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Parliament House Canberra, 1927


3. The Design and Construction, 1923–27

Image 13: Horse teams landscaping outside the almost completed Parliament House.

Image 13: Horse teams landscaping outside the almost completed Parliament House.
NAA: A3560, 1323
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The construction of the provisional Parliament House took almost four years. The Department of Works and Railways under Director-General of Works, Colonel P T Owen, was in charge of the project. The Chief Architect, J S Murdoch was instrumental in the design and construction of the building.

The records consist mainly of correspondence between the various participants in the construction concerning the progress of the work, the choice of materials and the problems encountered. Although much of the correspondence is fairly mundane and bureaucratic some hint of the personalities of those involved and their wish to achieve not only an acceptable but also significant building for the Australian Parliament can be determined.

There was some conflict between the notion of a provisional building and the wishes of the builders. For example, in September 1924, Colonel Owen wrote to John Murdoch:

I am alive to your repeatedly expressed desire that it should be borne in mind that this building is provisional, but, on the other hand, it is anticipated that it will stand for at least fifty years, and so we must cover the roof as for a permanent building.27

Image 14: Planting trees in King George Terrace with a mobile tree planting windlass, January/February 1927.

Image 14: Planting trees in King George Terrace with a mobile tree planting windlass, January/February 1927.
NAA: A3560, 2690
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The isolation of Canberra again contributed to problems. Owen was in Canberra, however, the architect's office was still in Melbourne. With only the telephone, letters and telegrams available for communication, Owen and Murdoch were at times working in a vacuum. In March 1924 Owen was in a bother about moving ahead of the plans available and the possibility of having to put off some bricklayers

I know that my previous letter regarding Parliament House (drawings) must be a worry to you, but the call for them is so insistent that I must keep on pressing for them... Priddle sees no more than ten days' work ahead of him with the drawings we have at present, and consequently he is very apprehensive about keeping all the men employed. Being myself removed from Melbourne, and not seeing what you are doing, tends to make one more apprehensive than probably one should be.28

Image 15: Road works in progress outside Parliament House, 1927.

Image 15: Road works in progress outside Parliament House, 1927.
NAA: A3560, 2804
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The files also contain newspaper clippings and extracts from Hansard that reflect what the parliamentarians and general public thought of not only the building of Parliament House but the Federal Capital in general. Given the number of years taken to get to this point, some were sceptical about Canberra ever being the Seat of Government. When reporting the turning of the first sod ceremony, the Evening Sun could state:

Canberra has so long been the plaything of politicians that conceivably another ceremony more or less might not matter. That would account, perhaps, for the cynical smiles on the faces of the workmen and staff. There is, of course, the big "perhaps" and "if" usually associated with Canberra.29

Senator Gardiner had complained in 1924 that a building of a provisional nature costing only £200,000 would be a disgrace to the nation. He may have been reassured when the expenditure to 9 May 1927 came to £538,454.30


Image 16: A rear stairway inside a courtyard at Parliament House.

Image 16: A rear stairway inside a courtyard at Parliament House.
NAA: A3560, 3427
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Senator Gardiner had complained in 1924 that a building of a provisional nature costing only £200,000 would be a disgrace to the nation. He may have been reassured when the expenditure to 9 May 1927 came to £538,454.30


All notes

27 NAA: A292, C2737B, Provisional Parliament House erection, Canberra.

28 NAA: A292, C2737B, Provisional Parliament House, Canberra, erection.

29 NAA: A199, FC24/1174, Provisional Parliament House, turning of the first sod inconnection with the work of erection.

30 NAA: A1, 1930/1344, Parliament House (Provisional), Canberra, construction of.


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