A mix of Wright [Frank Lloyd] and the right angle, the 1911 prize-winning plan for the Australian capital of Canberra was a tribute to the contours of the land as well as the imposition of a design hand on those curves and rolling hills by a talented American architect.Skip to next paragraph
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Seven decades later, its upgrading in the major competition of the decade tries for a blend of the same virtues.
Walter Burley Griffin, the Chicagoan who won the prize in the first place, spoke sensitively of the land he saw:
"The morning and evening lights of Canberra are wonderful. The shadows of the clouds and the mists as they cross the mountains are very beautiful indeed. It is a grand site for a city."
While some have called the capital a "sheep station" in the outback, or "60 suburbs in search of a city," his heir has found a similar spirit and expressed it in a parallel style.
Romaldo Giurgola, the Italian-born Philadelphia/New York architect who beat an international roster of designers for the expansion this year, spoke with the same sentiment recently as he showed slides with his visions of the Australian countryside spliced with citations of Australian reading matter (specifically, "My Brilliant Career").
In short, both men attended to their era's urge for the restrained order bequeathed by architects past and the landscape present.
It was the day of the classic revival for Griffin. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 had established the idea of a White City in Chicago -- a city of orderly , axial symmetry, of pure and monumental forms with trees to define and soften the awesome size.
With confidence that the straight line was more than the shortest distance between two points, Griffin planned his major axis from the local Mt. Olympus -- Mt. Ainslie -- direct to Capitol Hill. The fact that the vista ran a whopping 3 .2 miles north to south was in its favor.
Always, though, the plan recorded nature's input in the manner of his and wife Marion Mahoney Griffin's mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, as they reckoned with the complex of hills and valleys of Canberra.
For Giurgola, too, there is the sense of the land and the evidence of classic/city beautiful impulses revived.
The Mitchell/Giurgola plan being undertaken by the Parliament House Construction Authority for the vast ($300 million, 1.5-million square feet -- about twice the size of the US Capitol) clings to the old Capital Hill as apex of a triangle in Griffin's plan, yet patterns its new Parliament buildings afresh.
Like arched eyebrows, Giurgola's back-to-back walls curve away from one another to shape the central ceremonial space and separate the Senate and House.
A grassy slope curves over the roof, making the mammoth structure one more rolling hill in the undulating countryside. A mass of irregular windows along the three-story structure -- "an explosion of parts," as the jury put it -- symbolizes the interior happenings. These and some very 20th-century-looking public spaces give the structure a contemporary identity.
Above the architect's hill, a super- structure of a slim shaft and flag catches the eye, underscoring the nationalism of the enterprise in this city.
The building has taken on symbolic meaning for the architectural profession as well as for the self-conscious country. As planner Edmund Bacon points out, Giurgola has created a design that marks the evolution of the 1980s' post-modern planning processes.
Like bookends for our century, Griffin's vision stands at the beginning of the modernist period; Giurgola's at the end. In between, the tracts of many of their peers made shambles of the cities. Canberra now has the patina of age and the grace of its own native landscape reinforced, say visitors.
Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil -- closer to our own day and ways -- lacks, and may always lack, that natural integrity.
"Giurgola" -- Bacon defines what he considers the architect's real victory -- "has calmly reestablished the basic direction of architecture from times immemorial, not forgetting Alberti, to solve beautifully in a historical context the fundamental requirements of the program. He has pointed out a direction that could keep architecture busy for 50 years."
Construction is to begin in the fall.