Parliament House is the heart of Australian parliamentary democracy, and one of the most open parliamentary buildings in the world.
Its design was chosen from more than 320 entries to an international competition. Entrants were faced with one of the most complex design briefs imaginable—a total of 20 volumes, forming a pile about a metre high—which took seven years to develop.
Unlike many civic buildings, which express the power and tastes of individuals or political philosophies, Parliament House was designed to encourage public access and involvement while responding to the Australian climate, landscape, vegetation, and even the quality of the light. It was designed to be both a functional building and a major national symbol.
The winning design of the New York-based architectural firm Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp imagined a Parliament that symbolically rose out of the landscape. Romaldo Giurgola, the principal Architect, said Parliament House “could not be built on top of the hill as this would symbolise government imposed on the people…it was important that [it] be seen as extending an invitation to all citizens.”
Forecourt and Great Verandah
The forecourt reflects Australia’s ancient beginnings. Indigenous artist Michael Nelson Jagamara designed the 196-square-metre mosaic. The artist described the work and its importance at Parliament House:
“it…stands for this place where all people come and meet together…These Dreamings are part of this country that we live in…We’ve been trying to explain what the land means to us for the sake of all Australians.”
The Great Verandah is the public face of Parliament House. It is a space to welcome visitors and is the backdrop for ceremonies on the Forecourt. The paving outside the entrance is red Christmas Bush granite, quarried near Oberon in New South Wales. The front façade walls are clad in Paradise White Carrara marble from Italy.
The Marble Foyer features 48 marble columns that evoke the muted pinks and greens of the Australian landscape as well as the colours of the two Parliamentary Chambers, clad in green Cipollino marble from Italy and creamy pink Atlantide Rosa marble from Portugal. The two marble staircases feature stone finials created by Sydney sculptor Anne Ferguson, which were inspired by the seed forms of Australian trees. The floor has a series of circles, semi-circles and triangles of Paradise White marble and black Granitello Nero limestone from Belgium. The limestone is full of fossils of sea life that existed some 345 million years ago. You can see the remains of ancient corals, sponges and crinoids, or ‘sea lilies’.
The walls feature twenty marquetry panels depicting Australian native flora, designed by Adelaide artist Tony Bishop and produced by Michael Retter, The six panels above the entrance feature plants traditionally used by Aboriginal people, and those on the southern side feature plants collected by Sir Joseph Banks in 1770.
The Great Hall is the venue for large formal receptions, dinners and significant national major events. The doors at the southern end are used as the ceremonial entrance to the Members’ Hall. The space is dominated by the Great Hall Tapestry, designed by renowned Australian artist Arthur Boyd in collaboration with the Victorian Tapestry Workshop. Woven in four separate pieces, it took fourteen full-time weavers more than two years to complete.
The timber walls that surround the two levels of the Hall are made from a variety of timbers, including limed white birch, brushbox and jarrah. The parquetry floor is made of jarrah, with inlays of blackbutt and ebony. The ebony was a gift from the people of Papua New Guinea.
The square-shaped Members’ Hall lies at the centre of Parliament House. It is located at the intersection of the north-south (land) axis and the east-west (legislative) axis, directly under the flag mast and between the Senate and the House of Representatives chambers.
Round timber clad columns align with timber panels inlaid on the first floor which feature a bronze Federation Star, representing each of the states and mainland territories of Australia. Below is the Reflective Pool, made from a single piece of South Australian Black Imperial granite. It is 3.5 square metres by 250 millimetres thick, and weighs eight tonnes. The sound of the flowing water is designed to cover any conversation.
House of Representatives Chamber
The House of Representatives, or lower house, has 150 members and is the house in which government is formed. The colour scheme of the House reflects the green associated with British Parliament’s House of Commons and the eucalypt green of the Australian landscape. Colours in the Chambers are deepest at ground level and become lighter as they extend upwards.
The Speaker’s Chair was made by by craftsman David Upfill-Brown from solid and veneer grey box (Eucalyptus microcarpa). It also has marquetry elements designed by Tony Bishop, of a wattle motif and made by Michael Retter, who also made the panels in the Marble Foyer.
The despatch boxes replicate those used in the British House of Commons. These boxes were presented to Australian Parliament by King George V to mark the opening of the provisional Parliament House in 1927. The boxes contain religious texts used to swear in new members.
The Senate, or upper house, has 76 senators: 12 from each state and two each from the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. The Senate reflects the red of British Parliament’s House of Lords and the shades of ochre red in the Australian landscape.
The President’s chair was crafted by Canadian artisans Almer Komendant and John Jones, as a gift from the Canadian Parliament and people, from North American cherry and walnut woods, leather and wool.
The Coat of Arms in the Senate chamber was created by Tasmanian sculptor Peter Taylor whose design includes Tasmanian myrtle with etched and slumped glass. Anne Dybka OAM produced the etchings for the shield of State crests, and the slumped glass Commonwealth Star. The bar elements of the shield were produced by glass artist Warren Langley.
From the roof, you can see how Parliament House is successfully integrated into Walter Burley Griffin’s original design for Canberra. It is placed on the land axis from Mount Ainslie, which runs directly through the centre of Capital Hill. The architects crossed this axis with the legislative axis, which features both Houses of Parliament linked by the Members’ Hall.
Looking north from the roof, you can see Australian War Memorial, Lake Burley Griffin and Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. The building was designed to harmonise with the architectural features of Old Parliament House and to allow the older building to retain its unique identity.