‘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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.