Canberra's down under `Pollies' Palace'

A MAMMOTH flagmast - a million-dollar cherry on a billion-dollar sundae - now dominates the skyline of Canberra. The shimmering stainless-steel legs of this 220-ton pole stand astride the political nexus of Australia. Below lies a huge, half-buried architectural marvel: the nation's new Parliament house.

To some, the building is a stunning monument to democracy, a potent symbol of the institution it houses. To others, it is the ``Pollies' Palace'' - the biggest building in the country - a $1.1 billion (Australian; US$890 million) boondoggle of unconscionable proportions. Either way, it is here to stay.

The new building replaces a ``temporary'' Parliament house opened in 1927. Fifty years later, Australia's federal lawmakers were complaining of cramped quarters and voted to give themselves more room.

After eight years of construction - and enough concrete to build 25 Sydney Opera Houses - the ``pollies'' now have more spacious and stylish digs.

The sunlit foyer is a forest of jade-green Portuguese marble columns planted on a floor of geometric black and white buffed marble. Paneling of native jarrah and coachwood near the ceiling softens the cold, hard lines. Indeed, Australian timbers and artworks (a total of 3,000) are prominent throughout the building. Off the foyer is the Great Hall, designed for state banquets, which is dominated by a tapestry of wool (the No. 1 export earner) that covers the front wall.

All told, the new Parliament house has 4,500 rooms.

Of course, there's the Senate chamber (in Ayers Rock ocher) and House of Representatives chamber (in muted eucalyptus green), members' offices, television studios, press rooms, a small theater, conference centers, staff and public cafeterias, and the 750-seat Great Hall.

In addition there are the time-saving amenities found in some of today's larger corporate headquarters: a three-lane swimming pool, two squash courts, a sauna, a post office, two bars, a hairdresser, a bank office, and a travel agency.

The architects also thoughtfully provided what could well be the most important facilities the new Parliament house has to offer: a few small meditation rooms.

Outside, the forecourt is covered in monotonous clay-red gravel (representing the barren Australian outback). But the expanse springs to life in the center with a stunning 200,000-piece granite mosaic of Aboriginal design.

Beyond the Bondi Beach white walls surrounding the forecourt, a lush emerald-green lawn sweeps over the top of the building. Visitors can picnic here or stroll up the grass roof and look down through a pyramid skylight on what's happening inside.

Canberra's original master planner early in this century, American Walter Burley Griffin, did not intend to put a Parliament house on the city's Capital Hill. He felt it would be too domineering. The New York-based architectural firm of Mitchell/Giurgola kept Griffin's intentions in mind when designing the building. (Richard Thorp, an Australian member of the firm, was the project architect.)

In explaining the decision to sink the building into Capital Hill, Romaldo Giurgola said: ``To speak honestly about its purpose ... it could not be built on top of the hill, as this would symbolize government imposed upon the people. The building should nest within the hill, symbolically rise out of the Australian landscape, as true democracy rises from the natural state of things.''

The new chambers, built to house another 200 years of democratic rule, played host to their first parliamentary debate in August. Already some in the Australian press are moaning, ``Why did they make it so big?'' Journalists are used to bumping into members of Parliament in the rabbit warren of the old house.

The concern is that, for reporters and politicians, intimacy and serendipitous meetings may have been sacrificed for broad hallways and vast offices. On being asked his opinion of the building after a recent walking tour, visiting New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange quipped, ``It will do wonders for one's cardiovascular system.''

But a Canberra cabbie sees the elephantine democratic edifice in a different light. ``It's gorgeous, mate. You can't argue with that. Besides, it's worth its weight in tourist gold.''

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