Twenty-five years ago today Her Majesty the Queen officially opened Its Majesty, the new and permanent Parliament House of the Commonwealth of Australia. The new building took up 200,000 square metres and was much-reported (sometimes in pride, sometimes in horror) to be, at more than $1 billion, the most expensive building our species had ever made.
And yet, just as Her Majesty's majesty is not flaunted (she has looked her most majestic in her coronation robes and crown and in ensembles worn for very occasional state occasions, but for the most part dresses unostentatiously), the majesty of the building she opened was, from the outside, not swaggering and bragging. It was modest and discreet.
This was because of the choice of the design (after an international design competition attracting 329 entries from 28 countries) by the New York-based architectural firm of Mitchell/Giurgola.
They, and especially Italian principal architect Romaldo Giurgola (93 now and an enthusiastic Canberran, living in Kingston) imagined not a castle-like, palace-like, cathedral-like building strutting its stuff from atop the designated hill but a building nestled into that hill.
This reporter remembers attending the official announcement of the winning design. It was made in the Academy of Science Building (now the Shine Dome) where a place had been prepared at a table for the display of a model of the design.
From memory, models of other, unsuccessful but worthy runners-up designs were there too, and were tall, imposing, wedding cakey and stately.
Then the winning design, low and shaped like a hillock, was borne in, underwhelming lots of us. I was a smart-arse then (thank goodness I'm past that stage) and think (loathing myself now) I may have written that its delivery into our presence reminded one of the delivery of a pizza to a suburban family.
Ashamed, I kept this sin of my youth to myself when interviewing Romaldo Giurgola this week in his apartment in a tower that affords him the perfect view of his city. Giurgola is petite and courteous and is still, after all these years here (although he'd never been to Canberra when, a Roman living in New York, he designed this building for a Canberra setting) blessed with an utterly Italian, soft voice.
''I started to work on it in New York. From the beginning we said to ourselves, 'This is a special building. Apart from its character it has to have and has to express a continuity. And physically it has to last for 200 years.' That was written in the brief. It was interesting that they [those commissioning the designs] did that. It was to be a focus for the people, to give a physical image of democracy.''
Blushing to think of my ''pizza'' critique at the time, I moved on to how and why he'd gone for such an unobtrusive exterior design.
''Well it was because I'd been working for years in the symbiosis between architecture and landscape, and especially topography, the land as it is, the trees, the vegetation. I am very interested in the connection between our [humans'] nature and that nature and that's why [because Canberra is a city set in bushland] I love Canberra.''
He was already familiar with and ''enamoured'' with the Griffins' idealistic and artistically lovely designs for a city. He'd seen how those designs arranged the city in natural surroundings rather than trying to conquer the place with a metropolis. And so the idea of a parliament building that was just ''a monument'' and that dominated the place was anathema to him.
He began to love Canberra from afar, never having been to it, from New York. While I was with him this week he showed a design he'd drawn while in New York. He'd imagined himself somewhere at the lake edge at the foot of Anzac Parade. In the drawing we look across the lake, as we can today, to Old Parliament House and then immediately behind it, up on the hill, to the modest-faced new Parliament of Giurgola's imagination.
That what he imagined from New York has come exactly to pass still strikes him as amazing and poignant. He had imagined a parliament building that looked from a distance like a continuation of an existing hill in the landscape. Today the top of the building (of course not counting the flagpole, another Giurgola masterpiece) is the height of the hill that was there before work began.
He says that when he first saw Canberra he loved it at once. Then when the architect/judges came and saw the site ''every architect became emotional'' about Canberra.
''Because it is a unique example in the world where nature is still flourishing and is part of the life. Canberra is a unique example in the world. Of course you have examples of cities in the world with trees, but not done consciously the way it was done here … All this is something so precious I will fight for it until my last day.''
There have been continuous criticisms of some aspects of the new building. I put two of them to him: the alleged fortress-like qualities of the building with pesky demonstrators held at such a distance from it, and the perceived opulence and extravagance of the parliamentarians' workplace.
If Italians played cricket one would
say the architect played a straight bat to these deliveries.
''I don't see the fortress. I was trying to do as much as possible not to have the image of a fortress.''
He insists that the forecourt (where demonstrators are never allowed) is a ''very encouraging'' space with the front walls of the building being ''sloping'' rather than massive and formidable. He points out, too, that the building has thousands of visitors who gambol into the place and go up and into it via its fabulous marble staircases, never, to his delight, even asking where the elevators are because the staircases are so inviting.
For those of us who worked in the little old parliament and the big new one, I put to him, the new Parliament feels super-palatial and too good for its elected tenants. One remembers a famous John Spooner cartoon in which the new, fabulous Parliament is a giant 200,000-square-metre sow sprawled across the hilltop with umpteen piglet/politicians guzzling at the rich milk of its bountiful nipples.
Giurgola points out that the contrast between the old parliament and the new shouldn't surprise because the nation was transformed (for example more than doubling in population) in the years between when the old and new parliaments opened. Then, he says some of the great spaciousness of the new building is due to the requirement that it last for 200 years and have room for people and functions not yet dreamed of.