25th Anniversary of Parliament House

I spoke in parliament yesterday on the 25th anniversary of Parliament House.
25th Anniversary of Parliament House, 27 June 2013

Burley Griffin's original plan for Capital Hill provided for a 'capitol' on the current location of Parliament House, with residences for the Governor-General on one side and the Prime Minister on the other. Parliament House was to be on a lower level, at the head of the government triangle on a site known as Camp Hill, in direct line with the axis running from the capitol to the summit of Mount Ainslie. The capitol building, atop the inner city's highest hill, Kurrajong—now Capital Hill—was to have been a ceremonial building, a pantheon that would commemorate the achievements of the Australian people. Instead of what Burley Griffin called 'the inevitable dome', the building would be capped by a stepped pinnacle or ziggurat. For Walter Burley Griffin, this form expressed 'the last word of all the longest lived civilisations'. However, it was not to be. In 1954, the Senate appointed a select committee to inquire into and report on the development of Canberra. The report recommended:

'… the permanent Parliament House should not be constructed on Camp Hill where Griffin intended, but on Capital Hill on the site allotted to the "Capitol" …'

It noted that Griffin himself had considered such an alternative. I have to confess that I am still quite partial to Burley Griffin's original design—to the notion that the highest place, the capitol, should be taken by a building that acknowledged the greatest of Australians.

An honourable member:  With a ziggurat.

Dr LEIGH:  With a ziggurat. But some eggs cannot be unscrambled, and here we are today. In April 1979, the NCDC announced an architectural competition for the design of what was then known as New Parliament House. The National Capital Development Commission consulted with the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, and the Parliament House Construction Authority issued a brief and competition documents. Key aspects of the brief included that Parliament House must be more than a functional building and should be a major national symbol in the spirit of Westminster or Washington's Capitol dome. It was important that the building reflect the significance of the national parliament, the executive government and the nation's political and social context. The extent to which the building asserted that significance was to be related to questions of its scale and monumentality. The building and the site treatment were to respond to qualities of the environment that were uniquely Australian—the Australian climate, landscape, vegetation and quality of light.

The philosophy and its popular success, the brief said, would depend in part on the extent to which public access and involvement was encouraged by the design. Parliament House was not to appear remote or inaccessible. Access to the site and to the building was to be facilitated, and within the building connotations of a people's parliament and open government were best to be established if people could penetrate the building and observe its operation. Parliament has succeeded to the extent that one can walk over the top of the parliamentarians—a great design feature, I believe—though its structure is somewhat different from, say, the US Capitol where voters can walk to the offices of their elected representatives, going to see them directly without the security screening we have here.

On 26 June 1980, New York-based architectural company Mitchell, Giurgola & Thorp was announced as the winner of stage 2 of the Parliament House design competition. Interestingly, Romaldo Giurgola had initially been asked by Sir John Overall, the then head of the National Capital Development Commission, to be an assessor for the design competition for the new Parliament House. Giurgola wrote back stating:

‘I am honoured by such an offer, but I would rather enter the competition.’

Aren't we lucky that he did? The winning architectural team, Romaldo Giurgola, Richard Thorp, Harold Guida, Rollin La France, Pamille Berg, Tim Halden-Brown, Peter Rolland, Peter Britz and Mervyn Dorrough, was responsible for the design, conception, siting and architecture as well as the interior design, furniture design, landscape and coordination of the art and craft program for Parliament House. Construction began in 1981 and the building was opened on 22 August 1988.

Romaldo Giurgola moved to Canberra to implement his design and lives here to this day. He brought a team of eight people from his New York office, and three others, as well as Romaldo Giurgola, stayed in Australia after the project's completion. It is a great contrast from the way in which the Sydney Opera House construction eventuated. It does make you think, if only Jorn Utzon had had Romaldo Giurgola's patience and his negotiating skills, how much more glorious the interiors of the Sydney Opera House would be today.

The assessors' report on the winning scheme noted its unpretentiousness and accessibility where, 'children will not only be able to climb on the building, but draw it easily too'. Speaking of children, I was pretty much a child when I first came here in 1988 to do work experience for the then member for Fraser, John Langmore. It was something of a coincidence to have done work experience for the member for Fraser given that at the time I was living in the electorate of the Father of the House, the member for Berowra. My father, who was a university academic, knew John Langmore and so it was with John that I spent two weeks in this building. I have never before, or since, gotten lost so many times inside a building. The key to this building, I believe, is to like the art. I did not like art in 1988, but I do today. A think art lovers have a far easier time navigating Parliament House than those who glide by ignoring the beautiful works on the walls.

To the successful architect, a matter of crucial importance was the relationship of the structure to individual Australians and whether people would feel comfortable approaching and entering the building. For the winning designers this was basic to their plan. As Romaldo Giurgola once said:

‘We felt if Australia’s new Parliament House was to speak honestly about its purpose, it could not be built on top of the hill as this would symbolise government imposed upon the people.’


‘The magic relationship between geometry and land configurations of that plan, after that, often became the object that country often became the object of my architectural dreams. The brief for the design of the parliament compiled by the NCDC was possibly the best I had ever encountered in my professional career.’

Another great tribute to the extraordinary public servants who helped build Canberra. Giurgola spoke of how he came to understand Australia by saying:

‘I plunged into Australian literature rather than into guides and travelogues. Patrick White, Miles Franklin, Henry Lawson and Les Murray became my real instructors, while the sonorous voice and accent of Richard Thorp, the Australian in our office, produced the right atmosphere.’

I think it speaks well of Australia that we are in a city designed by a Chicagoan and in a building designed by a New Yorker, because Australia at its best engages with the rest of the world, taking the best ideas not just from within our continent, but around the globe. So it is with this extraordinary building—Parliament House. I wish it a happy 25th birthday and hope it will stand for longer than the 200 years for which it was originally built.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.