A Kick in the Head for the Architects: Symbolising the National Parliament as Detention Centre.

Welcome back. First full blog for 2017. 

As soon as Romaldo Giurgola’s concept for Parliament house Canberra came into being it had perhaps already sown the seeds of it own destruction. This is because it was always a holistic and seamless conception of democracy. A unitary idea that appeared without effort to bind together a complex competition brief, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony’s plan, Canberra’s landscape and the aspirations of a social democracy (of course no mention of the first nations). The concept of a building underground with a hill over it was clever. The spin was that this was a people’s house a monument which allowed the punters, the ordinary public, absolute access above its interior parliamentary workings.

As reported in December:

 the Australian government announced plans for a $60-million security upgrade to Parliament House that included installing 38 CCTV cameras and building a 2.6-metre-high perimeter fence that would prevent the public from accessing the lawns.

Giurgola’s concept

But in hindsight perhaps Giurgola’s concept was all too clever and it is only now that the flaws of the concept are all too apparent. The current move by the parliamentary executive to fence off the hill from the public in the name of security certainly suggest this. The contrast between the aspirations embedded in Giurgola’s concept and the current proposals to change and manage the building could not be more disparate. These current proposals amount to a vandalism of the building’s architecture that is extremely disturbing.

Giurgola’s architecture was that kind of modern classicism prevalent from the mid 20thC onwards. The design is redolent of his mentor (and teacher?) at Penn Louis Kahn, the architect, who more than any modern architect, looked to reinstating a nostalgia for the classicism of Rome and map these to the mythologies of the American republic. There is certainly nothing overtly “Australian” about the overall parti and conceptual design of Giurgola’s project. Most of the seemingly Australian elements were added in a kind of decorative and featuristic way in the internal spaces.

The Competition

Other competition schemes for Parliament house proposed more difficult and indeed complex concepts for how to represent a democracy in this country. Edmond and Corrigan’s concept for the site easily springs to mind. No doubt there are others. The E&C scheme is an interesting comparison to Giurgola’s proposal. Incomplete, fragmentary and more a ad hoc bundle of forms partly incomplete that suggest a city on a hill. A work in progress rather than a monolithic and unitary composition. Unlike Guirgola’s homogenous composition E&C’s entry was brave enough to distribute a few pieces of virtuosity across the site. In some ways Giurgola’s composition, in its efforts to be timeless, is devoid of architectural detail or intimacy. It’s all big scale and symmetry. There is a complete lack of estrangement in the composition. This is certainly not a classicism that even approaches the humour and  empty ironies  of Lutyen’s classical monuments for example.

This is not to belittle Giurgola or his achievements but it is to point to the folly of architectures that are bound to a historic nostalgia and paradoxically the anti-historical idea that there is in architecture so-called fundamentals. Fundamentals and histories that draw upon myths of origin and the monuments of the Roman Forum and the Acropolis.I also vaguely recall at the time that there was a suggestion that the satellite view of the project, read in conjunction with Giurgola’s Italian connections, resembled the fasces symbol.  As the Italian critic Tafuri suggested of Kahn this is an architecture that seeks a “mystic aura” and has a “misplaced faith in the charismatic power of institutions.” But you will probably agree that this is probably beside the point if you read on.

Let the fear loose 

Nonetheless, Giurgola’s original concept and the building deserves respect.  Over the break I met a journo from the press gallery who stated that the good Burghers of the parliament did not want anything bad (e.g terrorism) to happen on their watch. This is the new conservative political correctness. Firstly, conservatives ramp up and create the fears and once these fears are let loose they step in to solve them.

As we now know after years of neo-liberal economics, executive government, the continuing catastrophe of the Middle East set in play by the invasion of Iraq, the hopes and failures of Occupy that a seamless idea of democracy is mostly fantasy.  Arguably democracies are fragmentary, ephemeral and sometimes short lived. As we are beginning to see they are fragile and easily eroded by cycles of fear mongering. To represent them as a holistic and complete image, as is the case with Giurgola’s design, is bound to lead to trouble at some point. For no seamless and complete image can sustain itself for long before its contradictions are exposed.

Even if we grant that the presiding officers of the Parliament have legitimate concerns. It is, as usual, the professional planners of the National Capital Authority, supported by GML Heritage, who really have no idea about architectural heritage, values or history. In parliamentary reports and hearings they argue the fence will not compromise the Heritage values of the site because it can easily be taken down.

At the Joint Standing Committee of December 1 the CEO and chief planner of  the NCA as well as the Acting Executive director of the National Capital Estate all argued that the measures would not infringe the heritage values of this building. At best all I can say is that this belies a genuine lack of architectural knowledge.

Another kick in the head for architectural values from planners not trained in architecture.

The current proposal seems to be a knee jerk reaction to fear. Such sentiments only deepen my cynicism for our governing political masters (not to mention the planners involved). Masters who have no concern for architecture in any way. It’s all ratcheted up fear and then cheap belt and braces pragmatics. Why not a design competition for the fence? Perhaps they could have thought of better ways to control and monitor the building’s hill top in line with both of the Griffin’s and Gurigola’s vision.

No these are men and women who have no regard for architecture, architectural design, or culture. Perhaps their idea of culture is a bit of golf, wine snobbery and an “intellectual” interest in the sports prevalent in our mass media. Again and again in our society, as architects, we are witness to this sensibility. Where architecture lies outside of cultural and institutional logics. The Sirius building, the debacle of Barangaroo, the continued destruction of the remnant 19thC fragments in our major cities. Yet many of our politicians claim to have our best interests of our democracy at heart and yet when it comes to architecture they always seem to favour cheapness.

The bright sparks at the NCA stated that:

The NCA is satisfied that the proposed works have been designed in such a way as to reduce the impacts on the heritage values of Parliament House. Whilst the new structures will be visible, the Heritage Impact Assessment notes that the potential for visual impacts has been reduced to a reasonable level by the modest scale of the guardhouses. The siting of the fence is in keeping with the landscaping contours originally designed to accommodate a fence.

In the May parliamentary hearings the NCA fence is described in the following terms.

  • Construction of two gatehouses in precast concrete with stainless steel and aluminium window framing (you gotta love the shop front framing)
  • Installation of steel security fence and retractable gates (approx.2.6m high)
  •  Installation of eight fixed stainless steel bollards
  • Installation of ten surveillance security cameras and poles
  •  Replacement of window framing and glazing.

This is the architecture most favoured by our political classes. An architecture of cruelty (but not in any nice Artaud kind of way): aluminium window framing, spare skillion roofs, metal decks, steel gates, and off the shelf building products. Just do a Google image search on Manus Island or Christmas Island detention centres and you will see what I mean.

The fence has had a long and cruel history in Australia and this new fence around our national parliament is no exception. The awful thing is that these mofos will have morphed the symbolism of our national parliament building into that of the immigration detention centre.

You can sign the petition against the proposal here.