From Canberra — Australia’s National Capital by Crispin Hull
Ch 5 — Architectural heritage
Amid the greenery and on the avenues marked on the plan, are the buildings of Canberra. A planned city backed by large amounts of government money is bound to attract significant public architecture. Perhaps less well known is the fact that the architects attracted to Canberra by the opportunity of doing significant national pubic works were often engaged by local citizens who admired the public work or who indeed worked for the commissioning authorities to do private domestic architecture. As a result of of this relationship, Canberra has fine examples of the best modernist domestic architecture in the country. In addition, municipal authorities benefited from the presence of architects of national calibre. But first to the national scene.
The first significant building in Canberra was Old Parliament House. Two false starts were made in 1914 and 1916 to have a competition to design Parliament House. The war prevented a competition. Eventually politics was decisive. By the early 1920s, NSW MPs were getting unsettled at the length of time Parliament was sitting in Melbourne. In 1923 NSW ALP Member William Mahoney successfully moved in the House of Representatives that the first meeting of the 10th Parliament be in the new capital. That set a deadline of early 1926. It was decided to build a “”provisional” House — neither temporary nor permanent. Given the haste, there was no time for a competition and the Government architect, John Smith Murdoch, was given the task of its design by default. Murdoch, a Scot, was recorded during the war as saying he had no enthusiasm for the Canberra project. He was a pragmatic man. For example, he positioned the city’s powerhouse next to the lake, causing an industrial site to occupy Canberra’s potentially finest site — the waterside looking north — for 80 years. Only now is Griffin’s plan for it to be a prime residential area becoming a reality. But Murdoch’s pragmatism, frugality and lack of imagination resulted in Parliament House having a simplicity and strength that made it elegant and appealing. The rectangular strength of the building is seen in other Murdoch buildings, particular the Hotel Canberra, now the Hyatt. Once it had been painted stark white, Parliament House became the signature building of Canberra for six decades — often called the wedding cake. It is now the National Portrait Gallery and political museum.
The Australian War Memorial was conceived by the official war historian, journalist Charles Bean, who had seen and written about the horrors of Gallipoli and the Western Front. The site was approved by Cabinet early in 1924 and a design competition launched. Cost, however, was made critical. Any design that would be likely to exceed the 250,000 pound limit would be excluded. Only one met that criterion — that of John Crust, but his design, according to the judges, had other defects. He was therefore commissioned to collaborate with another architect, Emil Sodersten who used a Byzantine style, described in Federal Capital Commission papers as “”exceptionally restrained and expressive of the purposes of the building”. It had an upper-level open-air cloistered nave leading to a domed Hall of Memory – a design of power and simplicity. The design was approved in 1928, but the Depression made building slow work. The memorial was completed in 1941, by which time Australia was involved in another war. And it stood with Parliament House as two lonely monoliths in the empty spaces of unfulfilled Canberra until the Menzies impetus set Canberra on a construction boom.
The Australian Academy of Science building – opened in 1959 – was designed by Roy Grounds and became an icon of Canberra with its distinctive modernist copper-plated dome roof which stretched across a moat to the ground with arches and bridges allowing entry to the building.
The National Library opened in 1968. It was designed by Sydney architect Walter Bunning. As the first major building in the Parliamentary Triangle, other than Parliament, it had to at once be commanding and significant, but not so as to compete with Parliament — either the existing building or the new one that was planned (at that stage) to be nearby on the lake shore. The library’s neo-classical design is reminiscent of the Parthenon. Its derivative character drew the detestation of the architectural cognoscenti, but won popular acclaim as a big monumental building befitting the capital. Over time, with the filling of nearby spaces with other significant buildings and trees, the library no longer dominates the Triangle, but it remains more distinctive, if not more distinguished, than three later major buildings of unadorned concrete and glass — the School of Music by Daryl Jackson and the High Court and National Gallery of Australia by Colin Madigan. The court and the gallery, on the lake shore, are joined by a walkway. At the time of opening (in 1980 and 1982, respectively) the raw concrete was thought too brutal and the 24-metre-high atrium in the High Court was thought too grand. Now, the growth of eucalypts has softened the former and the grandeur of new Parliament House has given the latter a more reasonable perspective. At the same time, in th early 1980s, the Cameron Offices, designed by John Andrews, saw the free-form and unadorned concrete style applied to the workplace. The offices — which feature open-plan workplaces taking advantage of natural light — have won architectural acclaim, but popular dislike.
The architectural jewel in Canberra is Parliament House. An international competition was held for the design of the building in 1979-80, attracting 329 entries. On 19 June 1980 it was announced that the New York firm of Mitchell, Giurgola and Thorp had won the competition from four other finalists. The then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said later that if it had not been for that entry he would not have gone ahead with a new Parliament building. Like the competition for the design of the city itself, the competition for its most significant building had one entry head and shoulders above the rest.
The design drew almost immediate public praise. The building embodies some quintessentially Australia characteristics; pragmatic, part of the land, democratic, understated, not grandiose or triumphalist. It is dug into the top of a hill at the apex of the triangle. Daily, visitors to Canberra — the people of Australia who have come to see how their democracy works — can walk on the lawn over the top of Parliament House, over where their representatives work. Moreover, the design respected the essence of Griffin’s plan — the overlaying of built form on nature and nature on built form. At first there was some disquiet about the 80-metre pyramidal flagmast on top of the building. Now, however, it has become one of Canberra’s most significant landmarks and symbols. The building took nearly a decade to construct. Its cost of $1.1 billion drew many critics during construction, most of whom were silenced by the time the building was opened on 9 May 1988, in the bicentenary of European settlement in Australia. The building has been nominated by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) to the International Union of Architects’ (UIA) World Register of Significant Twentieth Century Australian Architecture.
The building contains some significant artworks, notably the Arthur Boyd tapestry in the Great Hall and the mosaic in the forecourt designed by Walpiri artist Michael Tjakamarra using 100,000 individual pieces of granite.
Also opening in 1988 was the National Science and Technology Centre. The cylindrical-shaped building hints at an astronomical observatory without the dome. Inside, the shape is ideal for housing a spiral of interactive displays.
Canberra is homes to more than 70 diplomatic missions. Many have used their own national architectural styles, adding interest, style and charm to capital. Most of the missions are in the diplomatic area to the west of State Circle in Yarralumla other are in O’Malley. Among the most distinctive for displaying their national style are (in alphabetical order); China, Finland, India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand and the United States. Some missions have public displays about their country. The Papua New Guinea mission — in traditional long house style — is perhaps the most distinctive.
Perhaps less well-know, however, are some of the finest examples of domestic architecture in Australia. As the growing capital attracted the best architects from Sydney and Melbourne to engage in public works, local citizens associated with those works engaged the architects for their own dwellings in the booming city.
Roy Grounds, for example, who designed the Australian Academy of Science building, developed relationships with prominent academics such as Sir Otto Frankel, and later designed Frankel’s house in Campbell. The architectural firm Grounds, Romberg and Boyd established an office in Canberra, in one of the Grounds-designed Forrest Townhouses at 3 Tasmania Circle, Forrest (1959). He also designed 42, 44 and 46 Vasey Crescent, Campbell (1960); 24 Cobby Street, Campbell (1963-64) and 4 Cobby Street, Campbell (1969-70); and the Botany Building at the Australian National University.
Robin Boyd (1919-1971) is perhaps Australia’s most noted domestic architect. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s he was a leading proponent of the modern movement. Boyd was introduced to noted Australian science Professor Frank Fenner by Professor Brian Lewis, who was designing University House at the Australian National University. Boyd designed Fenner’s house at 8 Monaro Crescent, Red Hill (1952). He also designed a house for historian Manning Clark at 11 Tasmania Circle, Forrest (1952-53). The Clark house is typical of the post-war Melbourne regional style and Boyd’s Peninsula House Design, with its low pitched gable roof, widely projecting eaves and large areas of timber framed glazing. Clark House is open to the public with displays and events celebrating the lives and work of Manning and Dymphna Clark. The public can view the study where Clark wrote much of his celebrated History of Australia. Other Boyd works in Canberra are: 4 Bedford Street, Deakin (1954); 204 Monaro Crescent, Red Hill (1963); 12 Marawa Place, Aranda (1968-69); the Zoology Building, Australian National University (1963-68); and the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Headquarters, Braddon.
Noted architect Sydney architect Harry Seidler’s first commission outside Sydney was the Bowden House in Canberra and he has also designed a number of significant townhouse developments.
And new Parliament House architects Mitchell, Giurgola and Thorp also designed the new Parliament for the Australian Capital Territory in Civic Square — at less than a hundredth of the cost of the national Parliament.
From Canberra — Australia’s National Capital by Crispin Hull