Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Opinion

Expert strata, facilities & building management services

Canberra tales: How high for the High Court?

By Paul Costigan - 23 September 2015 14

MtAinslieviews12

The High Court of Australia, which opened in 1980, is the tallest building on the southern central foreshore of Lake Burley Griffin. Its architectural style, being brutalist concrete and glass, is not exactly friendly.

Looking at the building from the north it is out of proportion with its surroundings. I have long regarded the building as a curiousity of questionable merit.  Its construction is more suited to some form of industrial edifice.

The High Court and the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) buildings are architecturally of a similar style and are both situated within well-established landscapes. The NGA’s sculpture garden is a great place to visit even though it is usually overlooked by visitors (more on this is a later post).

Today the NGA is hard to see from the north as the sculpture garden trees have grown very tall. Today as you cross Kings Avenue bridge you can only see the top of the building. The most visible things are the air-conditioning systems on the roof. If they had a large label up there, maybe we could view these as installation artworks.

The two buildings shared another feature— one I am sure the architects and builders do not mention. After they were opened, both buildings suffered from serious water leaks. An enormous amount of money had to be spent on fixing the roof, ceilings and windows on both – along with a very dodgy air conditioning system in the NGA.

Meanwhile the High Court remains a dominant feature on the southern edge of the lake. This building is much taller than the gardens and trees surrounding it — and this is no coincidence.

During its design and construction, the then numero uno of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick, had a lot to say about what was to become his head office in the clouds.

It is said that he insisted that his building had to be significantly taller than any others in the vicinity. In particular he made it known that his building had to look down on all the others, in particular the then Parliament House.

This is the reason that this building has such a presence in the parliamentary triangle. It was meant to be that way to ensure that everyone else, particularly those pesky politicians, knew their place in the hierarchy of things.

Looking at the building today, its height does not make sense, until you become aware of the reason that it was someone’s grand sense of self and his power over the decisions for the building.

High-Court-P1120777

Unfortunately, it did not take too long before the ego of the high court’s chief was outdone by another building in 1988: the new Parliament House. That flag pole above the new parliament building signals who is the real boss in the parliamentary triangle.

Meanwhile we can thank Sir Garfield Barwick for the fact that this not very beautiful and clunky High Court building sits there dominating the skyline on the southern shores of Lake Burley Griffin.

This is part of an occasional series, Canberra Tales, offering short stories, mostly true but including many urban myths, about intriguing aspects of Canberra. As with any story telling, we welcome other variations, accurate or otherwise, to these tales.

What’s Your opinion?


Post a comment
Please login to post your comments, or connect with
14 Responses to
Canberra tales: How high for the High Court?
ms62 6:38 pm 24 Sep 15

The history of the Court is an interesting one, there are rumours that Barwick had originally sought for the building to be built in white marble rather than the super dried bushed concrete that it has now. Jokingly during planning some referred to it as the Gaj Mahal, in honour of Garfield.

If you separate the political feeling from the architectural feeling of the building, I think you get a different sense of the building, and appreciate it as an engineering marvel of its time.

I think it’s a challenging building there’s no doubt, but I agree with the bulk of the commenters that the internal beauty of the structure is the highlight of it. Everything is built with purpose, and the finishings and fittings are a testament to Australian craftsmanship and ingenuity. Further it is one of the few public buildings in Canberra that gives prominent space to indigenous artists and community artists

switch 4:32 pm 24 Sep 15

astrojax said :

it’s got a great internal space, too. when i studied photography at cit we held end-of-year exhibitions there and the space easily catered for all three years’ work with five hundred guests at opening night. the cafe isn’t too bad either, a bit of a hidden gem in that precinct. all up, with its impressive entrance and presence, a fabulous piece of architecture, i agree.

The High Court’s internal space also makes for great acoustics as the ongoing series of Sunday concerts will attest. Even sitting up the top looking out at the lake (and not at the performance) sounds good.

ps Went to an over-amplified concert at the Fitter’s workshop recently. The sound was woeful, unbelievably bad, just awful.

astrojax 4:17 pm 24 Sep 15

it’s got a great internal space, too. when i studied photography at cit we held end-of-year exhibitions there and the space easily catered for all three years’ work with five hundred guests at opening night. the cafe isn’t too bad either, a bit of a hidden gem in that precinct. all up, with its impressive entrance and presence, a fabulous piece of architecture, i agree.

madelini 3:54 pm 24 Sep 15

arescarti42 said :

Holden Caulfield said :

Well, I beg to differ…

The High Court and the Gallery are two of my most favourite buildings in Canberra. The interior spaces are wonderful and the high ceilings add to their success. Outside, too, I think they work really well.

I wouldn’t change a thing!

I agree.

Architecturally, the High Court is easily my favourite building in Canberra.

I also agree. They might not be “pretty” or subtle, but they are striking and ambitious. The Brutalist architectural style puts people on either side of the fence, but it will always be significant. The NGA in particular is stunning – the honeycomb ceiling near the old entrance is divine. The High Court, too, is wonderful – the lines draw the eyes upwards, and is very well considered.

Let’s face it – buildings don’t have to be “nice” to be significant. Modest buildings are bland and easily forgotten, and is that what we want for our landmarks?

Maya123 11:46 am 24 Sep 15

The High Court and the National Gallery of Australia are both great looking buildings.

dlenihan 11:16 am 24 Sep 15

Paul Costigan said :

Greetings Holden Caulfield. The debate on liking or not liking these two buildings has been continuous since they were built. I gleaned comments on the high court during research projects on the gallery (and there are some wonderful stories to be told one day).

I also like the inside of the NGA very much but I have always had mixed feelings about the original gallery exterior – the new front extensions are an improvement – it now feels more like a real front door.

Talking changes – There are stories to be told about the extensions to the NGA – eg I was once in a meeting with the original architect and another architect employed to make changes to the building (including to design a new entrance) – that was indeed a fiery meeting.

The south of the high court (the entrance) is quite impressive – but I have always questioned the north side (as seen from the lake). I also like the water feature down from the front entrance.
The article was really about ‘the story’ of the insistence of the chief judge that ‘his’ building be larger than any others nearby – this is a well told story from many sources I have spoken to over the years. It has made for a good ‘Canberra Tale’.

However you seem to be confusing symbolism with egotism, for some reason.

arescarti42 10:17 am 24 Sep 15

Holden Caulfield said :

Well, I beg to differ…

The High Court and the Gallery are two of my most favourite buildings in Canberra. The interior spaces are wonderful and the high ceilings add to their success. Outside, too, I think they work really well.

I wouldn’t change a thing!

I agree.

Architecturally, the High Court is easily my favourite building in Canberra.

rubaiyat 1:39 am 24 Sep 15

You can add the New Parliament House to the list of the post construction leakers.

In more ways than one. 🙂

I agree about the ugliness and clumsiness of both the buildings by Madigan Torzillo and Partners. The structure of the semi-underground car park is probably the only part of the design that appeals to me.

Both buildings are shown up by the seemingly more modest, but supremely elegant Portrait Gallery next door, designed by Johnson Pilton Walker which makes delightful use of spaces and finishes.

The High Court and NGA besides being brutalist just look like a committee of architects worked on them all trying too hard and not succeeding. Typical, as the author pointed out, is the air conditioning units sticking out prominently on top when seen from one of the most significant vantages from across the lake.

In contrast I had to do a shadow study of Australia Square from the roof of the round tower, where Harry Seidler had made a beautiful radial cooling pool for the air conditioning.

Viewed from EVERY ANGLE that building is elegant and beautifully detailed. Even from above!

Paul Costigan 11:49 pm 23 Sep 15

Greetings Holden Caulfield. The debate on liking or not liking these two buildings has been continuous since they were built. I gleaned comments on the high court during research projects on the gallery (and there are some wonderful stories to be told one day).

I also like the inside of the NGA very much but I have always had mixed feelings about the original gallery exterior – the new front extensions are an improvement – it now feels more like a real front door.

Talking changes – There are stories to be told about the extensions to the NGA – eg I was once in a meeting with the original architect and another architect employed to make changes to the building (including to design a new entrance) – that was indeed a fiery meeting.

The south of the high court (the entrance) is quite impressive – but I have always questioned the north side (as seen from the lake). I also like the water feature down from the front entrance.
The article was really about ‘the story’ of the insistence of the chief judge that ‘his’ building be larger than any others nearby – this is a well told story from many sources I have spoken to over the years. It has made for a good ‘Canberra Tale’.

Masquara 6:16 pm 23 Sep 15

This was not egotism on the part of Barwick. The building is high because it symbolises that no-one is above the law. Similarly, the new Parliament House was designed so that the people could “walk above” the politicians. The flagpole was just a weird Americanism that got included.

Angry_of_Devonport 6:02 pm 23 Sep 15

I remember when it was finished and somebody commented “It looks like they haven’t taken it out of the box yet.”

Holden Caulfield 4:52 pm 23 Sep 15

Well, I beg to differ…

The High Court and the Gallery are two of my most favourite buildings in Canberra. The interior spaces are wonderful and the high ceilings add to their success. Outside, too, I think they work really well.

I wouldn’t change a thing!

MERC600 4:23 pm 23 Sep 15

You mention “” Its architectural style, being brutalist concrete and glass, is not exactly friendly.””

I seem to remember when it was opened someone reckoned it looked more like a Soviet built power station.

creative_canberran 4:06 pm 23 Sep 15

The National Gallery is the building out of touch and not in keeping with its surroundings. The renovation has improved it, but leaves much to be desired.

You mention the court and gallery are of a similar architectural style, you neglect to mention they were by the same architecture firm.

The suggestion that the High Court was meant to be taller than any other building is a new one, and seems baseless. Claim about ego might have an element of truth. But above all the reasoning was to have a building of appropriate stature that provides a strong line of sight to Parliament indicative of the oversight role is plays.

Related Articles

CBR Tweets

Sign up to our newsletter

Top
Copyright © 2017 Riot ACT Holdings Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.
www.the-riotact.com | www.b2bmagazine.com.au | www.thisiscanberra.com

Search across the site