A Parliament for the people

Closer Look – Australia's Parliament House [PDF 2.02Mb, 14 pages]

'We built an example of democracy where the people who visit the place are as important as the politicians within'
Richard Thorp, architect.

Parliament House, Canberra

Parliament House, Canberra


The Forecourt

Installation of Nelson Jagamara’s mosaic in the Forecourt 1987

Parliament House Art Collection

The Forecourt, which is the main entrance to Parliament House, is designed to invite people into the building to observe the democratic process. A large open space, it is framed by two walls that appear to be outstretched as if in a gesture of welcome.

The Forecourt is paved with stone and red gravel, with a large ceremonial pool at its centre. In the middle of this pool is a granite mosaic created by Indigenous artist Michael Nelson Jagamara. The mosaic sits on an island symbolising the Australian continent.

The natural colours and hard surfaces of the Forecourt evoke the ancient land, while the mosaic refers to the Indigenous presence in Australia. The Forecourt space represents the period in the country's history before European settlement.

Michael Nelson Jagamara based the Forecourt mosaic on his painting Possum and Wallaby Dreaming. The mosaic measures 15 metres by 15 metres and is made up of 90 000 hand-guillotined granite pieces in seven different colours.

It depicts Jagamara's Dreaming (creation time) ancestors, including the brush-tail possum, red kangaroo, rock wallaby and goanna, gathering for an important ceremony. The tracks of these ancestors are shown moving toward concentric circles in the middle of the mosaic. Indigenous people use Dreaming stories to pass on knowledge about their country, culture and laws.

Jagamara is a Warlpiri man from Papunya in the Western Desert region of Central Australia, the birthplace of contemporary Indigenous art. The mosaic, which is based on the sand-painting tradition of the Warlpiri people, has complex meanings known only to Warlpiri elders.

The Great Verandah

The Great Verandah has a screen wall made up of 22 columns and is topped by a glazed glass roof. The screen wall is clad with slabs of Italian Carrara marble. Each of the 40 millimetre-thick slabs was cut from the same cliff face.

The Great Verandah pays tribute to the tradition of the verandah in Australian homes, which gives shelter from the sun and rain, and is where guests are welcomed and farewelled.

The white of the marble and the design of the screen wall recall the white façade of Old Parliament House with its series of oblong windows. This visual link is further emphasised when the two buildings are viewed together from the north and it appears that Old Parliament House sits within the curved walls of the new one.

A stainless steel coat of arms, created by Sydney sculptor, Robin Blau, is set into the Great Verandah. Measuring four by four metres, the work is based on 'rarrk' or crosshatching , a style of painting from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, which was developed many thousands of years ago. Like the Forecourt mosaic, it alludes to the ongoing presence of Indigenous people in Australia. Blau also created a coat of arms for the executive wing entrance. Both works were a gift from the Parliament and people of New South Wales.

Fast facts

  • 32 size of the site in hectares —the building takes up 15% of this area
  • 125 000 truck loads to remove one million cubic metres of soil and rock from the site
  • 250 000m2 floor area covered by Parliament House
  • 4500 rooms in Parliament House
  • 2700 clocks in the building
  • 81 height of the flagmast in metres
  • 220 weight of the flagmast in tonnes
  • One double-decker bus size of the Australia flag flown over Parliament House, which measures 12.8 metres by 6.4 metres

The Foyer

With its marble surfaces and soft lighting, the Foyer is designed to be a cool and tranquil space in contrast to the open and often sun-drenched Forecourt. Natural light filters from windows and skylights through 48 columns clad in grey-green marble. The columns create an impression of spaces opening and closing, just as if walking through a forest. The 'forest' of columns divides the Foyer into small bays in which people can assemble.

The floor is geometrically patterned in white marble and black limestone. The limestone, which is about 345 million years old, contains small marine fossils.

Two staircases, made from solid blocks of marble, lead people from the Foyer to the first floor where the public has access to the House of Representatives and Senate chambers.

The walls in the Foyer are topped by marquetry panels designed by Adelaide artist Tony Bishop and made by Sydney craftsman Michael Retter. The 20 coachwood timber panels are inlaid with designs of Australian flora. They include plants that are 200 million years old and species, such as wattle, waratah and eucalypts, noted by botanist Sir Joseph Banks when he came to Australia in 1770. The panels on the north wall of the Foyer depict plants used by Aboriginal people for food and medicine, such as yam, quandong and bunya pine.

Each of the coachwood panels is trimmed with jarrah. The flora inlays are made up of 5000 pieces of timber which include Queensland walnut, poplar, kauri pine, camphor laurel and Australian red cedar. For the architects, the panels symbolised 'the unknown exotic land to which the colony had come as well as the proximity of this space [the Foyer] to the outdoors.'

The Great Hall

The Great Hall is a large space designed for ceremonial and other official occasions. Described as a 'warm timber envelope', it features a central skylight, and floor and wall panelling made from various Australian timbers. Known as the room of the land, the Great Hall conveys a sense of how the physical environment has shaped Australia.

The centrepiece of the Great Hall is a tapestry based on a painting by celebrated Australian artist, Arthur Boyd, of a dense eucalyptus forest in the Shoalhaven area of New South Wales. This landscape was the inspiration for many of Boyd's paintings. By depicting a detailed section of the forest rather than a panoramic view, Boyd gives the impression the landscape has no beginning or end. This suggests connections with the landscape around Parliament House and throughout Australia.

The tapestry, which measures 20 metres wide by nine metres high, was woven by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, who worked closely with Boyd to interpret his design. Fourteen weavers spent nearly two years making the tapestry in four separate panels. On average, each weaver completed one square metre every five weeks. Boyd's painting is on permanent display at Parliament House.

Art in Parliament House

Parliament House has a large collection of Australian art, including more than 60 major works commissioned for the building. The architects worked with artists and craftspeople in the early stages of the design process to integrate the works of art with the architecture. According to the Parliament House Construction Authority:

'... works of art and craft were to be understood as 'voices' within the building capable of expressing the diverse character and identity of Australia... the presence of the works was a critical aspect of creating a sense of resonance in the building with past cultural tradition'.

Today, the Parliament House Art Collection is made up of over 6000 works of art and heritage objects. The collection includes works of art by major Australian artists and is an important representation of the nation's artistic expression. Many of the artworks are rotated around various locations within the building.

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