I feared I’d never identify “a colleague” Robert Haupt credits with making sense of Parliament House, Canberra. I feared the colleague’s observation was a private throwaway remark disavowed in unjustified shame. Luckily, other Haupt research meant browsing The Age Monthly Review, which Haupt edited. Luckily, to be found at the top of the same page where a Haupt essay begins, was the answer. Luckily, my eyes strayed there: to the end of a Peter Myers essay, the one republished as #6 below, a good one to read first.
1. Peter Myers, “Water on the brain: A Canberra-Luxur Axis?,” Transition, vol. 2 no. 1, March 1981, pp. 11-13.
2. Peter Myers, “Halls for a Mountain King,” The Age Monthly Review, July 1981, pp. 7-8.
3. Graham Freudenberg, “Cuckoo Land,” The Age Monthly Review, July 1981, pp. 8-9.
4. Paul Reid, “Plans and politics,” The Age Monthly Review, August 1981, p. 2, with Myers’ response.
5. Gareth Evans, “Leader symbols,” The Age Monthly Review, September 1981, p. 15, with Myers’ response.
6. Peter Myers, “Camp Hill R.I.P.: The re-siting of Parliament House,” The Age Monthly Review, August 1987, pp. 9-10.
Resemblances between Romaldo Giurgola’s new Australian Parliament and Joern Utzon’s Sydney Opera House are already being assiduously promoted. In a country apparently bereft of major architectural works the temptation to attribute likenesses has grown from our insatiable need for a rivalry that we can vicariously encourage without the risk of personal commitment. Australia is a big island, with low horizons, where any ascendancy from day to day environmental despoliation is vigorously discouraged. As a consequence of such unique constraints Utzon and Giurgola are now forever condemned to an intimacy entirely predicated by the propinquity of their most significant commissions. The following notes are a modest attempt to comprehend Giurgola’s project from the so far published competition drawings and to critically examine some of the more untenable comparisons with Utzon’s thwarted masterpiece.
To begin with, Utzon made a great architectural statement from a competition brief that was utterly pedestrian in its description of the site and which did little more than list the functional requirements of a large performing arts complex. Had Saarinan’s sustained defence of Utzon’s submission failed to convince his fellow assessors then it is likely that construction of any one of the other premiated designs would have passed unnoticed. On the contrary, the documentation issued to all entrants in the international competition for the design of Australia’s new Parliament House is suffused with symbolic prescriptions. To wit, Parliament House must express, explicitly rather than implicitly, the aspirations of a young nation lately permeated with a libertarian contempt for freedom beyond self interest. That Parliament House will be a work of art, has already been proscribed. Parliament House will be the venue from which our fates are consigned, the Symblegades through which each ambition must finally pass. The national Parliament is irrevocably our most important artefact, this building will, by definition, have an immeasurable impact on our destinies.
How can we understand Giurgola’s devastating celebration of the geometry of power politics? Here is a building that can only be read from above. Goaded by a competition brief that exudes both crude nationalism and the bicameral impotence of our elected chambers in the face of an arrogated prime ministerial elite, Giurgola has produced a building of truly terrifying consequence. Despite all claims to the contrary, including the architect’s own published description of his entry [see “Architecture in Australia,” September/October 1980 Building News September 1980], Australia’s new Parliament House is and will remain the modern world’s major essay in architectural anthropomorphosis.
Transformation into a human shape — anthropomorphosis — is an architectural pursuit of great antiquity. Schwailer de Libicz’s reconstruction of the ancient temples of Luxur (Fig. 1) clearly demonstrates the extent to which a rigidly hieratic society articulated an important site as a deified anatomy. Of course to the uninitiated this esoteric geometry was always a forbidden — verboten — knowledge. Perhaps Giurgola’s Parliament is similarly arcane. That the principal building, the vast spread eagled man of this study, contains only one occupant, a seminally positioned Prime Minister — is, undoubtedly, a mystery set aside for the acolytes of absolute power. After all our elected representatives and their competition assessors have all accepted Giurgola’s proposal as the best expression of our precarious democracy (Fig. 2).
Formally Giurgola’s building is an obtuse adaptation of ancient and modern paradigms. The rock cut mausolea of dynastic Egypt are obviously implied in the clavicle screen set behind and above the earlier Parliament House. This configuration presents a disturbing duplication of the initiatic precincts of Ammon. The comparative innocence of the old Parliament, a “temporary” design much influenced by Maybeck’s timber and stucco pavilions for the 1915 San Francisco exposition, is now lost in this gratuitous amalgamation of this former building, representative of the infant democracy, into the Pharoic scale of the new complex. This screen is a deliberate replication, in dimension and modulation, of the now superseded Parliament.
However, while the older building contained both elected houses, this new construction is merely a skeletal portico with no apparent function beyond the picturesque. Just what impact this mimicry will have on the citizens of Australia is difficult to foresee. Arguably those who cherish the institution of parliamentary democracy will be distressed at this insensitive appropriation of our most important political artefact. Monumental screens, a frequent motif of post modernism, superstitiously evoke a past devoid of the benefits of free speech and assembly.
Similarly, the self conscious manipulation of the forecourt, as though cut from living rock, is a device symbolically reminiscent of the slave cultures of the ancient world. The unremitting symmetry, the harsh residual spaces created by the rock cut geometry of the retaining walls and the dominance of the forecourt by a bizarre cranial pond all contribute to an ambience of monumentality unsupported by popular mandate.
The ideogram of a man, so obvious in plan, so visible to scanning satellites, is curiously reminiscent in its architectural modelling of el Lissitsky’s Electro-mechanical Man (Fig. 3), who, with revolutionary fervour, rescues us from a degenerated cyclical past. Lissitsky’s modern man, designed for Kruchonik’s futurist opera “Victory Over the Sun”, stands legs apart, his parabolic limbs encompassing the world with the same confidence that Canberra’s new Leviathan straddles the Parliamentary precinct. Perhaps it is a matter of scale. Neither Lissitsky or Giurgola have identified a context for their proposals, both are working in regions of mythic heroism, notwithstanding their ideological enmity, Giurgola’s mounded anthropoid, is in common with all esoteric constructions, completely independent of this or any other site. Temples only ever vary in detail, as a configuration they must be everywhere identical. This Parliament is yet another variation on a perennial theme that has haunted architectural literature since the beginning of modern archaeology.
A far cry from the beautifully judged figure-ground relationships of Utzon’s Sydney Opera House. Here the synthesis of site and participant is utterly unique. Utzon has reconstructed the greatest modern building entirely from his painterly obsession to solve difficult, very difficult, problems with a few simple components. Utzon’s quest for primary systems (Fig. 4) with which to construct his complex spaces recalls the synthetic perfection of his studio vade mecum, the Sung building manual, Ying tsao fah shih.
Certainly Utzon’s method is far closer to the hermetic exempliarism of the modern movement, where for the architect each building project represents a possible ascendancy of reason over expediency. Despite the awful mockery of Utzon’s intentions for the glass walls and theatres, the Sydney Opera House is still a profoundly important building. Developed from a protracted study of the site, Utzon’s building liberates us from tedious historicism in the same way that Cezanne’s Bathers jettisons, once and for all, the suffocating conventions of the Academy.
The fulcrum of Giurgola’s Parliament is a huge flag braced above a reflecting pool set in the principal hall below. At this place, precisely the navel of our reclining colossus, citizens and elected representatives may meet and discuss the issues of the day. The current exegesis, that the pool located at the crossing of the major and minor axes, will symbolically anticipate any one person or group from occupying this, the centre of “power” is of course assuming that this particular democracy has a centre. Many Australians believe, with great conviction, that a parliamentary democracy is necessarily acentric. Furthermore those same Australians identify the recently accelerating centrality of our political institutions with an insidious erosion of their freedom and autonomy. That this central pool will reflect the flag above via a matching skylight “monitor” (their jargon) is an architectural gesture of stunning banality. Are we to assume that this reflected image is in some way sacrosanct, that this small sheet of water is the holy of holies — an aqueous Grail — around which we may piously shuffle?
So Alfred Jarry’s umbilical spiral listlessly unwinds beneath our now omniscient standard. Itself a sanitised version of Keinholz’s interpretation of Iwo Jima (Fig. 5), the FLAG is now for all purposes THE Parliament. We, or rather the assessors, have managed to select an architectural proposal that has buried our elected representatives in a sci fi mausoleum surmounted by what must be the world’s biggest ensign, Robert Venturi notwithstanding. I wonder from which quarter will come the divine wind — kamakaze — to keep this massive pennant aloft? Hot air rising from the turgid crypts below?
Clement Greenberg perceives Canberra as a unique city. Here, he claims [During an interview with the author in early 1979, Greenberg defends Utzon’s S.O.H. as our only masterpiece, the only work worth travelling from New York to Australia for], public buildings have supplanted gallery works as accessible and perfect artifacts. In Canberra citizens will journey to view from a safe distance buildings such as the National Library in its perfected and benign isolation. I have no doubt that our new, androcentric, Parliament will receive the same mute confirmation. We are going to want to believe that this eclectic amalgamation of obscure architectural motifs is somehow an expression, the quintessential expression, of our social organisation. A lot of people are going to spend a lot of time making sure we get the right line. Public relations consultants have been appointed to handle all communications with the lay public, the news media is being spoon fed soothing background material on this project.
Indeed it is the sepulchral origins of both the dominant form — an andromorphous mound — and the unremitting disposition of functions to articulate this archaic framework as though this building were to somehow preserve past categories in the face of democratic transition, that is the real dilemma facing our community.
If we accept this building as the fulcrum of our political life then maybe we have already lost the ability to discern sham from integrity. Perhaps we have already been recolonised, this time by a voracious cultural and economic imperialism that not only secures our natural resources at the lowest price but also wants our freedom thrown in for good measure?
How can we understand Romaldo Giurgola’s new Parliament House? Here is a building which, in contrast to a performing arts centre such as the Sydney Opera House, is of paramount importance to an Australian, regardless of his or her interest in the nuances of architectural discourse. Resemblances between Giurgola’s Parliament and Utzon’s Opera House are already being assiduously promoted. In a country sadly lacking in major architectural works, there is a compulsion to seek similarities among those few significant projects that are built. The “tyranny of distance” has ensured that Utzon and Giurgola will forever share an intimacy created by the scarcity of these works. Australians thrive on competitive struggle, the survival of the fittest, especially when the contest can be encouraged vicariously.
The problem is to find by critical debate how this building can be interpreted as a function of our democratic system. What causes a new Parliament House to be built which, by its all-too-obvious elevation of the Australian flag, embodies the very nationalism an open society most abhors? Is the nationalism of our present Government — embodied in such campaigns as the glutinous Project Australia — really the only future for our community? Even if it is not, I doubt we will ever be able to transcend such cardboard nationalism, for a simple reason: we have already begin to build a new Australian Parliament House that not only corroborates crass chauvinism but which has such a rigid layout that any alternative political interpretation seems impossible.
Instructed by a competition brief that breathes both crude nationalism and the subjugation of the elected Houses under the present leadership, Giurgola has produced, for those who value parliamentary democracy, a terrifying building. It relegates the two Houses of debate and, with equal insensitivity, promotes the Prime Ministerial and Cabinet suites to the void that the Houses leave.
Nothing consolidates political ascendancy better than a monument to celebrate that ascendancy. The Cabinet, where executive responsibility for government is vested in a group of Ministers loyal to the Prime Minister, is a device invented in Westminster early last century. The argument is that Cabinet enables an otherwise unworkable melee of contesting members to act with something like coherence, but the tendency is for Cabinet to supplant the principles of equal representation and debate for each member of Parliament. We are only too well aware of how an arrogant Prime Minister and his sycophantic Ministry have eroded the Parliament as an open and equal assembly. The central, strategic location of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is a defiant expression of their political supremacy. The principal building on the principal axis contains only the functions of the Prime Minister. The Cabinet and committee rooms surround his suite; there are many ancillary and ceremonial spaces, but the Houses of elected assembly are not part of the principal and dominant axis. The House of Representatives and the Senate are on the minor axis, separated from each other by the “flying wedge” of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
There should be much argument about this. Why was this proposal selected as befitting our democratic aspirations? The competition brief is loaded with unthinking nationalism. No effort was spared to spell out the frailty of the Houses in the face of Prime Ministerial force. But the mystery remains: who in their wildest imagination would expect a comparatively open society to accept such a celebration of the power of one man? I believe that the answer to this problem, of the capitulation of the competition assessors to an utterly reactionary submission, is to be found in an analysis of the architectural doctrine through which this building has been created.
Making buildings in the image of a man is not a new pursuit. The ancient temple at Luxor and the Eiffel Tower in Paris are just two examples of architectural constructions that are laid out according to the male anatomy. Romaldo Giurgola’s spread-eagled giant must, however, rank among the most ambitious attempts to use this archaic device.
A glance at the plan will show the various anatomical features laid out in a stylised sequence that is precisely equivalent to the dominant features of the body of an adult male. Thus we have a ceremonial lake which is, clearly, shaped and positioned like the cranial sector of the human skull. To make doubly sure we do not miss this reference, the surrounding ceremonial forecourt is patterned in radiating bands that create a suitably moribund halation from this watery cerebral cortex.
The earlier, and now obviously diminutive, Parliament House is echoed in the scale and configuration of Giurgola’s portico. This problem, of appropriating the redundant older building, has been ingeniously solved by Giurgola’s adaptation of the human anatomy. By excavating the ceremonial forecourt in a configuration reminiscent of the rock-cut temples of dynastic Egypt, Giurgola was able to put a clavicle entry screen against the vast “quarried” body of the main ceremonial halls. This now freestanding pierced wall is identical in scale and modulation to the dear old falling-down overcrowded stuccoed brick “temporary” building that has for more than 50 years sustained our infant democracy.
I don’t like the chances of the old Parliament House remaining after 1988. The problem of the double image created by Giurgola’s mimicry of the old building in the new somehow predicates the demolition of the old complex. Can you imagine the difficulties created by such a fantastic optical illusion? Political cynicism aside, I suppose we can all be persuaded that our existing Parliament House is too small, but how are we going to modify the laws of optics to prevent the old and new facades from piggy-backing each other as we approach along the parliamentary axis? The magnitude of this siting problem rivals the new famous error in the road gradients leading up to Edwin Lutyens’ Viceroy’s House in New Delhi. At a certain point along the ceremonial axis, the Viceroy’s House disappears entirely from view, an error of architectural judgment for which Lutyens never forgave his collaborator Herbert Baker. In Canberra, the problem of visual distortion will be even more complex and just as difficult to solve.
Somewhere along the principal axis near Lake Burley Griffin, at a point soon to be discovered by the postcard manufacturers, the facades of the new and old buildings will be united by the mirage effect of foreshortening, negating the difference in altitude between the two buildings. The dilemma facing the tourist with a telephoto lens can scarcely be imagined. Perhaps a suitably elevated tower will need to be built to enable the completed building to be seen as it was by the competition judges, a precision model at waist height. Clearly it will be much easier to knock down this old building.
The existing Parliament House is an artefact that is particularly identified with the development of Australian democracy. Indeed it is the lack of monumentality which has so endeared this structure. Australians will always associate “the steps of Parliament House” with the most important event in our political history, 11 November 1975. This understated and almost cottagy flight of steps leading to King’s Hall and the two Houses has a powerful symbolic function that appears to have been ignored by the promoters of the new building. Only when Giurgola’s Parliament House is completed will we realise the extent to which the new building has ignored the most important attribute of the existing Parliament, namely, that the old building only had one entrance for politicians and public alike, whereas the new complex has four diametrically opposed entrances, only one of which is to be for the general public.
We are now faced with an architectural proposal which will permanently distort the intimacy and informality between politicians and public made possible by the very absence of monumental constraints in the design of the existing Parliament House. Perhaps the new building is intended to be a paradigm of our future, a future in which our involvement with the political process will be limited to that of passive spectators, who will look back with discomfort at the ease with which our predecessors could confront their elected representatives. This appropriation of the existing house into the Pharaoic scale of the new building is certainly no innocent exercise in architectural post-modernism, where cultural appropriation has been elevated to a high art. I, at least, don’t want to believe that that sort of artifactual power is just sitting around in the excavated ruins of the ancient world. No matter how formally regressive the components of a building may be — and this new Parliament House is formally regressive in the extreme — there must also be some sort of functional programme to guide the eclecticism of the architect involved. No assessors would have chosen Giurgola’s devastating celebration of the geometry of power politics unless they were convinced that such a building did indeed satisfy their sponsor’s brief.
The answer to this criticism is likely to be that provision has been made inside the new Parliament building for dialogue between politicians and citizens, and that may be so. Yet, there are difficulties of access to this part of the building, precisely at the navel of the outstretched Colossus. Many will find it hard going to convince the parliamentary security personnel that their presence in the main parliamentary building is not a threat to the security and well-being of the incumbent, seminally positioned Prime Minister. One of the virtues of the old Parliament House steps was their neutrality. Demonstrations could occur without bringing the whole place to a standstill.
Several months ago, Giurgola’s partner and business manager, Ehrmann B. Mitchell, gave an address on the new Parliament House to the Sydney architectural profession. He strenuously defended the flag as the pre-eminent symbol of the Australian political system. It strikes me that Mr Mitchell is preparing for the storm of criticism which will break when the Australian public understands how far the once venerated precinct of Canberra’s parliamentary triangle has been invaded by the trappings of banana-republic nationalism.
The flag is now the Parliament. We have managed to select an architectural design that has buried our elected representatives in the anthropomorphic remains of a demolished Capitol Hill, surmounted by the world’s biggest flag. This post-modernist device, a gigantic flag braced above a reflecting pool in the hall below, is a gesture of stunning banality. Where else but in a politically neutered country could anyone hope to get away with such hype? The idea of bringing the reflected image of the vast flag down into the main concourse of the new Parliament House via a skylight “monitor” — their jargon — is simply ridiculous. What are we expected to do — stand around gazing vacantly at the reflection of this flag in an ornamental pool, a pool which happens to be the junction of the major and minor axes of our new Parliament House?
An overwrought public relations consultant has dreamed up an interpretation which justifies this square pond as a deterrent to anyone seeking to occupy this, the “centre” of our democratic system. This assumes that our democracy has an identifiable centre. Many Australians, perhaps a majority, might argue that parliamentary democracy eschews centrality; they might regard the tendency of the Commonwealth in recent years to centralise, and then play off, functions such as education and welfare as an insidious erosion of their freedom and autonomy. Will the Australian public accept this pond with its captive image of the flag aloft as the origin of our political aspirations?
Clement Greenberg, the wily American art critic, told me that Canberra was a unique city, in which public buildings have supplanted gallery works as accessible and perfect art objects. In Canberra, citizens will journey to view from a safe, controlled distance a building such as Walter Bunning’s National Library, in its splendid and benign isolation. The spaces separating Canberra’s public buildings are vast; each work is placed to invite our contemplation in the same way that contemporary galleries attempt to direct our attention by displaying a few selected pieces on completely plain walls.
I have no doubt that our new anthropomorphic Parliament House will receive the same mute confirmation. Australian citizens will want to believe that this curious amalgamation of architectural devices is, somehow, the quintessential expression of our social organisation. Indeed, the sepulchral origins of the dominant form — an andromorphous mound — present a real dilemma for our community.
No one would doubt that the Parliament House Construction Authority will get the building finished by 1988. Any construction problem can be overcome with enough money, and this will be an easy building to put up once the hill has been removed. It is a variant of open-cut mining: instead of heaps of spoil we will now have several forbidding cuttings containing the various parts of the Parliament, so that the whole assembly is visible only from above. From scanning satellites?
Utzon’s Opera House confronted us with construction problems. We now have the far more difficult problem of how to adapt a reactionary Parliament House to the more liberal climate that — or so we should hope — the future will bring. Is there any benefit in a plan that permits an indefinite extension of the House of Representatives and the Senate? That which is readily extended is readily retracted. Could it be that we are building a fortress when we really wanted a forum?
When, for the first and only time, Prime Minister Whitlam visited his own department in Canberra’s West Block in 1973, his single advantage over any other outsider was that he was not asked to produce a security pass or identification. He neither knew where his own office was nor whether he had one. He quickly discovered the answer: the Prime Minister of Australia had no private office in the Prime Minister’s Department. Whitlam never set foot in the department again. Sensibly, he returned to the real centre of Executive power in Australia — his office in Parliament House.
More than in any other democratic nation in the world, the Australian Executive has usurped the home of the Legislature. Parliament House, Canberra, is not the real home of the Australian Executive; the building’s parliamentary functions are ancillary. Increasingly, the Parliament is a guest in its own home. The new Parliament House is designed perfectly to entrench the dominance of the Executive and to legitimise the creeping usurpation of the past 50 years.
The physical nature of Parliament House, the tremendous physical pressure on its space, and the multiplicity of functions it has to serve, have had a profound effect on Australia’s political and constitutional history. A significant account of the rise and fall of the Whitlam Government could be written solely in these terms. It would deal with such matters as the inter-relation and inter-reaction between the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, between Cabinet and Caucus, between Executive and Parliament, between Ministers and their departments; the isolation of Ministers from sources of advice other than those available in the departments; the pecking order of advisers with offices in or out of Parliament House; relations with the Press; personality clashes, psychological pressures — and all written in terms of the physical nature of Parliament House.
In only one respect would the existence of a new Parliament House in its proposed form have significantly altered any of there factors. A more spacious and commodious building would have reduced some of the personal, psychological and physical pressures upon everybody associated with the history of the Whitlam Government. But the essential elements — the intrusion of the Executive, the profusion and confusion of functions within the one building: these would have been the same.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the new design is its pretensions to symbolism. Symbolism in architecture is scarcely a feature associated with parliamentary democracy. The overt symbolism of the design is not about parliamentary democracy at all, but about nationalism, patriotism and power. There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of these, but let’s not fool ourselves that they are symbols of the virtues of parliamentary democracy.
What has happened to the present Parliament House is, to a certain extent, part of the price we pay both for locating the national capital in Canberra and for Canberra’s design, itself an exercise in symbolism. Not only is Canberra itself isolated, but Parliament House is isolated within its own city, and its isolation will be even more pronounced when Parliament follows the Executive from Camp Hill to Capital Hill. The isolation has been used to explain and excuse the Executive’s take-over of the parliamentary precincts but the Executive has bought its convenience at great cost.
Canberra’s increasingly frenetic politics and decision-making processes are directly related to the physical pressures placed on the Parliament House building by the dominant presence of the Executive. Ministers complain of the intrusiveness and omnipresence of the Press, but the Press has to be there, because Parliament House is where all the action is. Almost every television report from Canberra is set against the background of the Parliament House façade. This has made it Australia’s best known public building, but very few of these reports have anything to do with Parliament itself; the smallest part of the work of the Press Gallery relates to the proceedings of Parliament. In the television age, images count. And when Australians see Parliament House on their television screens, they recognise it, now, not so much as the place where the Parliament meets, but the place where the Prime Minister works. And they are right: the building’s Executive role is now by far its most important one.
The entrance to the Prime Minister’s suite is a few feet from the left and the stairway leading to the Press Gallery offices immediately above. Every accredited journalist has a legitimate reason for being the corridor which is the common entrance, and which is also the entrance to the Cabinet room and the Government party room. There can be no privacy. No other Prime Minister or President or Cabinet is in a situation of such inescapable closeness and minute-by-minute scrutiny.
The alternative entrance to the Press Gallery, on the other side of the House of Representatives Chamber, bears the same relation to the office of the Leader of the Opposition and the Opposition Party Room. Arthur Calwell’s contribution to the amenities of his office was to replace the wall-bed installed for Dr Evatt with a toilet. It was later discovered that the toilet’s air pipe passed through the wall of the Caucus Room next door and continued through Alan Reid’s office immediately above, and that it was an excellent sound-conduit. No wonder Reid in his heyday always got the best leaks on movements and rumblings in the Labor Party!
The chosen isolation of Ministers in Parliament House deeply affects their relations with their departments. It means that a Permanent Head can exercise almost complete control over which officers the Minister is permitted to see; thus, in a system in which access is power, a Minister who physically isolates himself from his department makes himself hostage to his Permanent Head. I give four very different examples.
In 1964, when Paul Hasluck and Arthur Tange collided, as Minister and Head of External Affairs respectively, Hasluck circumvented Tange by seeking advice from officers lower down the scale. But he could only achieve this by making the department, instead of Parliament House, his main office, so that he, not Tange, could control his sources of departmental advice.
In 1973, Tange (by now Head of Defence) achieved absolute ascendancy over Lance Barnard by isolating the Deputy Prime Minister in Parliament House and procuring the removal of Barnard’s personal advisers from the Opposition years — Clem Lloyd and Brian Toohey.
In 1975, Jim Cairns reinforced his economic and philosophical isolation from Treasury by virtually bunkering down in Parliament House. The separation of Cairns from his department became almost total; the Head of Treasury, Sir Frederick Wheeler, had almost as much difficulty in getting permission from Junie Morosi to see the Treasurer as had such lesser mortals as the Prime Minister.
Not the least source of the continuing strength of Country Party Ministers, from Page to Anthony, is that they live with the departments they choose to hold.
The Whitlam Government succumbed to the convenience of making Parliament House the home of the Executive. Contrary to declarations of intent before 1972, Cabinet meetings were hardly ever held outside the hothouse atmosphere of Parliament House and Canberra. One may ruefully reflect that the fate of the Whitlam Government might have been different had Cabinet met more frequently in Sydney and Melbourne. At the very least, had the Labor Cabinet had a real physical presence in Martin Place, Sydney — where, incidentally, there was a Prime Minister’s office and a Cabinet Room, in the Commonwealth Bank Building — it might have had a clue about the activities of the Reserve Bank early in 1974, ignorance of which lay at the very heart of all the Whitlam Government’s subsequent economic problems.
The paradox of the Canberra syndrome is that its isolation from the Australian mainstream does not produce any compensating calmness or tranquillity. The pressures on the Parliament House building in Canberra are almost wholly due to the intrusion of the Executive. The demands for more space come almost entirely from the needs of Ministers and their staffs. In recent years, the only important expansion of space and staff for the direct needs of Parliament itself has been for the Parliamentary Library, particularly its research work. It is currently proposed to locate most of the Research Branch in the old Kurrajong Hotel, 10 minutes walk from Parliament House. There could be no more effective way of destroying the research service. If backbenchers accept this, they deserve all they get.
Everything is supposed to be justified by the need for Ministers to work in Parliament House so that they can attend Parliament and attend divisions. If this is true, it is largely because of the faulty standing orders of the Australian Parliament. There is nothing in the Westminster system which requires the many divisions, with their maddening clamour of division bells, that the Australian Parliament has. There is nothing in the Westminster system which requires every Minister to be within a minute’s walking distance from his place in Parliament, every hour Parliament is sitting. And, of course, in Westminster itself they operate a different system of divisions altogether, a less tiresome, less tiring, and more efficient system. Most British Ministers do not even have a room in Parliament House, and not even the Prime Minister works from Parliament House. Ministers are where they should be — in their departments. Cabinet meets where it should — with the Prime Minister in Downing Street, away from Parliament. When members of the Australian Parliament complain of the intrusion of the executive into their home they have themselves partly to blame, because of their failure to reform their own standing orders, particularly those relating to divisions and attendance at divisions.
The fact is that as a Parliament the present building is adequate for the purposes for which it was designed, and appropriate as an unpretentious home for the Parliament of a small democratic nation. It is not a particularly old building, but it is far and away the most historic building we have in Australia. The faults of this building lie not in itself, but in the contradictory purposes which it has been forced to serve.
The growing oppressiveness of security arrangements in Parliament House, and the growing intrusiveness of demonstrations around and in Parliament House, have nothing to do with the Parliament itself. The security is for, and the demonstrations are against, the Executive Government, which is quite reasonably seen as having become the cuckoo in the nest of Australia’s Parliament House.
The confusion of roles in the present building makes for neither good government nor a good Parliament. The new design compounds the confusion. I fear that $300 million or $1 billion, or whatever, will be the smallest part of the price future Australians will have to pay to enshrine this confusion and formally ensconce the Ministry in this new monument to Executive power.
Plans and politics
From Paul Reid, chief architect, National Capital Development Commission
Peter Myers asks “How can we understand Romaldo Giurgola’s new Parliament House?” (Monthly Review, July). The one way he does not suggest is by examining the drawings and models which revealed so clearly how the building will work. Instead, Myers poses his own anthropomorphic symbolism which will no doubt elicit titters from his friends but does a great disservice to Giurgola’s design. The question raised by Myers (and Freudenberg in the subsequent article) of relations between the Executive and Parliament is a very important one. It deserves to be discussed for what it is rather than being used to flay an architectural hobby horse.
The dominance of Parliament by the Executive will not be resolved by one architectural solution rather than another. In fact, Giurgola’s design neatly separates executive functions from Parliamentary functions. By placing the Executive at the back of the building most visitors to the building will pass through the public, ceremonial rooms, the Chambers and associated accommodation and be unaware of the presence of the Executive. Myers suggests that the Executive is planned like a flying wedge dividing the new House. Any perusal of the design will indicate that it does just the opposite. Being behind the central sequence of halls the Executive withdraws from the heart of the Parliament.
This is in marked contrast to the old buildings where the lobbies adjoining the Chambers are access corridors within the Executive area. At present a member of Parliament leaving the Chamber and entering the Government lobby is immediately confronted with Ministers’ offices.
Myers suggests that the four entrances of the new building somehow replace a single entrance to the old building. If he had ever taken the trouble to visit the old building he would know that there are four entrances to it. In addition to the front, the Senate and House of Representatives offices each has an independent entrance. There is also the private entrance for the Prime Minister.
Myers also suggests that the steps leading to the front door of the old building are an egalitarian device encouraging participation and demonstration. He should know that demonstrations are confined to the other side of Queen Victoria Terrace, 100 metres away. By contrast, Giurgola’s design eliminates the front steps and their implication of higher authority. Visitors to the new Parliament House will walk freely at one level from the forecourt through the entrance into the foyer and subsequent spaces of the building.
Giurgola’s design provides an eminently workable and expressive home for the Australian Parliament. The respective roles of the two Houses, the Committees and the public spaces, as well as the Executive, are beautifully revealed.
Perhaps Peter Myers has trouble reading drawings.
PETER MYERS REPLIES:
Of course there are multiple entrances to the existing Parliament, yet there is only one that matters. No doubt Giurgola’s new building has dozens of actual points of entry; again, only four are significant.
Paul Reid has mistaken my interpretation of the two buildings for a literal description of their respective fabrics. The division of the new building into four separate zones, each with diametrically opposite means of access, is an architectural device that will have a tremendous impact on our understanding of and involvement with Parliament.
I cannot accept that architectural proposals exist in a vacuum, independent of the ideological constraints that bind the rest of our actions. Giurgola’s building is an extraordinarily sophisticated response to a brief prepared by a committee charged with promoting a version of the parliamentary process that is being rapidly made obsolete by an Australia eager to shake off, imperium in imperio, decades of arrogated executive ascendancy.
I am not at all amused at the Vitruvian origins of Giurgola’s design, yet they are there for anyone with sufficient grounding in architectural theory to see.
From Senator Gareth Evans, Federal shadow Attorney-General
Peter Myers’ article on the new Parliament House design (Monthly Review, July) was a nice piece of whimsy, but it didn’t really have much to do with the scheme that I helped select as the competition winner.
One of the most brilliant features of the Giurgola-Thorp design is the way in which it so simply and elegantly responds to and reinforces the Burley Griffin Canberra City Plan. The curvilinear “arms” and “legs” of the building sweep out as they do ti pick up the lines of the four radial avenues converging on Capital Hill, and the “torso” is simply the extension of the land axis running south from Mount Ainslie. The leaden anthropomorphic symbolism that Myers insists on reading into the design looks much less plausible when one looks at the building, not in isolation as he does, but in its total setting in Griffin’s Parliamentary Triangle.
The next layer of Myers’ thesis, that the design is “a celebration of the power of one man”, is even more extravagant. Had this in fact been the intention of Giurgola and Thorp, would they really have positioned the Prime Minister’s suite so as to constitute — depending on which location one finds more evocative — the anthropoid’s anus or gonads?
Myers tries to kick along his argument by claiming that the “principal building on the principal axis contains only the functions of the Prime Minister”. But this is simply to misread the plans, or at least to misunderstand their significance. Not only are some 25 other Cabinet Ministers physically located in this sector of the building; so, too, are the Parliamentary Committee rooms (where far more important debates, public hearings and deliberations take place than ever occur in the chambers), and the Parliamentary Library and Research Service (which supply most of the firepower for the Government back bench and the Opposition in their continuing war with the executive).
It is still true that the executive as a whole, if not just the Prime Minister, is allocated an amount of space quite unusual in Parliament buildings elsewhere in the world. This reflects the long evolving Australian practice of Ministers insisting upon working out of Parliament House rather than their departmental offices, which Graham Freudenberg criticises in his accompanying article. But perhaps even Freudenberg can comfort himself with the thought that at least the executive wing is located at the rear — or as Myers might prefer to put it, the backside — of the whole complex.
There are other aspects of Myers’ critique which seem just perverse. Conspicuous among these is his claim that, when viewed from across the lake, not only will the new Parliament House “piggy-back” the old, but that the deliberate echoing of the fenestration of the old in the façade of the new will so jar the eyeballs of sensitive onlookers that the old Parliament House will simply have to be torn down. Of course there is a “piggy-back” problem inherent in the Capital Hill site, but what everyone except Myers seems to agree is that Giurgola-Thorp have solved it rather more sensitively than any other conceivable scheme. By contrast with their design — which the assessors described as achieving an “essential unity … the visual and symbolic linking of the old and new” — its competitors more often than not created a vision of a wedding cake perched upon a lamington.
The one aspect of Myers’ piece that comes close to hitting the mark is his criticism of the emphasis given the flag and flagpole in the winning design. Although to call it “a gesture of stunning banality” is, as usual, rather overdoing it, it is fair to say that the use of the flag as a symbolic device is far more consonant with American political culture than our own, and that we are entitled to feel more than a little uncomfortable at all that patriotic imagery waving aloft. The trouble is, however, that the building needs some significant vertical element to mark the apex of Capital Hill if Griffin’s plan is to maintain its coherence. It is difficult to conceive of anything less clumsy than the rather elegant tetrapod that Giurgola-Thorp have designed. Maybe the solution is for us to get on with the task of choosing for ourselves, before 1988, a new, genuinely home-grown Australian flag of which we really can, for once, be proud.
PETER MYERS REPLIES:
Senator Evans unwittingly corroborates the issues raised by Freudenberg and myself in the July issue of Monthly Review.
The senator’s acerbic letter confirms his admiration for government in the executive manner. Hence his preference, as a competition assessor, for a design which accentuates this burgeoning institution and which neatly sublimates the two elected chambers.
The questionable aesthetic of modelling the new Parliament as profile of Capital Hill has now created the secondary problem of using a gigantic flag to signify this now diminished place. I fail to see how such a conundrum can be reconciled simply by redesigning the national flag.
The sub-Vitruvian symbolism and political composition of Romaldo Giurgola’s new and permanent Parliament House have already been described in my previous articles in Transition Vol. 2, number 1 and The Age Monthly Review for 6 July 1981. In summary our new Parliament follows an archaic anthropomorphic plan wherein two elevated houses are disposed on either side of ceremonial halls entered on axis via a cranial forecourt and then proceeding spinally to culminate in a seminally located prime ministerial suite. The contemporary ascendancy of executive government is thus neatly personified architecturally by major axis domination with the Senate and House of Representatives relegated to minor cross-axis positions. An associated piece by Graham Freudenberg also confirmed the coming ascendancy of Executive Government in Australian political life. Letters published in subsequent issues of the AMR from Gareth Evans and Paul Reid in response to these reviews will make diverting reading.
Press notices since have, by and large, supported the Construction Authority’s naïve optimism that this building will somehow increase the democratic freedoms presently held by Australians as the foundation of our social life.
Much is made of our new Parliament’s magnificently appointed suites, ceremonial halls, debating chambers, kitchens, etc., on the curious assumption that a new and bigger set of spaces will somehow enlighten otherwise preoccupied members.
Such hapless determinism is rampant in modern architecture. How often have we seen redevelopment projects promoted as socially liberating, progressive and hence sure to “improve” the quality of life. Well may one ask whether the afterflow of vastly increased space allocations for our political demi-monde will in time engender a better and more just society.
Well at least they got rid of Arthur Calwell’s plumbing — and Camp Hill. The recent demise of Camp Hill does indeed raise serious questions about the careless confidence that has so far guided this project from committee room to construction deadlines.
Several months ago I happened upon a set of original documents for the federal capital design competition, complete in their timber box as sent to all registered entrants. To enter, one drew out a design on one of two sets of lithographic contour plans, enclosed and returned same to the assessors. These topographic plans were concise, accurate and extremely well produced at a scale of 400 feet to the inch.
The reason for two sets is simple enough. To trace off the contours of such a subtle landscape is an exacting task and would likely be passed by in the rush to get an entry completed. Obviously original landscape form and orientation were seen by both competition committee and assessors to be most important design criteria for our new capital. Competitors were to respect the existing topography. This is how the actual competition documents read at this remove.
Furthermore, there is only a cursory attempt in these competition guidelines to describe either the nature of Australian society or actual functions of our proposed capital. It is as though a well-sited design would answer for the social complexities of Australia’s new city.
In his last identified design, published in 1918, Griffin located Parliament House upon a secondary trig station called Camp Hill whose profile stood along a principal axis linking Red Hill, Kurrajong trig station — site of Griffin’s proposed Capital centre and now occupied by Giurgola’s construction — to Mount Ainslie, thus bisecting the parliamentary triangle formed by, the then, Commonwealth and Federal avenues.
As a hill, among all other hills, of course Camp Hill is of little significance. However, within Griffin’s lucid sequence Camp Hill is, or rather was, of paramount importance. In a gesture of profound architectural insight Griffin showed his schematic Parliament as a long, low building placed along the main axis and sitting along Camp Hill.
Why did Griffin do this? Why did he site our most significant building beneath rather than upon Capital Hill? I believe that Griffin wanted his siting of Parliament Houses to represent a just and dignified relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. With its ready accessibility and subdued profile Walter Burley Griffin set out his ideal for an egalitarian community aligned to an ancient and beautiful landscape. By placing his building under the profile of Capital Hill, Griffin expressed his vision of social life and landscape in an Australia where harmony not domination was to sustain all in creative democracy.
Without the subtle elevation of Camp Hill, Griffin’s Parliament would make little sense as a design. With no consort his gentle rendering of a building to house our young democracy would have been lost among ancillary institutions, who, even then, were jockeying for prime positions within the triangle below.
Somehow Griffin’s beautiful idea was overlooked by the committees and assessors charged with selecting a design for our permanent Parliament House. An unobtrusive clause — volume 1, page 80, of the new Parliament House competition states — “The siting of Parliament House causes Camp Hill and the foreground land axis to assume a new role. Camp Hill is likely to be regraded and the landscaped character considerably altered, probably to a more formal arrangement in relation to the axis space” (emphasis mine).
Can we assume that Griffin’s siting for Parliament House meant nothing to the competition organisers? That this site, across Camp Hill, happened to be close by the “provisional” building in no way invalidated its candidacy for amalgamation into or expansion of the existing House to meet new and continually changing functional requirements.
On the contrary, the use and reuse of important sites by succeeding generations has a long history. For example, the subtle mastery of Inigo Jones’s Queen’s House (1616) was later incorporated into Wren and Hawksmoor’s vast complex at Greenwich (1704) with elegance and a respect for the former building that is even today exhilarating. The scale and complexity of their Greenwich Hospital buildings were never seen as a sufficient cause for destroying a preceding interpretation of this beautiful site.
Regrettably it would seem that our new Parliament competition sponsors, assessors and leading architects have all chosen to ignore the first lesson of architectural history: that the greatest works in architecture are those which extend the past into a brilliant perceptive present.
With Camp Hill’s destruction the fate of our now residual Parliament House is sealed. Forever this understated building will be no more than a door mat from which one’s ascent to Giurgola’s dominating house will begin. Up the great ramp we will toil, our journey’s end the gaping maw of a most uninspiring, uninspired building.
Instead of the knockabout generosity of those good old days of 1987 it is to be from 1988 and forever a secure zone of ceremonial spaces jammed to the cornices with a garbled iconography of corporate architectural historicism.
The message is clear enough. Our fragile democracy is on notice and we are going to have a hell of a time nursing cherished freedoms through Giurgola’s new and all too permanent studio backlot.
Among architects Louis XIV, autocratic and certainly no willing dupe, is more often remembered for unleashing Hardouin-Mausart upon Le Vau’s Versailles. No amount of commissioned art works can save our new Parliament from the transcendent issue of its wrong siting. Need we Australians provide a further proof? Need we accept a huge flag bound by sticks (fascio) as representative of our parliamentary democracy?
The reason why Camp Hill has been removed is of course to render Giurgola’s new building visible from the parliamentary triangle below: New Delhi, Lutyens and Baker all over again. Has anyone tallied the cost of this ridiculous exercise, not just in money — which is considerable as it took several months to scrape away Camp Hill. What does it cost us all to live with such a travesty of our democratic ideals?
For our national press and critical journals it is now time to take heed of that forthright dowager, who on seeing Fielding’s Tom Jones asleep face down in a squalor of game pie, empty carafes and hunting dogs, commanded him to “Awake, awake from thy pastoral torpor”.
- Kitching on the Canberra Kremlin
- The Pyramid Builders
- The spread of Canberra-ism
- Mr Singleton Goes to Canberra for Australian Playboy
- The Power Vacuum
- Sam Kennard wins North Sydney by-election by unanimous consent
- Robert Haupt on the opening of Parliament House, Canberra
- Peter Myers on the symbolism of Parliament House, Canberra