Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Fortress Parliament. We are no longer above it

The designer of Parliament House faced an almost impossible problem.

Aldo Giurgola knew that the designers of Canberra, Walter and Marion Griffin, had specified that what we now call Capital Hill was to be set aside for public or ceremonial activities, "or for housing archives and commemorating Australian achievements," rather than for the Parliament.

It was to look down on the Parliament, which would be below it, making the important symbolic point that the people are above it.

But in 1974 the Parliament voted to nab the site for itself, and set up a competition to decide who would design it.

Giurgola won by satisfying both the Parliament and the plan. The building would be at Capital Hill as was required, but it would be within it rather than on top of it, and grass would be laid over its surface so that people could walk on top of it and gaze down. They could picnic on it.

After completing the building in 1988, the Italian-American settled down in Canberra and saw out the rest of his days in the suburb of Kingston, just down the road from his proudest creation.

He died this May, aged 95. The people who ran the building didn't think to drop the flags to half mast.

He had been upset with them for some time. They'd put fences four-fifths of the way up the lawn so that, while people could still walk up from the bottom or take the lift to the top, they couldn't roam over the entire structure. They had built an ugly fortified fence at the back and stuffed workers into windowless offices in the basement.

Had he been asked about a 2.6-metre fence around the lawn, or a moat, as he would have to have been because of his "moral rights", he would have said it ripped out the building's heart.

The fence was whisked through the House of Representatives without the debate. It was rushed through the Senate in 30 minutes. Our elected representatives won. We are no longer above them.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald