Architecture of the Australian Parliament House Building

What relationship links power and architecture? Put another way, how is it possible to effectively position democratic power in space? This is what Romaldo Giurgola wondered as he sat down to design the Australian Parliament House in Canberra, a grandiose construction that, symbolically and otherwise, is open to the public gaze, and clearly references the shape of two boomerangs when viewed from above.
Let’s delve into the architectural features that make the Australian Parliament House globally famous.

Before the Australian Parliament House

The Australian Parliament Building was inaugurated in 1988 by Queen Elizabeth II. In previous decades, the Australian Parliament had been housed in what is today known as the Old Parliament House, also in Canberra. The chambers operated on their original site for sixty-one years, before a series of shortcomings, most notably a lack of space, made it essential to design a new building.
The Parliament’s relatively short history mirrors the recent history of the Commonwealth of Australia, which was formed in 1901 from the union of six British colonies. At the time, it was anything but certain that Canberra would become the capital. However, given the rivalry between the country’s two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, the solution was to pick a third option. Canberra was proclaimed the capital city of Australia in 1909, but the First World War lengthened the time it took to move the chambers. Indeed, the Federal Parliament did not move from Melbourne until 1927.

The Australian Parliament Building Project

Work began on a new building to house the Australian Parliament in 1978, under the Fraser government, after Capital Hill was chosen as the preferred site for the new building. The two-stage competition for the best design, run by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and the National Capital Development Commission, attracted a total of 329 projects from 29 different countries.

The standout proposal was from Philadelphia, developed by the Mitchell/Giurgola architectural firm and penned by Romaldo Giurgola. Two ideas convinced the jury: concealing a great deal of the building below Capital Hill, thus lowering the hill, and placing a big spire on the top, from which an enormous Australian flag would fly. Giurgola’s references to motifs from the Old Parliament House also won appreciation: despite the obvious difference in scale, the buildings’ facades share a number of common features. One unique aspect of the design was Giurgola working closely with landscape architect Peter G. Rolland, who exceptionally was placed in charge of a team of civil engineers. Construction work began on the building in 1981. The original deadline of 1988, specifically 26 January, a national holiday and the 200th anniversary of the First Fleet’s landing in Sydney Harbour (Europeans first arrived in Australia on 26 January 1788), was not met. The inauguration of the Australian Parliament building had to be put back to 9 May, at a ceremony attended by Her Majesty the Queen.

The building is 18.5 metres tall without including the spire, which is topped by an 12.8 by 6.4 metre flag on a pole 81 metres above ground level. Overall, the Parliament Building in Canberra occupies thirty-two hectares.

How the Australian Parliament House is Structured

The Parliament Building in Canberra keenly reflects Aboriginal culture. A magnificent 196-square-metre mosaic created by artist Kumantye Jagamara stands in the forecourt outside the building’s main entrance, alongside the Grand Veranda, the Australian Parliament’s public-facing aspect. Paved in red granite quarried from New South Wales, enclosed within walls clad in white Carrara marble, the Grand Veranda offers an elegant backdrop for ceremonies held in the forecourt. Marble is a key material in the building’s foyer, which is dominated by forty-eight pink and green marble columns. These colours are repeated in the two chambers, using Italian cipollino and Portuguese pink marble. The stairway in the foyer is also made of marble, embellished with sculptures by Sydney Anne Ferguson; the black Belgian marble and granite flooring is enlivened by countless fossils.

The Hall and Members Hall

A venue for large, formal receptions, the Hall is dominated by the Great Hall Tapestry designed by Arthur Boyd, which took fourteen weavers two years of continuous work to make. The room is defined by its wooden walls made from a wide variety of woods, including white birch and jarrah. The floor is enriched with ebony inlays (a gift from Papua New Guinea). The Hall offers access to the Members Hall, the heart of the Australian Parliament House, located directly below the flag, precisely midway between the Senate and the House of Representatives. The standout features of this space are the round, wood-panelled columns, and a granite Reflective Pool, the waters of which generate sound that conceals all conversations.

Senate and House

The House of Representatives, Australia’s lower house, has 151 members. The hall is dominated by green, a colour historically associated with the House of Commons in the British Parliament, as well as with typical Australian eucalyptus. The Senate, Australia’s upper house, has 76 members. Here, red rather than green predominates, reminding us of the British House of Lords, and the red-ochre typical of the Australian landscape. In both rooms, the focal point is the speaker’s chair, made out of finely inlaid wood.