On balance it sits well enough

Announcing the winner of the design competition for new Parliament House. Photo: Kate Callas
Announcing the winner of the design competition for new Parliament House. Photo: Kate Callas

TWENTY-FIVE years. That's more than half my life.

Yes, Parliament House is 25 years old. Or, should that be young?

Buildings are stages for humanity. The best public buildings are practical and aesthetic. They must simultaneously anticipate future needs, contextually incorporate the past and compliment their natural or urban surroundings.

As we blow out the candles for Parliament House, it's fair to ask if it achieves this. For the most part, I'd say yes. But not fully.


It was almost precisely 20 years ago that I came to Canberra for a ''reccie'' ahead of moving here permanently.

In a series of pre-reccie advance telephone conversations with a series of (perplexed) local real estate agents, I stipulated a list of conditions that any potential abode should meet: it should be in the centre of ''the city''; must be close to cafes, bars, band venues and bookshops; must have floorboards and an open fireplace and be within walking distance to my work at the ''New Parliament House''.

''I've got a place in Turner where the last tenant ripped up the carpets after a party. But we had to block up the chimney to keep the possums out. Fair walk though,'' one agent said.

''When you say 'the city' - how about Woden? There's a one-bedroom place above the beanbag shop. And there's a cafe in the mall. But it's shut at night. And there's a bar at the Southern Cross Club,'' another said.

''Young single bloke? Have I got the place for you in Kingston. There's a pub in the corner of Green Square, two cafes and even a late night bar - Graphix. The things that happen in that place … And by the way, you can't really walk to Parliament House and nobody calls it new, it's just Parliament.''

Kingston it was. (I went to Graphix twice. The first time a couple fell over the upstairs balcony. The second a mate broke his leg ''ottering'' - another story - down the stairs.) A friend collected me from the airport at the beginning of my reccie. We turned onto Commonwealth Avenue. As we drove across the bridge on that crisp, blue morning, I was captivated by the vista of the lake and Parliament House on the apex of the hill, surrounded by the belt of cobalt mountains.

I'm grappling now to rekindle the emotion I felt. I had come to this city as a person with a dim (and admittedly, jaundiced) view of major party federal politics and the impact of public life on the personal.

But the sight of the Mitchell/Giurgola building up there immediately did something to dissipate my cynicism. Here was a building that was majestic without being ostentatious, that strove to lend pride and permanence to the home of Australian democracy.

For months after moving here I experienced something like chilled goose bumps every time I drove into the car park under the hill.

It's easy, living in Canberra, to become inured to the monuments - and their symbolism - that form the backdrop to our every-day lives. But I still feel something special when I drive past Parliament, or see its great flagpole-cum-spire glinting across the plain (with its symbiotic nod to the Captain Cook Fountain) as I drive back down from the Clyde or across the Monaro.

Typically, my cynicism about what plays out in the building waxes and wanes according to fluctuations in the integrity of the national discourse, and depending on whether good policy or cheap politics is ascendant. Yes, it's been a roller-coaster lately.

But I do have an underlying, if subtle, sense of pride that I live in a city that hosts such an aesthetically ambitious building, built upon such noble aspiration.

One of the great falsehoods about Canberra is that it is the city of Walter and Marion Griffin. They devised - and she drew - a remarkable city of profound symbolism and artistry, for a proud capital to serve the new Federation.

Then the conservative planners got hold of their design, brutalised it and systematically undermined Griffin. If you want to know how, then go along to the National Library of Australia (a building that looms as symbolically large as Washington's Lincoln Memorial, centre stage, on the face of the capital) and see The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia's Capital, an exhibition curated by Christopher Vernon of the University of Western Australia. (Vernon was at pains recently to point out there is no official memorial to Walter and Marion in Canberra. Unbelievable, really.)

His exhibition, meanwhile, pulls no punches, telling you: ''The Griffins' Chicago-like urbanity would be insidiously transformed into a disparate collection of garden suburbs. Nonetheless, a version of the Griffins' design was gazetted - enshrined in Commonwealth law - in 1925. The plan, however, reproduced only the couple's street layout and omitted their design's land-use allocations and symbolic content.''

Chicago-like urbanity? Yes, please.

In his keynote address at a recent conference about the Griffins at the library, Alasdair McGregor, who won the National Biography Award with his superb biography, Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, rightly described what happened to his subjects in Australia as ''tragedy''.

By 1925 Griffin's peoples' house, the Capitol (which stood in Marion's drawings where Parliament is today, physically and symbolically above the politicians and even the head of state) was gone.

But it was with a keen eye on the original Griffin plan that Italian born Aldo Giurgola (who still lives in Canberra in his 90s) designed Parliament House so the people might stand above the pollies who, after all, are supposed to serve them. Security concerns since September 11 have changed all that.

Politics has seamlessly grown into Parliament House. But for all its beauty, the building stands too remote, physically and therefore symbolically, from the rest of the city, the people and, therefore, the nation.

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