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  • Articles by Sonali

    Review: Parliament House, Canberra

    A must see when visiting Canberra, the Australian capital, is Parliament house. Its distinctive façade with outstretched walls invites people in and has become an iconic image of Canberra. Other exceptional features of this vast construction which was opened by her Majesty the Queen in 1988 include the base of the flagpole on the building’s roof (one of the largest steel structures in the world weighing 220 tonnes), which forms a double boomerang shape and a reflective pool in the building’s centre. Apparently it is a good place to have a private chat because the gurgling noise of running water drowns out the sound of any conversation.

    Visitors to the building can watch a documentary detailing the seven-year lead-up to the building’s construction, which captures the feverish sense of anticipation shared by all those involved in the project. Australian craftspeople and artisans jumped at the chance to harness and showcase their talents using Australian materials, all leveraged by the $A1.1 billion budget. The project gave the nation the opportunity to rebrand itself as a confident democracy, dispelling its ‘small nation’ identity.

    It became necessary to build the New Parliament House after several extensions to the Old Parliament House. The new site covers an area of 250 000m2  with 4,500 rooms and over 2,700 clocks. Stepping into the House of Representatives Chamber and Senate House Chamber gives us a sense of the true scale of the building which is six times the floor space of the previous one. The new chambers are more like large conference halls. The House of Representatives currently has 150 members while the Upper Senate Chamber has 76 (elected) members. The corresponding rooms in the Old Parliament House seem cosy by comparison.

    The chambers are colour coded: green for the House of Representatives and red for the Upper Chamber (like in Westminster). But these are more muted shades of green and red echoing the colours of the Australian environment: the leafy green of Eucalyptus trees and an ochre red of the Outback. The toned down colours are easier on the eye perhaps and the atmosphere in the chambers doesn’t feel as imposing.

    Throughout Parliament House there is an emphasis on organic materials. The overall effect is understated rather than ostentatious. For instance, the walls of the Great Hall, where formal receptions and dinners take place, are made from timber such as white birch, jarrah and brushbox. The magnificent Great Hall Tapestry based on the perhaps even more magnificent painting Untitled (Shoalhaven Landscape 1984) by Arthur Boyd hangs on the back wall. The Parliamentary Art collection also includes a gallery of portraits of previous prime ministers, a collection of artworks by contemporary Australian artists and aboriginal artefacts.

    The foyer is decked out in marble, there’s lots of detail here. The muted greens and pinks of the 48 marble columns again reflect the colours of the Australian landscape. But the whole thing looks dated.

    Perhaps the outdoor areas are more successful. The rooftop is a viewing platform providing a spectacular vista over Lake Burley Griffin (named after Walter Burley Griffin, the US architect responsible for Canberra’s design as a planned city) and the Australian Museum of Democracy in the Old Parliament House.

    Stretching out from the white front façade is the Great Verandah and forecourt, paying homage to Ancient worlds. The façade references the Old Parliament House but also the Acropolis and Ancient Greece, the birthplace of the idea of democracy. The forecourt consists of a large mosaic, 196 metre square, in a design by aboriginal artist Michael Nelson.

    Parliament House was designed by New York architects, Mitchell Giurgiola, in collaboration with Australian architect Robert Thorp. It was built on Capital Hill after one million cubic metres of rock and rubble was excavated from the site. Architect Romaldo Giurgola said Parliament House:

    '... could not be built on top of the hill as this would symbolise government imposed upon the people. The building should nest with the hill, symbolically rise out of the Australian landscape, as true democracy rises from the state of things'.

    An admirable ambition but it is undermined by the fact that next to the Old Parliament House, the Aboriginal community have set up their own alternative parliament in a makeshift shed, evidence perhaps that a true democracy has yet to be achieved.


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