Australia unveils plans to put its MPs underground

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* Several representatives house their staffs in what used to be broom closets. * Two senators have their offices in what used to be a public restroom.

For these and other reasons, the Australians have decided to build a new parliament house, the seat of the Australian equivalent of the US Senate, House of Representatives, and executive departments. The new building is scheduled to be completed in 1988, in time for Australia's bicentennial.

In 1978 the cost of the project was estimated at $220 million (Australian) with inflation expected to add on about 12 percent per year.

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The construction is moving ahead in spite of the cutbacks by the "razor gang" -- Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's national budget-slashers. So far, the only casualty of the budget cuts is a bomb shelter, designed to protect Australian politicians in case of nuclear attack.

True to the philosophy of the "razor gang", the Parliament House Construction Authority will disband after the building is completed. Simon Johnstone, a spokesman for the authority, notes that private consultants are being used wherever possible, limiting the permanent staff to 16.

The new parliament building will be about four times the size of Parliament House, which was built in 1927 and has grown to about three times its original size. It will be built into Capital Hill, half a mile behind and above the current Parliament House.

The design of the new building itself is unusual. It is built on the sides and top of the hill, but it does not dominate the skyline. The top of the hill will be removed, and the hill landscaped with eucalyptus trees.

For years, Capital Hill has been dominated by a single flagpole flying the Australian flag. The new building will fly the flag from a stainless steel pole lofted above Parliament House by four struts.

The major criticism of the new design has been that it looks as if Parliament will meet in a subterranean chamber. Ian Warden, a columnist for the Canberra Times, calls it "more of a pizza" than a wedding cake. He noted, "It is a building that will cower and lurk rather than glower and loom, for a great deal of it is underground, obliging our parliamentarians to spend some time imitating our burrowing marsupials or perhaps the famous opal fossickers of Coober Pedy."

For the most part, however, the design has been favorably endorsed. Keith Johnson, a member of Parliament for Burke, Victoria, stated during chamber debate: "All sorts of tricks will be pulled out of the box to try to denigrate the new building, but that will be done by a small minority of people. I think the bulk of people in Australia recognize the need for Australia to have a prestigious Parliament House."

There will not be any major innovations in terms of energy. Some passive solar systems might be employed, Mr. Johnstone says, and a central computer will control the heating system. The building itself will be constructed of precast and reinforced concrete, which is energy efficient. The building is designed to last 250 to 300 years.

The interior will continue some aspects of the current Parliament House, including the use of the color red in the Senate chamber and green in the House's chamber.

The architect for the building was chosen from an international competition that drew 329 entries. The American firm of Mitchell- Giurgola Architects won the competition. Naturally, it wasn't a completely Yankee affair: The firm worked in partnership with Richard Thorp, an Australian living in the US.

The Australians set four requirements in the design. First, it must "relate in a sensitive way to its environment," while at the same time fitting into the overall design of Canberra as conceived by the American architect Walter Burley-Griffin in 1913. It also had to "express in a symbolic way the unique national qualities, attributes, attitudes, and achievements of Australia."

It had to be functional and, finally, it had to satisfy the Parliament House Construction Authority that it could be built by 1988 within the financial constraints specified.

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