“Buried under a hill in Canberra, our politicians forget what it is they are supposed to do,” declares a recent editorial in a national paper. Although now widely popular to deride our politicians, does it really help to emphasise the low esteem in which they are held by housing them underground? Disparagement of our politicians may be an amusing pastime but, in all honesty, don’t we want a nation in which our politicians hold some community respect? Politicians who can be “looked up to” not “looked down on”. For how much longer can Canberra keep ignoring the “buried under a hill” type jibes?
On Annabel Crabb’s popular television program, Kitchen Cabinet, the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said he is not a fan of the design of the Parliament House building. Calling it an example of how a building’s architecture can work against its function he claimed that the building was “badly designed”, being too big with no “collision space” for colleagues of all political colours to bump into each other and debate important issues. “The object should be to bring people together to meet and hopefully compromise and agree and discuss…that’s what you’re trying to do, theoretically. I think the design of the building definitely contributes to the fact that there are less cross-party friendships than there were in the old parliament” he said.
Could the “less cross-party friendships” and fewer opportunities for inter-party socialising have lead to the present continual sniping between the major parties – sniping which drove Nick Xenophon mad?
Queen Elizabeth II opened Australia’s new Parliament House on May 9, 1988. The 30th anniversary of the opening of Parliament House is an opportunity to review how well the design has served our parliament, and our nation, and suggest a way forward.
The notion of politicians contributing to a common national purpose appears lost. Instead, a new type of political culture seems to have evolved: insular, self-entitled and inwardly-focused.
James Button, speech writer for Kevin Rudd, in his book Speechless, described the then Australian prime minister’s office as a bunker at the rear of the building “in which 50 people worked, sometimes two or three to a tiny office, with almost no natural light” and remote from other arms of government. Barry Jones, in his book A Thinking Reed, wrote: “New Parliament House…maximises the separation between the Executive and the backbench, between the Representatives and the Senators, between the individual Members and the centres of collective activity. The corridors, which (in Old Parliament House) used to be full of activity, are now deserted….the building is enormous”.
Paul Keating lamented walking the floors of the new Parliament House and “not feeling like you were part of anything”. Comcare reports for Parliament House that “parliamentary officials get work-related sicknesses and injuries at more than four times the average rate of similar sized departments.” (The Canberra Times, March 20, 2015, p7). An interesting comparison with the home of the Australian parliament could be seen in the 2015 television program Inside the Commons, screened here on ABC, in which British politicians and their parliamentary staff were seen to be enthusiastic, motivated and enjoying their work environment.
Let us step back to an earlier Canberra of the 1970s. Capital Hill was once one of the most beautiful hilltops in Canberra. Delightful views were to be found in all directions with extensive vistas towards the surrounding countryside and distant mountains. Walter Burley Griffin’s design for the national capital envisaged a people’s building here. A building for “popular assembly and festivity”. A building which would celebrate the achievements of the Australian people.
When the National Library, High Court and National Gallery were designed in the 1960s and early 1970s, the yet to be new Parliament House was to have been located on the lake edge, between the Library and the High Court. The architect for the National Library, Walter Bunning, a “rational modernist”, produced a conservative design for the library, a design approved by the then prime minister Robert Menzies, so as not to compete with the anticipated adjacent parliament house. A vast underground car park, landscaped over and known as the “National Place” was to have been built between the library and the gallery (in this far-sighted scheme, car parking spaces in the parliamentary triangle would have been abundant). The entry doors to the National Library, High Court and National Gallery (and later the National Portrait Gallery) are all at the same level, allowing for level entry to these institutions from the never realised “National Place”.
When the political aspiration for a “new and permanent parliament house” gained true momentum, sometime in the 1970s, the need to finalise a site for the new parliament building raised the interest of the federal politicians, a group not usually concerned with matters of architecture or urban design. But, since the new house was to be for them, they felt the nation could benefit from their input. As with all devotional buildings, the higher the setting the closer to God, and the beautiful site of Capital Hill was chosen in 1974 to be the location for their new home.
With the site selected, a comprehensive architectural brief was drawn up and an international design competition held. The appropriate design for a large building on top of a hill exercised the minds of many architects. Of the hundreds of schemes submitted, the winner (chosen with the support of the American architect and jury member, I. M. Pei, and ratified by the then prime minister, Malcolm Fraser) was one of the few, if not the only, scheme to go underground. We are all now familiar with the building which resulted.
A consequence of the subterranean design was that all natural vegetation, ancient surface geological features and the hill itself were completely removed. The building does not “touch the earth lightly”. Excavation to prepare the site moved more than one million cubic metres of soil and rock of which 170,000 cubic metres were permanently removed from the site. The resulting building focuses most of its attention inwards, to artificially manicured courtyards, instead of outwards to an Australia beyond parliament. Artificial landscape is no substitute for the natural beauty once there. It is rare for a nationally important building to create a work environment so inward looking, so emotionally isolated, and so self-centred. The decision to bury parliament in the hill meant the beautiful views once available from the elevated site were no longer available and that nothing, except the flag-mast, can be looked up to. To be “looked up to” is one of the Gestalt principles of positive perception whereas to be “looked down on” or “walked over” will never amount to greatness. As Winston Churchill observed, “We shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us”.
Malcolm Fraser, the prime minister who gave the government’s go-ahead to construction of the winning design, ceremoniously poured the first concrete to commence construction in 1981. Later, after nine years as the new home of parliament, he claimed that approving construction of the new Parliament House was his “one very serious mistake” (The Canberra Times, August 1, 1997, p6).
As an unplaced entrant in the 1979 architectural competition for the new Parliament House, I have followed the building’s evolution with interest. Study of the detailed brief, and imagining how best to resolve a design for this hill-top site, nurtured an ongoing appreciation of the issues involved. I am not saying that my design, nor the designs of the four finalists in the two stage architectural competition, are better than what resulted but it is worth considering how the work environment of the selected design may not be conducive to the best outcomes. After 30 years of use, now is an appropriate time to review the building’s performance.
Australia has a long and proud history of representative democracy. In return we should ask if the nation has provided our politicians, and their staff, with an uplifting and favourable work environment? Observations from those with firsthand experience of working in the building, as noted in the opening paragraphs, suggest otherwise. Such observations are heartfelt and on the public record. They cannot be ignored.
Perhaps now is the time to start thinking of a new parliament house, a parliament house that welcomes its occupants, is more uplifting and a delight to work in (yes, some buildings can achieve this) – a building conducive to collective, open and outward looking government. Perhaps this new parliament house could be located down by the lake, between the Library and the High Court with prospect, outlook and vistas to an Australia beyond parliament. Our new parliament house could be timed to celebrate the eventual and inevitable day when Australia does become a Republic.
In that future time, when the politicians move to their new home, the current parliament house could become, as Griffin intended for the Capital Hill site, a true house of the people. The building already abounds with fine examples of excellent Australian art and craftsmanship making it a fitting start for adding further exhibits in celebration of the achievements of all Australians. The previous provisional Parliament House, constructed in 1927, has been elegantly adapted to become the popular Museum of Australian Democracy. The current Parliament House could equally adapt to its new use as a house of the people. The public may even be able to enter the building through its magnificent front doors – doors currently reserved only for visiting foreign dignitaries. Furthermore, with the security imperative gone, the public would be able to once again ramble up over the grassed roof as used to happen in the building’s more care-free early days.
Penleigh Boyd is a registered architect who has lived and worked in Canberra since 1976.