Landmark companion Heritage assets and contemporary design sit side by side in the latest instalment of a Melbourne landmark’s evolution, writes Ray Edgar.

‘By-election corner’ staff call it. A rabbit warren of connecting offices tucked in the top corner of Victoria’s Parliament House accommodating 28 MPs that until 2015 had no external fire escape. If a fire tore through the building’s upper reaches, no one would escape. By-elections would have been called for the unfortunate MPs.

Fortunately parliamentarians practise the equivalent of regular fire drills. When parliamentarians have to vote on a division, a four-minute bell calls them to the parliamentary chambers. Since the 1800s MPs in by-election corner proved adept at running the gauntlet of stairs, ramps and a small rickety lift to descend the three flights to their chamber. It required planning, particularly if you were pregnant. Avoid high heels. Leave shoes at the bottom of the stairs. Plan a quick toilet stop in the single tiny cubicle.

PERILOUS: Steep stairs and winding walkways over the library's grand dome

Viewed from Spring Street none of the questionable occupational health and safety is apparent. The elegant sandstone design by colonial architects Peter Kerr and John George Knight reflects a 19th century approach to civic architecture. High Victorian architecture may be grand, but it also exemplifies politically astute conservatism. It put money into the areas the public sees: the façade and the key suite of civic rooms such as Queen’s Hall and Vestibule, Parliament Chambers and Library. Take a public tour beyond the central floor of grand rooms, and parliament’s inner workings are a little more humble. Frontbench ministers are closer to the chambers than those in by-election corner, but many are tucked under Spring Street’s front stairs in windowless offices that until 2013 leaked.

“Ministers having offices in Parliament House was never envisaged,” explains Peter Lochert, Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services, which maintains the building. “Over 150 years, as politicians became professionals and had staff, they had to shut down corridors or put up walls to accommodate them.”

CORRIDOR CONVERSION: Beneath the Spring Street steps storage space was turned into offices for MPs in the 1980s

Parliament House evolved over time, effectively built from the inside out. Originally parliament occupied two bluestone buildings with Bourke Street running between. During the gold rush the sandstone perimeter began. When the gold rush and its resulting land boom abruptly ended, so too did construction. The perimeter was never finished. Evidence of Marvellous Melbourne’s changing fortunes can be seen in the incomplete southern sandstone façade where a fireplace extends into thin air like a Surrealist artwork. The last major addition to parliament was in 1929. Thereafter the building was maintained by the Public Board of Works, until it was disbanded in 1987.

“The building was basically falling down,” says Lochert, whose department was established in 2005 to pick up after the board of works. “We still have sewerage and drainage from the 1800s. Plumbing from 1910 to 20. Electricity from the 1930s and 40s.”

To relieve pressure on parliament, 47 members even occupied an external building in the heritage gardens, affectionately known as the ‘chook house’. Designed as a temporary solution, the asbestos-riddled building accommodated MPs for almost half a century. And yet despite its toxic materials, the chook house is fondly remembered for its garden views.

“We had to do something because parliament conformed to no OH&S standard other than the Neolithic,” says Lochert.

WORK IN PROGRESS: (clockwise from top left) Archival drawings show the building's unfinished footprint. The original Guilfoyle garden layout. The 'temporary' annexe constructed in the 1970s. Evidence of the unfinished south wing.

Over the years many proposals were ventured to update the parliamentary buildings – even the radical idea to abandon the site and relocate across the rail-yard next to Federation Square. But spending money on Parliament House is as popular as pay rises for politicians. No party wants to incur public or press opprobrium. So the building continued to deteriorate.

To resolve the impasse, the Department of Parliamentary Services began allocating a percentage of its annual budget for a new members’ annexe. The intent was simple: provide modern offices for backbench MPs and allow Parliament House’s ongoing refurbishment and preservation.

“We had to give members at least the kind of accommodation that an employee in a bank or the public service has,” says Lochert.

The department saved $39 million, with an additional $6 million from government.

The ultimate challenge could begin: decide what form the building should take. How do you design an annexe with 102 offices immediately next to one of the state’s grandest civic buildings? How do you insert it into a 19th century heritage-listed garden without destroying it, or the magnificent views? How do you create a contemporary civic building that lasts, but isn’t lavish?

As Lochert says: “If a chook shed lasted 45 years, this one had to last 200.”

Architect Peter Elliott believed the best solution was to ‘bury’ the building. The recipient of the Australian Institute of Architects’ highest accolade, the gold medal, Peter Elliott has won many awards for civic and institutional buildings. Aptly his Old Melbourne Gaol Chapel and Entrance Buildings at RMIT won the John George Knight Award. To Elliott, an effectively subterranean two-storey ringed annexe would preserve the heritage garden. Equally important it would maintain the magnificent views from Parliament House across to St Patrick’s Cathedral and St Peter’s Eastern Hill Church and, of course, back toward parliament itself. Elliott’s proposal would also generate a new roof garden.

BOLD DESIGN: Architect Peter Elliott envisaged a building in a garden

But before construction could commence, the building plan had to be massaged around heritage features like the Federal Oak, and the site given a forensic examination by archaeologists. Prior to the chook house, garden or indeed parliament, the site was an Aboriginal meeting place and later briefly home to the St Peter’s Eastern Hill School, forerunner to Melbourne Grammar School. No Indigenous artefacts were discovered, but archaeologists unearthed a number of relics in a cesspit: a slingshot, toy sword, pen knife and, strangely, 20 shoes - 17 of which were left footed.

UNCOVERING THE PAST: Archaeological work unearthed numerous artefacts that tell the story of the site's early use as a school

Burying the annexe might seem modest and self-effacing, but for all its restraint Elliott’s design boldly reworks existing features of Parliament House and its gardens. Taking parliament’s sandstone floor as the datum line for its roof, the annexe adapts the bluestone plinth that supports the sandstone façade and transforms it into a combination garden wall and rampart. Meanwhile the immense roof garden designed by Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Paul Thompson ensures it doesn’t feel like a roof at all. This is especially evident on the far-eastern side where the second storey wing has been removed. It allows the William Guilfoyle-designed garden effectively to roll down into the central courtyard.

“It’s a topographic architecture that follows the contours of the land,” says Elliott.

If unobstructed views determine the exterior, internally the building is about unobstructed passage to parliament when the four-minute bells toll.

“Getting the circulation system to work was fundamental,” says Elliott, whose team measured walking speed from the furthest corner of the building. “All our calculations were well under four minutes.”

It’s a far cry from by-election corner. Politicians no longer have to scramble through each other’s office to get out. Every MP has an office 20sqm in size. (26 ministers’ offices remain in the main building, which will be progressively improved over following years.) The annexe’s ring-shaped plan also means short distance corridors. Short corridors alleviate internal politics. Like most modern offices, corridors allow productive chance meetings to occur. But short corridors also minimise unplanned encounters with political opponents.

Local materials dominate the annexe. The sourcing policy follows a Victoria first, Australia second, international third policy. Castlemaine quartzite with its textured grain and bolts of colour enlivens the stairs and breakout corners. Polished plaster and plantation Victorian Ash line the halls. A grid of articulated battens avoids the constricting sensation of two endless parallel walls, while glass windowed doors remove the impersonality of 100 anonymous blank doors. Contrasting the heavy grained, dark timbers of Parliament House, the annexe’s blond Ash exudes modernity and light.

“More natural feeling timbers, polished plasters and soft greys travel time better,” says Elliott. “They don’t date so much.”

Certainly time governs these parliamentary buildings: timetables, protocols, history and heritage.

MODERNITY AND LIGHT: Local materials have been used extensively in the annexe

“Parliament House was conceived with the values of durability - that if you build it well, it never needs to change,” says Lochert. “But while the bones of the building were designed to meet the test of time, they never made allowance for continuous renewal of content or services or technology.”

Indeed parliament was built before the advent of electricity. The chandeliers in the library and Queen’s Hall were all gas. They were wired and re-lamped later.

“One of the ways we approached the design of the annexe was: what are the lessons we’ve learnt from the main parliament building?” says Lochert. “The primary lesson is that technology will continuously change.”

To accommodate this Sisyphean task, a service corridor surrounds the annexe allowing total accessibility to the communication infrastructure and utilities. Meanwhile every office has its own secure servers so that MPs can communicate directly with their electorate office.

Another bruising lesson was obtained from the parliament building’s inability to cope with flooding. Hidden beneath the annexe’s courtyard are large water tanks while a utility room holds a massive pump able to cope with a “once-in-200-year flood”.

From a sustainability perspective the annexe is also progressive. One metre deep soil on the garden roof insulates the building while a geothermal exchange heating and cooling system controls the building temperature with 58 bores descending 100 metres.

“The environmental credentials of the building are superb,” says Lochert.

CUTTING EDGE: Parliamentary Services Secretary, Peter Lochert inspects the geothermal exchange system in the new building

Despite being largely underground, the building floods with natural light through openable windows on both the internal courtyard and external lanes. The courtyard windows frame views to the gardens. This corresponds with the ambitions of the garden itself. Guilfoyle’s design follows the picturesque tradition. It uses landscape and flora to create sequences of views and vistas as one walks around the garden.

“Much like a painter would do, they thought about foreground, middle and distant views in that picture making,” explains Perry Lethlean, co-director of Taylor Cullity Lethlean landscape architects. “Traditionally Victorian buildings used European exotic plants to create a level of beauty and civic amenity in front of these historic civic buildings. Our job was to extend the European picturesque garden, but we also wanted to convey that using Australian plants. It’s introducing a garden of the past in the courtyard and a garden of the future on the roof.”

TCL and Paul Thompson’s collaboration is renowned for such projects as the Australian Gardens at Cranbourne, which feature Australian natives.

“In this heritage context it’s an unusually bold and exciting outcome to foreground Australian plants in front of a high Victorian building,” says Lethlean.

A rich mosaic of flowering plants changes seasonally like a heath. Lethlean describes them as “cloud forms drifting across the roofscape”. Where the architecture is restrained, the Australian plants are more flamboyant. Yet the architecture and landscape are entwined.

Indeed the members’ annexe has the advantage of being built as one cohesive piece of architecture with a clear idea in mind. It not only solves the longstanding accommodation problem but enhances the surrounds with a new native landscape. The building opened in August 2018. That same month members moved out of by-election corner for the last time. They didn’t need a bell.

Ray Edgar writes regularly on architecture and design, including for the ‘Spectrum’ section of The Age.


Photos courtesy of the Victorian Parliamentary Library, John Gollings and Glenn Jeffrey

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