`Why did they make it so big?' Australia's Parliament builds a billion-dollar controversy

A MILLION-DOLLAR cherry on a billion-dollar sundae. That's what the mammoth, 220-ton flagstaff that now dominates Canberra amounts to. Below it lies a huge, half-buried architectural marvel: Australia'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 a $1.1 billion (Australian; US$890 million) giant of unconscionable proportions. Either way, it is here to stay.

The new Parliament house is the biggest building in Australia. It 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 politicians now have a more spacious and stylish home.

The sunlit foyer is a forest of jade-hued Portuguese marble columns planted on a floor of geometric black and white buffed marble. Native jarrah and coachwood paneling near the ceiling soften the cold, hard lines. Indeed, Australian timbers and art works (a total of 3,000) are prominent throughout the building. Off the foyer is the Great Hall, designed for state banquets and dominated by a tapestry of wool (the No. 1 export earner) covering the front wall.

All told, the new Parliament house has 4,500 rooms. Of course, there's the Senate chamber (in Ayers Rock ochre) 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 Westpac bank office, and a travel agency. The architects have 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 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 this building.

In explaining the submersion of the building into Capital Hill, Romaldo Giurgola said: ``... 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 chamber hosted its first parliamentary debate in late 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 have been sacrificed for broad hallways and vast offices.

But a Canberra taxi driver sees the elephantine 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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