On 24 June 2013 the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the House moved a motion to mark the 25th anniversary of the parliament building stating, inter alia, that given the period it was designed [the late ‘70s] “we could have acquired a brutalist structure that would have dated and faded with the decades. Instead, our nation has been blessed with a monumental building of grace, a building of character and of quality and a place that will endure.” She went on to mention that in 1914 Walter Burley Griffin had written that the parliament building would be “the foremost building of the Commonwealth, and in this masterpiece his vision for our nation’s capital has been triumphantly realised. It was, of course, the work of Romaldo Giurgola, one of the post-war era’s finest architects, and this is his finest work.”
This is just the latest of a series of accolades that acknowledge the greatness of Aldo Giurgola and his genius which shines in the design of Parliament House – a building that, when commissioned, was intended to serve the nation for at least 200 years. Indeed, after 25 years it still looks brand-new, elegant, grandiose. The quality of the raw materials used throughout, the quality of construction and craftsmanship, and the quality and appeal of the artwork interspersed throughout the building and its gardens make it a superb creation.
In presenting Aldo Giurgola to the Chancellor to receive the degree of Doctor of the University of Canberra honoris causa in 1997, the then Vice-Chancellor Don Aitkin lauded Aldo for his extensive achievements in the architectural field (“he is regarded as one of the foremost architects of his age”) noting that “he has a special quality of seeing at once not only the setting but the building in its setting, and not only the building but its detail, and not only the detail but its finish. There is a rightness about his work that compels respect.”
And in June this year the Australian Ballet Company, thanks to a Centenary of Canberra commission, presented a ballet titled Monument inspired by the symmetrical design of Parliament House. The choreographer had spent a day with Aldo going through Parliament House. Aldo attended the première and later commented to me that he enjoyed the performance because “it showed a connection between architecture and classical ballet, presenting ideas, shapes, the environment, curves – a feeling of fluidity.”
I have had the pleasure and honour of meeting with Aldo to chat about his life and work to mark the anniversary of Parliament House, and have written an extensive article for the Italian newspaper La Fiamma to celebrate this great Italian. I found Aldo to be the most amiable, warm and unassuming important person I’ve ever met. Indeed he is so humble that he failed to mention any of the official awards and medals he has been bestowed throughout his life. Among these is another honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney in 2003, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal for Parliament House in 1988, an OAM in 1989 and a Centenary Medal in 2001.
Aldo was born in Rome in 1920, and still speaks with a distinct (but refined) Roman accent. His father was born in Puglia and mother in Veneto. He was very close to his father who was an artist and worked as a stage designer. As a child he often went with his dad to watch him work. He lived and attended school in the vicinity of Piazza Venezia and found it perfectly normal to see the Roman Trajan column (colonna di Traiano), the Renaissance piazza and building of Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio) and the 15th c. Palazzo Venezia almost side by side. Indeed, he was attracted to architecture as a profession because of the ‘sense of continuity’ it embodies. He also remembers that as a youngster in Rome he had come across Walter Burley Griffin’s design for Australia’s capital and had been impressed by it because of its respect for the local topography.
He graduated in architecture from La Sapienza university and started working in Rome’s post-war reconstruction but his talent was soon spotted by the Americans who offered him a valuable scholarship. At age 27 he moved to New York and took out a Masters degree from Columbia University. While in the US he not only worked as an academic but also set up a professional partnership with architect Ehrman Mitchell in Philadelphia and in the ensuing years worked on projects in the US, Asia and Europe. Then Australia presented him with a fabulous opportunity: to design the new Parliament House. His entry was one of 329 submitted and when unanimously selected it was described as ‘visionary’. He moved to Australia to oversight the construction process and took a hands-on approach in relation to every detail of the process. On the House’s opening day, 9 May 1988, he and the project manager gave Queen Elizabeth a guided tour of the building. He recalls it as a ‘great day’.
I listen with fascination while Aldo explains some of the concepts that had inspired him in the design. For instance, in front of the classical Great Verandah (which reflects Western civilisation) he placed an Aboriginal mosaic (Jagamarra’s ‘romantic design’ titled Possum and Wallaby Dreaming ) to stress the presence of Aborigines in this land before the arrival of the Europeans.
The Aboriginal design is just one of the 3000 works of art commissioned for Parliament House. To create perfect harmony, Aldo had insisted that artworks and craft pieces be an integral part of the project. Thus, the full gamut of Australian art and craft is featured throughout the building and its extensive gardens. While retaining responsibility for the overall artworks concept for the building, Aldo had appointed his American colleague Pamille Berg to the position of Art/Craft Coordinator for Parliament House.
Apart from the emphasis on art, Parliament House oozes Italian character from every pore. For instance, the 22 external pillars are in white Carrara marble and the 48 foyer columns are in green/grey Cipollino marble (indeed, 90% of the marble used was imported from Italy). The two tradesmen who laid the 90,000 round coloured stones for the Aboriginal mosaic pavement were trained at the Spilimbergo Scuola di Mosaico in Friuli. Another Friulan, stonemason Lio Galafassi, worked for some five years in cutting and laying the 24,000 granite stones of the curved walls. The stucco lustro (polished stucco), extensively used in Italy, was chosen by Aldo for some internal walls (for instance in the “fulcrum” of the building – Members’ Hall) as it reflects natural light – and never requires painting.
Perhaps the main characteristic of Aldo’s work is his affinity for and respect of the environmental setting. He explains that in all his projects he has taken into consideration the social and cultural context as well as the scope of the building but his paramount intent has always been to create a symbiotic relationship between the built and natural environment.
Talking specifically about Parliament House, which involves separate “elements” totalling 40,000m², Aldo points out that the height of the buildings is equal to the height of the pre-existing hill, and that the various interconnected elements are spread out “so that nature can flourish. […]There are two major courts with trees and two fleeting walls which encompass the building and the trees” he explains. The natural landscape is fully utilised and respected.
I was surprised by Aldo’s reply to my question “what do you feel now when you see Parliament House?” I was expecting him to mention words such as ‘pride’ and ‘satisfaction’. Instead, he simply states that his connection with the building is now over as it belongs to the people. “On the other hand, I rejoice when I hear that people have positive feelings towards it. For me, it is like a person, like a life that I have created.”
Aldo lives in Kingston with his daughter Paola, a former member of our Society. We wish him good health in his old age and thank him for his immense and lasting contribution to Australia’s architectural landscape. Aldo is a great man, a man proud of his roots who has displayed in his masterpiece the best of his Italian heritage in art, craft and architecture, leaving an indelible footprint.
And on top of all that, this great man has now joined our Society. We are honoured to count you as one of our members, Aldo!