shows how he was able to involve simultaneously natural features—Black Mountain, Mt Ainslie, Capital Hill, the river turned into a lake—and the functional movement systems to the various functional focal points—Government, commerce, education, recreation, residences—which were basic to his design.

This is a plan of firm, clear geometry not imposed rigidly on the terrain but sensitively adjusted to its inherent vagaries. Here is a plan that continues to work in spite of enormous changes in the technology of transportation—a system of design which is capable of indefinite extension.

(Edmund Bacon, Design of Cities)

Key aspects of the Brief are:

...Parliament House must be more than a functional building. It should become a major national symbol, in the way that the spires of Westminster or Washington's Capitol dome have become known to people all over the world. Strength and originality of image will determine the extent to which the building becomes associated in people's minds with national politics...

It is important that the building reflect the significance of the national Parliament and Executive Government in the Australian political and social context. The extent to which the building asserts this significance is related to questions of scale and monumentality. Careful consideration should be given to the implications of the scale and monumentality of the design...  

The building and site treatment should respond to those qualities of environment which are uniquely Australian - climate, landscape, vegetation and quality of light...

The philosophy which the building expresses, and its popular success, will depend in part on the extent to which public access and involvement is encouraged by the design. Parliament House should not appear remote and inaccessible. Access to both the site and the building should be facilitated. Within the building, connotations of a 'people's Parliament' and 'open government' will be established if people can penetrate the building and observe its operation...

The winning design contains many features that bring the design intent to life. From above the design of the building is in the shape of two boomerangs. Much of the building was constructed below the existing hill. 

Architect, Romaldo Giurgola comments on the vision provide a context for the low structure:

We felt if Australia’s new Parliament House was to speak honestly about its purpose, it could not be built on top of the hill as this would symbolise government imposed upon the people. In addition, it was important that Parliament House be seen as extending an invitation to all citizens to visit the building to see the workings of the democracy that is Australia. The invitation was to be seen in the descending arms of the walls of the Forecourt, described as being ‘an open gesture of welcome’.

The building should nest with the hill, symbolically rise out of the Australian landscape, as true democracy rises from the state of things. (Romaldo Giurgola, quoted in houseatwork, Parliamentary Education Office, Parliament of Australia, Parliament House, Canberra, 2001, p. 90) 

The general public to have access to about one-fifth of the building. By contrast, it has been estimated that 10 per cent of the Houses of Parliament in London is accessible to visitors, and 14 per cent of the Scottish Parliament.5 One Australian legislator has reported the amazement of visiting international parliamentarians, who are struck by the fact that ‘we allow the public to come in and roam around’. They are invariably impressed by the openness of the building.

Architectural details include the flag pole of 81 meters, from which a flag 12.8 m by 6.4m is flown.  It is approximately the size of a double decker bus. The flagpole weighs 220 tonnes and is made of polished stainless steel from Newcastle

Entry for the public to Parliament House is through a main foyer leading to the great Hall, and on the toe Senate and House of Representatives Chambers.  The foyer contains eucalypt green and cream marble pillars, giving the feeling of a gum forest.

The Great Hall is used for parliamentary and public functions, such as the Sorry Day ceremony. It includes a monumental tapestry based on a painting by Arthur Boyd.

Four major areas are enclosed within the building.  The public area, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Ministerial area.  Each has specific colours, the House of Representatives a muted green and Senate an ochre, based on the principles of the red and green of the British Houses of Commons and Lords.

Romaldo Giurgola has received many awards in recognition of his contribution include the RAIA Gold Medal by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1988, Honorary Officer of the Order of Australia in January 1989 and Australian Centenary Medal, "for service as Principal Architect of the new and permanent Parliament House in 2001. The portrait of Romaldo Giurgola painted by Mandy Martin, was gifted by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2005.

Other major works by Mr Guirgola include:

  • United Fund Headquarters Building, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1971)
  • Tredyffrin Public Library, Strafford, Pennsylvania (1976)
  • INA Tower, Philadelphia
  • Layfayette Place (now Swissotel), Boston, Massachusetts (1985)
  • Casa Thomas Jefferson, Brasília, Brazil
  • Penn Mutual Tower, Philadelphia
  • Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center

What might have been?

Five Parliament House competition finalists built models of their final designs. These are held at the National Archives of Australia. Broadcasting had the opportunity to record these models. This video provides the viewer with some highlights. Produced October 2010. Copyright Commonwealth of Australia. 

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