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New Colonialism: Australia's Parliament House

Part 2 Dissertation 2007
Alex Street
Kingston University, UK
The broader context of this study is the idea of national identity and its architectural manifestations. A personal interest in Australia led me to an investigation of the particular challenges inherent in the conception and representation of a post-colonial national identity. The focus of my dissertation is Mitchell/Giurgola and Thorpe’s Parliament House of Australia, in Canberra. This is an architectural project of considerable contradiction between, on one hand, the intentions underpinning it and the rhetoric accompanying it and, on the other, the actual design, both as concept and realisation.

Completed in 1988 as the centre piece of the nation’s celebrations to mark the bicentenary of European settlement in Australia, the new Parliament offered the unique opportunity to create a piece of architecture that could speak of the aspirations and ambitions of this young post-colonial nation. However, through a detailed analysis of the building I will argue that the project is in fact structured on a number of highly problematic references creating a powerful narrative of new colonialism, reifying and patronising rather than empowering the nation.

The themes supporting this argument will be developed in three moves: Firstly, the physical and historical context of Giurgola’s project will be set out, through a discussion of Walter Burley Griffin’s major plan for Canberra of 1912, counter-pointed by the highly significant, although largely ignored moment in Australia’s architectural history, the erection of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in the same city in 1972. This will be followed by a detailed analysis of the Parliament House as a series of rhetorical, Eurocentric gestures, attempting to respond to the complex issues raised by the cultural and physical context presented earlier. A discussion of the work of Australian architect Glenn Murcutt will be offered as a final counterpoint, suggesting a different attitude towards architecture, which allows for a more experiential, poetic and potentially successful response to both cultural heritage and landscape.

Alex Street

This delightful student is a confirmation of the complementarity between architectural design and discourse, and the important role that thinking and writing architecture plays in the making of architecture. His design project is also nominated for the Silver Medals this year. He has been consistently occupied throughout his Diploma with the nature of architectural representation and the modes through which architecture communicates ideas – in this case the complex issue of a postcolonial national identity. The topicality of his subject, the breadth of his references, and the measured care of his criticism have earned his thesis a place in this competition

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