Canberra's Shine Dome to celebrate 60th birthday

The martian embassy. The mushroom. The plum pudding. The flying saucer. The turtle. Becker House. But Canberrans may know it as the Shine Dome.

Built to be the Australian Academy of Science's home in the 1950s, the dome will mark 60 years on Monday since it was officially opened on May 6, 1959.

Volunteer guide and former business manager Phil Greenwood at the Australian Academy of Science Shine Dome, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary this weekend. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Volunteer guide and former business manager Phil Greenwood at the Australian Academy of Science Shine Dome, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary this weekend. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

To celebrate, the dome is hosting a booked-out tour on Sunday, led by its former business manager Phil Greenwood, a self-described "dome fanatic".

Mr Greenwood said the dome was considered "radical" in its day, and was unusual today because it was still used for its original purpose.

Decades ago, according to Mr Greenwood, the building committee had various designs laid out in a room.

"Apparently, this committee glanced at the dome and walked past it," he said.

"They went to the others and looked at them one by one. One was described as a 'mausoleum'."

But none of the other designs met the specifications, while principal architect Roy Grounds' dome design met the specs "exactly".

The dome itself is 710 tonnes of concrete covering a three-storey building underneath, sitting inside the Australian National University campus.

The dome is propped up on legs sitting inside a surrounding moat, which itself stops the legs pushing out.

Mr Greenwood said people expected the dome would collapse, and a crowd gathered on the day scaffolding was removed.

"It did drop - by one centimetre," he said.

Then was the strange problem of Canberra's air: the dome is covered in copper plates and the designers hoped they would go green like St Peter's Basilica.

But Canberra's pure country air was too fresh to corrode the copper.

"You wouldn't think that today," Mr Greenwood said.

Not that they didn't try to corrode the copper; a sprinkler was installed at the top to run water on its surface, to no avail.

"University students had to take the mickey out of that," Mr Greenwood said.

Even the building's interior was a bit too ahead of the curve: its lecture theatre was lined with randomly spaced eucalyptus panels.

"When people sat in the theatres, quite a few were getting motion sickness," Mr Greenwood said.

The fix was thought up by physiologist Dr Victor McFarlane, who later died of a heart attack in the dome.

Dr McFarlane's solution was to line some of the panels with grey paper and hessian string. But people could still look up in the lecture theatres to see the original effect.

While the building was designed to be low maintenance, it got a facelift in 2000 after a donation from the academy's now-president Professor John Shine, AC.

Professor Shine had managed to clone a human genome using a patented technique, which American biotech companies later used without permission.

The $1 million raised from the subsequent lawsuit was given entirely to what was then Becker House, now renamed the Shine Dome.

With Sunday's tour booked out, Mr Greenwood hoped its success would see the academy host more in the future.

The academy, which calls the dome home, is also getting ready to celebrate its 65th anniversary, after being founded in 1956.

"It's the pinnacle of Australian science, so we have to make sure we communicate clear facts, clear logic, without any political bias," Professor Shine said.