Canberra is supposed to be a dull place but on a recent visit I found it interesting. I discovered monumental architecture, Australian-style; I noted the noisiness of sulphur-crested cockatoos about the War Memorial; I saw the effects of aggressive hail on trees; and I noted the geography of where the old and new parliament houses stand. I never knew that the old parliament house sits in front of the new one.
Old parliament house has some pleasant gardens on each side. New parliament house has a lawn on top. But the main thing that struck me was the contrast between the two buildings.
I swear I once heard someone say on tv that they preferred the old building to the new and I think I heard a relative express a similar view. I decided that this was just a matter of prejudice. The new building only dates from 1988 so for an older generation the original building is what they grew up with. The famous dismissal of the Whitlam Government on 11 November 1975 was announced on the steps of the old building. But times change, mine is a newer generation and the newer building is where it’s at.
But I had second and then third thoughts about this during my recent visit, and it comes down to the architecture. When I was much younger I just accepted that new Parliament House looks how it does. It never occurred to me that there had to be decision-making about its design. Nowadays I think about such things and from the exterior appearance I genuinely prefer the older building.
It’s not that it’s handsome, though it is not unpleasant to the eye. Nor is it that the building is exactly modest. Rather, it’s that it is not pretentious. It is exactly what it is. It is the building of a country that does not need to boast.
The newer building is much grander but it has the bluffness of a piece of modern monumental architecture making a statement. Which is exactly what it is. It is bold and confident, but also brash.
I eventually concluded that architecture is at least somewhat about storytelling and that’s why I prefer the old one. I prefer the story it tells. However the new building is also essential. Both buildings tell stories about the nation. Neither tells a lie, but nor does either tell the whole truth.
In other words, both accurately reflect the country. Make of that what you will.