Chapter 4 — The Court’s New Home

Chapter 4 – The Court’s New Home

From The High Court of Australia 1903-2003

by Crispin Hull

In the lead up to Federation, inter-colonial rivalry precluded any of the six colonial capitals from being made the capital of the new nation. The Constitution provided for a separate Federal Territory to contain the seat of government and until then Parliament would sit in Melbourne. An international competition for the design of the capital was won by Walter Burley Griffin, and the capital was named Canberra in 1913 by Lady Denman, wife of the Governor-General. Griffin’s 1911 plan was based on a central triangle which contained various national buildings including the “Courts of Justice” on the shore of the central basin of the lake (now named Lake Burley Griffin) to be created by the damming of the Molonglo River.

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The development of Canberra was hampered by two world wars and the Great Depression. A Provisional Parliament House was completed in 1927 and the Australian War Memorial in 1941, but no other significant national building was undertaken. Canberra’s development only got serious attention in the 1950s when Prime Minister Robert Menzies took an active personal interest. Under his instigation the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) was established and it started to flesh out Griffin’s plan.

The High Court first appeared on an official Canberra plan as a named building in 1959. In that plan it was on its current site as a long rectangle facing east-north-east over the lake. The permanent Parliament House was next to it on the lake shore, on the axis that bisected the triangle. On the other flank was the National Library whose primary aim in those days was to serve the Parliament. The High Court building was to be one of half a dozen buildings – including national archives and museums — around what NCDC Chief Architect Roger Johnson called “a great monumental plaza” or National Place. But in 1968 a free vote in Parliament rejected the lakeside site for Parliament and it was notionally moved up to Camp Hill – back towards Capital Hill. It meant, according to NCDC staff architect and later commissioner, Paul Reid, that Ministers in their offices would not have their view of the lake spoiled with buildings. They wanted more landscape and fewer buildings. So all but the High Court and the National Library (by then built) were removed from the plan. With an adjacent Parliament House gone as well, the High Court stood alone on the plans in a wide space. Even when the National Gallery of Australia was moved down the hill to be adjacent to the High Court, the court seemed – because of its isolation — to be too monumental, too grand and out of proportion. Reid wrote in Canberra Following Griffin (National Archives of Australia, 2002):

“With the failure to complete the National Place, the High Court and the National Gallery are left as two mighty remnants, isolated in time and space from everything around them. The problem is one of scale. Very large buildings in Canberra’s central area have been a response to the huge horizontal distances but they are defeated by them.”

However, once New Parliament House – with the site moved to Capital Hill – was completed in 1988 and other buildings, such as the National Science and Technology Centre, were completed, the High Court building could be seen in context and proportion, and those criticisms have faded.

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Garfield Barwick, who was appointed Attorney-General by Menzies after the 1958 election, was a leading advocate of a building for the High Court in Canberra. But the Chief Justice, Sir Owen Dixon, was against a move to Canberra. After Barwick’s appointment to succeed Dixon as Chief Justice in 1964 he continued his advocacy of the cause. Barwick thought that the court should be in the capital, close to, but separate from, the Parliament. He thought also that the court’s accommodation was unsatisfactory when it travelled. He told the National Press Club in 1976, “We never manage to get a room for every judge. They share chambers, sometimes three to a room, and in one State in particular their staff are out in the corridors, and that’s been going on for a long time and why our forefathers, or my predecessors, tolerated it I don’t know.”

The decision to transfer the principal seat of the High Court to Canberra was announced by Barwick’s successor as Attorney-General, Nigel Bowen, in March 1968. In May 1970, the Minister for the Interior, Peter Nixon, announced “the siting of the High Court and the National Art Gallery in the north-eastern section of the parliamentary triangle”. And on 15 May 1972, the NCDC announced “a two-stage competition for the design of the High Court building to be located in Canberra”.

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As with the competition for what is now the National Gallery of Australia, no politicians were on the assessment panel. The panel comprised Chief Justice Barwick; the commissioner of the NCDC, Sir John Overall; the chairman of the Australian Universities Commission, Peter Karmel; New South Wales Government Architect E H Farmer; and Melbourne architect Daryl Jackson. Jackson had been commissioned two years earlier to study the site and the accommodation requirements of the court. Entrants had to be registered as architects in Australia. The 158 entries in the initial stage were reduced to six which would enter the second stage. Those six would “be required to submit evidence of their capacity to perform at a high professional standard in the matter of design, documentation and the construction of the High Court building.”

The terms of the competition stated:

“In its siting and in its form the High Court building should impart a sense of strength and security. . . The High Court building should, in one sense, be visually related to the Parliament, but at the same time must be seen to stand separate from, and independent of, the Parliament. . . . The locating of both the High Court and the Parliament in proximity to one another in the Federal Capital has strong symbolic significance. Together they represent the basis of government and justice at the national level.”

At that time the Permanent Parliament House was planned for Camp Hill, nearer to the High Court than its ultimate location. It was not until 1974 that the Parliament voted for Capital Hill as the site.

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The competition for the High Court was won by the firm Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Briggs and the architect of the firm in charge of the project was Chris Kringas. Kringas died in 1975 just before construction began. The firm had won the competition for the National Gallery of Australia in August 1968 and shortly afterwards the site for the Gallery was moved from the land axis behind Camp Hill to the lake shore next to the High Court. Colin Madigan was the principal architect for the Gallery project and after Kringas’s death he took control of the design team for the High Court. With Madigan leading both projects, compatibility was assured.

[Since publication in paper form, it has been drawn to my attention that the above paragraph is incorrect.  The High Court of Australia was designed by architect Chris Kringas.  Kringas was director in charge and led the design team, which included Feiko Bouman and Rod Lawrence.  The team completed the design in 1973 working from a terrace house in McMahon’s Point, Sydney.  Construction documentation was substantially complete at the time of Kringas’s death in March 1975, just one month before construction began.  Architect Hans Marelli then supervised construction of the design.  The constructed building is relevantly identical to the winning competition design. While there are similarities in material and style between Madigan’s National Gallery and Kringas’s High Court, there are significant differences in architectural form and space.]

Reid described the buildings as “abstract, romantic, brutalist, off-form concrete compositions with an underlying geometric figure: the High Court a square, the Gallery an equilateral triangle”. They were both of “uncompromising modernity”. In his Walter Burley Griffin lecture in 1983, Madigan described the two buildings as embodying “the halcyon, optimistic spirit of the early 1970s”.

The winning design was very different from the High Court depicted in earlier maps and artists’ impressions of the central national court which had it as a low building of one or two levels because, according to those planners, that was all that was needed.

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The new building – constructed by PDC Constructions (ACT) Pty Ltd — is 40 metres high and has approximately 18,515 square metres of internal floor area. The building itself covers 0.32 hectares (0.8 acres) and is surrounded by nearly 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of quarry tiles. It has a vast public hall 24 metres high extending in height through eight of the building’s 10 levels. With use of ramps and stairs the public hall gives easy access to the three courtrooms, the registry and the cafeteria. Two sides of the hall are enormous trussed glass walls giving an interaction with the exterior.

The building has 4000 square metres of glazed area and 30,000 cubic metres of concrete were used in construction. Most of the external and internal walls have been textured with a process known as “bush hammering”. It exposes and highlights the warm off-white hue of the granite aggregate. The internal concrete walls are softened and contrasted by the use of warm timbers as wall linings in parts of the courtrooms and public hall. Timber was used in the courtrooms because, aside from its aesthetic qualities, it is a sound absorbing material and helps courtroom acoustics. Seven Australian timbers were used in the building: coachwood, blackwood, blackbean, jarrah, Tasmanian myrtle, red tulip oak and red cedar.

The ceremonial forecourt and main public entrance are approached by a long, paved ramp. A gradually gradiented waterfall, designed by Robert Woodward and constructed of South Australian speckled granite, runs the full length of the western side of the ramp. The ceremonial forecourt has views back to Parliament House. This is Level 2. A side entrance on Level 1 is used by staff and the legal profession. The justices have a private entrance from the secure underground carpark. Level 2 contains the entrance to one of the public galleries to Courtroom No 1, the main courtroom in which all the constitutional cases and cases involving all seven justices are heard. A ramp north from Level 2 to Level 3 leads to Courtroom No 3, a working court for applications to a single justice. Courtroom No 3 has a jurybox with jury room and a witness stand. However, the court rarely hears oral evidence and a trial involving a jury is now only a remote possibility. Level 3 also contains the court’s registry, where appellants and applicants lodge documents, and a double-height cafeteria on this level has views over the lake. The ramp from Level 3 to Level 4 goes in the opposite direction, to Courtroom No 2, the High Court’s main working court in which cases with five or fewer justices are heard. These include applications for special leave; hearings on appeal from the State courts involving criminal and civil law; and appeals from the Federal Court and Family Court. Level 4 also contains the public entrance to the upper gallery of Courtroom No 1. From Level 4 the visitor can then return by open stairs or back down the ramps.

The public circulation through ramps and stairs around the lower levels provides varied views and perspectives of the great space of the public hall. The ramps and stairs also work as a demarcation between the public areas and the private areas above served by secure lifts and stairs. The justices’ chambers and skylit library are on the top level with access to a rooftop garden. Secure lifts ensure that the justices can enter and leave the courtrooms in private.

The public hall is often used as a venue for cultural exhibitions and musical concerts. The tiles on the floor are cut from Aurisina, an Italian marble, one of the very few imported materials in the building. Photographic portraits of all Chief Justices and Justices of the High Court are displayed on the walls of the public hall, and a display case shows items concerning the history and operation of the court.

<A Head>The courtrooms in detail

Courtroom No 1 is used for cases requiring all seven justices to sit, and for ceremonial occasions. It has two levels of public gallery. The courtroom is 17.5 metres high. Where walls are not left as bush-hammered concrete, they are panelled with red tulip oak from Queensland and New South Wales, as is the furniture in the gallery. The long curved bench and bar table are made of jarrah from Western Australia. The ceiling panels are of blackwood. A woven tapestry, incorporating the badges of each State from the Shield of Arms of the Commonwealth surmounted by the Crest of the Commonwealth, hangs on the wall next to the bar table. The tapestry — 4.3 metres by 2.5 metres wide – was designed by Ron Brooks and woven in the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in South Melbourne.

Aside from the courtroom’s excellent natural acoustics, it has full video monitoring for the High Court’s Reporting Service, which delivers transcripts for the public via the internet and to practitioners and litigants. The doors of Courtroom No 1 – designed by Les Kossatz and George Baldessin — feature a silvered bronze grid partly recessed and fixed into the laminated plate glass. The theme of the design is a shield, emphasising the Court’s function as a protector of the Constitution and the liberties of the citizen.

Courtroom No 2 has similar wall panelling and fittings to Courtroom No 1, although the ceiling is of painted moulded plywood. In Courtroom No 2 the Commonwealth coat of arms, above the bench, is a cedar carving designed by Derek Wrigley. Courtroom No 2 is used for hearing applications for special leave to appeal and is fitted with video links to other cities in Australia.

Courtroom No 3 is furnished with coachwood timber with a ceiling mainly of glass which provides a high level of natural lighting. The Commonwealth coat of arms – again by Derek Wrigley – is made of copper rod material.

Timber was used in the courtrooms because, aside from its aesthetic qualities, it is a sound-absorbing material and helps courtroom acoustics. Seven Australian timbers were used in the building: coachwood, blackwood, blackbean, jarrah, Tasmanian myrtle, red tulip oak and red cedar.

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The artworks in the building are mainly abstract designs of symbolic significance. The body that supervised the project for the Commonwealth, the National Capital Development Commission, described the works in a statement on the day of the ceremonial opening:

“In the public hall, artist Jan Senbergs’ aluminium wall panels provide images related to the history, functions and aspirations of the High Court. The six panels on the Constitution Wall, facing the main entrance, have images such as a lighthouse which conveys the search for knowledge and which has a double shaft representing two sides of a case. . . . Historical figures represent the founders of the Constitution. Aboriginal culture is symbolised by the rising of the seas which occurred 18,000 years ago and slowly cut off the continent of Australia. . . . A railway line and a ship represent the divisions which existed before Federation. . . . . The adjoining States Wall carries panels symbolising the six States.”

Victorian artist Les Kossatz designed the two coats of arms for the exterior. The British coat of arms faces north on the lake side and the Australian coat of arms faces south towards Parliament. Each is in three dimensions and made of sand-blasted glass and acrylic.

The High Court’s 20th century modernist style, according to its designers, strives for openness and dignity without being intimidating.

Melbourne architect Philip Goad has high praise for the building. “The High Court remains one of the most robust and exhilarating pieces of 1970s architecture in Australia,” he wrote in The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia:

“For a court building, the High Court has become a benchmark in Australia for vital architectural expression that deliberately seeks to make the law visible, relevant and accessible to the public. At the same time, it evokes an entirely fitting sense of monumentality, respectful of the image and also the scale of the law.”

Architects who approve of the design of the High Court point to the glass as a symbol of transparency, openness and accountability. It lets those inside see out as well as those outside see in. The ramp and forecourt are seen as workable public spaces.

The Architect’s Statement (published in the July 1980 edition of Architecture Australia, the journal of the Royal Australia Institute of Architects) says:

“The public hall is conceived as a semi-external space. . . . The external views from the various galleries, platforms and ramps in the space where spectators will gather allow the exceptional views of Canberra to be enjoyed. The extensive areas of glass on the west of the public hall have shade louvres giving protection from the sun whilst maintaining the ‘outlook’ referred to above and providing desirable shade and comfort . . . . This ‘tree-shading’ concept intensifies the semi-external concept of the Public Hall where the radiance of form and light on the louvres reflects the mood of the day. . . .”

Madigan himself wrote in 1973, “One can enter the building and see its structure, services and functions exposed. It immediately ‘includes’ the visitor in the way it works.”

Aside from the symbolism and aesthetics, a court building has to be functional. Sir Garfield Barwick, who was the Chief Justice from the time the transfer to Canberra was approved to the ceremonial opening by Queen Elizabeth II on 26 May 1980, and who was on the competition judging panel, was ever vigilant about ensuring the building would function for the court.

He told the National Press Club in 1976:

“You have to watch an architect like a cat watching a mouse, when it comes to any specialist building. I mean, even in a house you never know, he’ll hang the door the wrong way or put the handle in the wrong place but in the case of a court they had no idea of what a court needed, what its function was.”

He said the Supreme Court in Washington was beautiful on the outside, “but inside it is non-functional, no good at all for the uses of the court”.

But just before its completion Barwick was happy with the aesthetics, the outside, and the inside functionality. He was reported as saying, “It’s just the opposite of the Opera House. The Opera House was built from the outside in and this has been built from the inside out. . . . It’s something new for Canberra – to have this sense of space in a building. It’s not a classical building. It’s an Australian building – filled with space and light.”

However, the internal functionality of the building had its critics. After the opening, Justice Murphy told the National Press Club on 22 May 1980:

“I tell you this though, in that building which may be magnificent in the public parts of it inside – and it depends on your viewpoint what you think of the outside of it – but if you get up into where, the real work is to be done and that’s in the area of the judges, particularly that of their staff, you’ll be astonished at how cramped the quarters of the staff are in that building which has an abundance of space in it.”

During construction, costs rose substantially, drawing media criticism of the project and Barwick. The initial cost of the High Court building in April 1975 was $18.4 million, according to a press statement by the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. At completion, according to an answer to a parliamentary question by Minister for the Capital Territory R J Ellicott, it was $49.1 million. Ellicott said significant design changes regarding security, partitioning, acoustic treatment and special doors had added $3 million. The rest had been due to inflation of building material and labour. Barwick undertook the task of supervision himself. He was on the construction site frequently.

The opening of the building was boycotted by Australian Democrat Senators because of the cost. A statement by Democrats Leader Senator Don Chipp said, “We feel obliged to register our protest at the extraordinary escalation of the cost of this building. . . . This is an obscene waste of public money at a time of supposed austerity.’’

A few weeks after the official opening of the High Court, the June 1980 edition of Law News, the official journal of the Law Council of Australia which represents every law society and bar association in Australia, condemned the move to Canberra. Under the heading “Cut off in Canberra”, the article signed by “A Practitioner” said:

“To a very large extent Canberra is a city of politics, bureaucracy and diplomacy; a city which governs rather than a city which is governed. The High Court judges who live in Canberra are inevitably going to live in and be exposed to the influences of this political-bureaucratic-diplomatic thinking. Inevitably they will be big figures on the diplomatic cocktail party circuit. Unconscious reactions and attitudes cannot but be influenced by the milieu in which one lives and moves. For our High Court judges, deciding cases for all Australia, it is to be a milieu other than that in which most Australians live.”

Barwick envisaged that all the justices would live in Canberra, according to David Marr who interviewed Barwick on several occasions for his biography Barwick. He envisaged all cases being heard in Canberra and that the justices would give up staff, transport and chambers in their home States. But there was overwhelming opposition from the other justices. Even Barwick’s hope for an official residence for the Chief Justice in or outside Canberra came to naught.

So the criticism of a remote court, too-much influenced by the Canberra milieu proved unfounded. Only one justice has chosen to live permanently in Canberra. Those who do not reside in Canberra have chambers in their respective State capitals. The court still goes on circuit. And the bulk of cases are argued by barristers from the New South Wales and Victorian Bars.

The two key speeches at the opening itself have proven to be more accurate.

During the opening ceremony the Queen said:

“In times of social change and tensions in the world, great are the demands upon the courts and the challenges to them in reconciling competing interests and in accommodating traditional rules to new circumstances. The High Court of Australia has earned great respect, both within Australia and beyond, and it is recognised as a court of the highest eminence amongst the courts of nations. . . . The building symbolises its unique and independent nature.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said at the opening:

“Now, for the first time, the three great institutions of the Commonwealth, wherein reside its legislative, executive and judicial powers, are brought together with a visible presence in our national capital. . . .

The driving force behind the concept has been the present Chief Justice of Australia. This building bears testimony to Sir Garfield’s vision, energy and imagination and will stand as a memorial to the high standards of Australian designers and builders, craftsmen and artists. It is a building which will attract a growing national pride as the years pass. All, too often, in the design of modern buildings, we are left with a functional result with little else to commend it. On this occasion, the pursuit of function and excellence has been rigorous and successful.”

The justices themselves marked the change in their venue with a change in their court attire. When the court heard its first case in the new court, the justices wore jabots for the first time. The jabots were designed and made by Lady Aickin, the wife of Justice Sir Keith Aickin, using an ordinary domestic sewing machine. The jabots were made from white poplin with a narrow edging of broderie anglaise and could go over an ordinary collar and tie, unlike the stiff collar they replaced, which required a change of clothing every time a justice went into court. Later, the justices did away with wigs and the jabots and opted for a simple gown.

Since the court’s opening, it has had many occasions on which to meet the test of openness and accessibility to the public. The court has heard and given judgment on cases which have excited wide public and media interest. Some have been of major national and constitutional import. Others have been of less legal import, but nonetheless have generated enough public or sectional interest to draw large numbers of the public and the media to the court building at the time of hearing or judgment. Such cases include the Tasmanian Dam Case in July 1983; the Lindy Chamberlain hearings and judgment in May 1983 (bail application), November 1983 (hearing) and May 1984 (judgment); the indigenous people’s land rights cases Mabo in June 1992 and Wik in 1996; the Patrick Stevedores case — a dispute over labour contracts — in 1998 and the Osland (battered wife) murder case also in 1998; and the McBain case in 2002 regarding in-vitro fertilisation treatment for unmarried women. In these cases, and others, the forecourt of the High Court building became a workable forum for litigants and their supporters to express their views publicly – often before large media contingents. Inside the building the spacious courtrooms enabled large numbers of the interested public to view and hear proceedings.

In the 23 years since the High Court building was opened the landscaping by Harry Howard and Associates has matured, making the building less starkly monumental and giving it a more Australian context, as the landscapers used exclusively Australian native plants. That maturity, softening and context has perhaps influenced the way people now see the building. The harsh criticism when the building was new has now been all but forgotten, and the building takes its place as one of the finest in the national capital.

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