y review of the New Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, as featured in the August 1988 issue of Progressive Architecture, left me excited, encouraged and anxious to tell you that there is great architecture being developed in the world and why this kind of effort is important to mankind. What do you say about a building touted as "one of the greatest government structures of the 20th century?" How do you represent it verbally and visually in a 600-word newspaper article. It cannot be adequately done, but I shall try.
In size and in scope the project defies imagination: $1.1 billion Australian, 3 million square feet, 4,500 rooms, 150-member design and production staff, 550 separate contracts and four years to build. The architects, Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp, were required to hire as much local talent as possible to allow for the primary expenditure to be put back into the Australian economy.The first obvious evidence of the master's touch is in the site plan. The sprawling complex rests gently upon Capital Hill and responds to Walter Burley Griffin's city plan by extending the existing master plan lines to the "circle of the site as if to establish an after-the-fact origin for Canberra's geometry."
The most striking aspect of the project is the organization of the plan and the execution of the details. Progressive Architecture said Giurgola and his associates "managed to embody all of the political and urbanistic intentions behind this grand project, including their ambiguities. Here is the symbol of statehood rising above the hill, but it is a non-monumental, transparent construction."
The forecourt, ceremonial pool, great veranda foyer, great hall, senate chamber, members' hall, house of representatives chamber, senators' offices, members' offices and ministerial wing are organized in a way that is immediately understood through simple geometry. Despite its complexity, one perceives by the plan a sense of understanding of the function. The members' hall is the very center of the building, where both the north-south and east-west axes meet under a huge skylight. A flag mast directly overhead can be seen from this dramatic perspective.
The most elegant and impressive portions of the building are the most understated. The care taken with stonework and woodwork detailing is remarkable. Craftsmanship and painstaking attention to design are common to all of the parts. Much of the materials, particularly the woods, are taken from Australia. They are the first significant use of these woods and represent the opening of new markets for Australian resources. These are woods we are not familiar with such as jarrah, coachwood and brush box. They are used profusely with uncommon patterns and combinations.
Jennifer Taylor, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Sydney, says of the building, "It had to speak for Australia. How does one build for democracy and national aspiration? The Parliament House is a highly literary work set out like a great book that can be read on many levels moving concentrically from its outside perimeter in toward the central flagpole or progressively along its major axes. The consistent messages have been inherent in the design since its inception. They permeate the building from its overriding geometry to the color of the carpet in the most minor of its more than 4,000 rooms.
"That such a building with a projected life span of 200 years was built and paid for at great expense with scarcely a dissenting murmur from the Australian people must say something about the country's faith in its future and that of democracy. The building was seen to offer the potential to establish new benchmarks for the construction industry and to raise the standard and finish in production of goods and furnishings to construction elements. The quality of materials and workmanship demanded by the design team has encouraged Australians to reach peaks of excellence, and the building is seen as an archive for artistic production in design and craft. These endeavors have affected not only economic return and export avenues but national self-esteem."
Therein is the message. Perhaps the outward expression of self-esteem and our faith in the future is in the quality of our built environment.
* Joseph Linton is an architect in Highland, Utah County. He welcomes other viewpoints.