Category Archives: Architecture

Canberra’s old Parliament House

Before the New Parliament House there was the Old Parliament House.

Old Parliament House, Canberra, Travelstripe
Old Parliament House, Canberra, Travelstripe

Designed by John Smith Murdoch, the Old Parliament House is an example of the “stripped” Classical style of architecture  – symmetrical and balanced but without flourishes like pillars and pediments – which was commonly used for government buildings in Canberra during the 1920s and 1930s. It began operation on 9 May 1927, as a temporary base for the Commonwealth Parliament after its relocation from Melbourne to the new capital. It served for sixty one years, until finally, in 1988, the New Parliament House was opened.

These days Old Parliament House is home to the Museum of Australian Democracy – one of the country’s most fascinating museums.

The building itself is a monument to its era, with frosted glass panes in doors, wooden signs with gold lettering ghosted in green and pointing gloved hands, of dark, narrow wood-panelled corridors and the faint, but unmistakable, scent of a time when smoking indoors was  perfectly fine. Clichés like “if only these walls could talk” spring readily to mind.

Our group was greeted at the front door by a guide and taken to a spacious ground floor room, once probably some kind of common room or café but now a bright, light-filled classroom. The thirty students were divided into groups and each was given a coloured box. Inside each box were descriptions of the roles they were to play in an enactment of the landmark debate on the Franklin Dam issue. There were rudimentary costumes, scripts and artefacts like letters, newspaper articles and banners.

Once hydro workers, protesters, representatives from the tourist industry, police and politicians were “in character” it was off to the House of Representatives to debate the issue. The rest as they say is history!

Canberra’s new parliament house

Undoubtedly, the centre point of Canberra is the new Parliament House. All roads, paths, parks and even the lake seem to lead to it, point to it, highlight it or underscore it. There is truly, no missing it.  It’s a striking building, by anyone’s standards – a sprawling white stone mass, semi-submerged in a rolling green lawn with great, gleaming metal flagpole at its apex.

New Parliament House
New Parliament House

Parliament was not in session at the time of our tour, so the place was ours to explore and enjoy.  Our wonderful Education Officer/ Guide made certain that we didn’t miss anything and that we felt truly at home there, stressing that the New Parliament Building and indeed, the whole of Canberra, belongs to all Australians.

We began our inspection of our new Parliament House in the Great Hall, where we stood in silent admiration of the beautiful and enormous tapestry that fills the far wall. Then followed a long, long walk through narrow corridors running north, south, east and west, past closed doors and past portraits of familiar political faces past and present. Occasional banks of windows gave glimpses of quiet green courtyards below. We crammed into a lift and burst out onto the roof under the flagpole. It rose above us like a giant tripod, its pointed end lost in wisps of cloud. From here the roof-top lawn seems made for roly-poly but better games await us in the chambers below.

In the House of Representatives, my 30 twelve-year-old travelling companions dress up and enact a parliamentary debate “Should ads be shown during kids TV programmes?” They follow the protocols of parliament really well and they read their scripted lines with conviction. They put an end to advertising during kids TV shows. But the truth is they’re far too polite, well-behaved and downright decent to be convincing as Australian Members of Parliament!


The story of Canberra uncovered at the National Capital Exhibition Centre

Atop Canberra’s Regatta Point, overlooking Lake Burley-Griffin, sits the National Capital Exhibition Centre, which tells, through a series of brilliant interactive displays, the story of the people, events, history and the design which contributed to the development of Australia’s capital city. Most importantly, it highlights Canberra’s vital role as a symbol of Federation.

A view of Canberra
A view of Canberra

Archaeological evidence, including rock shelters, rock paintings and engravings, burial places, camp and quarry sites, as well as stone tools, suggests that the region was inhabited by humans for at least 21,000 years – which makes Tokyo, London, Paris, Rome and even Athens look like youngsters! The original people went by a number of names including Kgamberry and Kamberra.

White settlement in the area began in 1824, when Joshua Moore established a homestead and station which he named Canberra. The Campbell clan, led by patriarch Robert Campbell settled soon after and built a mansion which they named Duntroon. Today the Royal Military College is located on the old Campbell station and the original Duntroon mansion is home to the Officers’ Mess.

Canberra, as the world knows it, was born in 1908, when it was chosen as the site for the capital of the new Federation of Australia. In 1910, the Australian Capital Territory was established and in 1911 a competition was held to select a design for the new capital city. The winning plan was devised by John Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahoney Griffin, although poor Marion received no recognition, at the time, for her work which included all the absolutely exquisite drawings.

The Griffins proposed a city divided into two halves, separated by a lake. On one side of the lake would lie the civilisation section – the town, shops, schools and houses. On the other would lie the government section – the Parliament buildings, courts and administrative buildings.

With the construction of the new capital city underway, it remained only to find a suitable name. There were some strange suggestions, including Olympus, Paradise, Captain Cook, Shakespeare, Kangaremu, Sydmeladperho, Eucalypta and Myola. The name Canberra, which means, in the language of the original people, “meeting place” was eventually chosen.

At midday on 12 March 1913, the name was officially conferred by Lady Gertrude Denman, wife of the then Governor-General, Lord Denman, at a ceremony on Kurrajong Hill (now known as Capitol Hill. The event has been commemorated every year, ever since, as Canberra Day, on the second Monday of March.

The National Exhibition Centre gives a wonderful introduction to this place called Canberra. You can uncover the story of the original people of the land and learn the importance and significance of the local Bogong moth to their way of life. You can browse among photos of the first white settlers, and explore models of their homes and displays of their chattels. You follow the story of federation and the quest for the new national capital. You can study the Griffins’ prize-winning designs. You can enjoy the sound and light show at the scale model of central Canberra.  But best of all, from the huge front window you can enjoy a dress-circle view across the lake, taking in the spectacular dance of the Captain Cook Memorial Jet, to the Government section of this unique modern, fully planned city.

Canberra – London? Paris? Rome? Athens? Tokyo?

London! Paris! Rome! Athens! Tokyo! … Canberra?

Canberra  doesn’t quite fit with that line up of big names does it? Yet, it has more in common with these cities than meets the eye – apart from the obvious fact that they are all, of course, capitals of their countries.

The Tower on Parliament House
The Tower on Parliament House

I was fare welled with a few raised eyebrows and more than a few expressions of heartfelt sympathy when I set off last March, with thirty twelve-year-olds, to learn all about the engine room of the Australian nation and to discover what makes Canberra one of the world’s great cities.

We began our tour with a drive through Yarralumia, the embassy precinct. It was a good place to start because, in the matter of embassies, Canberra has quite outshone its sister capitals. Generally, in any country, embassies are grand establishments, but generally, they’re only distinguishable by a fluttering foreign flag or a coat of arms. In Canberra, however, each embassy building reflects the unique architectural style of its country; there’s the Chinese Embassy’s grand pagoda, the long house of Papua New Guinea, the rambling Georgian mansion of the USA, the Cape Dutch style of the South African High Commission and the strikingly beautiful edifice where the representatives of Thailand reside. Disappointingly, Aotearoa New Zealand seems to have drawn its inspiration from a drab 1970s office block in downtown Dunedin! Shame! Still, it doesn’t detract from the whole world of architecture and the line-up of glittering internationals in the winding, leafy streets of Yarralumia.

Canberra! London? Paris? Rome? Athens? Tokyo?

The Royal Albert Hall

Sitting like a giant Wedgewood urn opposite Hyde Park, on the Knightsbridge-Kensington border, the Royal Albert Hall was, until the end of the 20th century ushered in wonders like the Gherkin, one of London’s most arresting pieces of architecture.

Showtime at the Royal Albert Hall
Showtime at the Royal Albert Hall

It was the brainchild of Prince Albert, who after the Great Exhibition of 1851, had proposed that a permanent facility be built to celebrate and promote the Arts and Sciences. When the Prince died in 1861, the project had still not begun. A new proposal was put forward for a complex including a memorial in Hyde Park, with a Great Hall opposite and on May 20, 1867, the foundation stone was laid.

The Hall was designed by Captain Francis Fowke and Colonel H.Y Darracott Scott of the Royal Engineers. Inspired by the shape of the ancient Roman and Greek amphitheatres, it was constructed in local brick, with a dome of glass and steel. A mosaic frieze around the outside of the building depicts sixteen subjects including “Various countries of the world bringing their offerings to the great exhibition of 1851” as well as the disciplines of arts and sciences. One foot high terracotta letters spell out biblical quotations as well as a dedication to the Prince Consort and a recognition of his contribution to the building.

The Royal Albert Hall opened on March 29, 1871 and saw its first concert, Arthur Sullivan’s Cantata, on May of the same year. Since then it has hosted innumerable ballets, operas, countless classical concerts, the annual summer Proms and many rock concerts including performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeplin, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones (on the same programme!) as well as Pink Floyd (who were banned for life after firing two cannons during their performance); it has seen sporting events including the first Sumo wrestling contest held outside Japan, conferences, ballroom dancing and yes, even the famous Cirque du Soleil.  2069

The Tate Modern

The vista from the windows of the Tate Modern is so spectacular it’s easy to get distracted from its galleries full of awe-inspiring art.

Originally the home to the Bankside Power Station, the building was converted by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron and opened in 2000 as the Tate Modern Art Gallery. Set back from the Thames, behind a wide piazza and a plantation of trees, the massive, powerful brick structure, with its towering “lighthouse” chimney, dominates the riverbank and the skyline. The Millenium Bridge leads away from the piazza across the river to link it to the other side. Long windows, spaced along the building’s upper levels give real life, stunning pictures of Bankside, the Thames, St Pauls and the glass towers of the city.

The Tate Modern
The Tate Modern

The Tate Modern’s collection is organised under three headings – Material Gestures, poetry and Dream, Idea and Object and States of Flux – very useful for the layperson in tackling the enigma of modern art. It covers such movements as Abstractionism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Constructivism, Cubism, Futurism and Pop Art. It includes the work of artists like Monet, Rothko, Carl Andie, Dan Flavin, Jenny Holzer, Picasso and Andy Warhol. The Tate is famed for its cutting edge and often controversial exhibits, like the giant Louise Bourgois spider which crouched menacingly in the courtyard when I first visited and Doris Salcedo’s sculpture, Shobboleth 2007, a giant crack which snaked threateningly across the floor of the cavernous basement Turbine Gallery, ready to swallow the unwitting and the unwary.

It’s worth taking time at the Tate, just to drink it all in; the brilliant views, the incredible collections and the amazing architecture itself. There are also two great bookshops to browse and a very nice café for coffee breaks. Entry to most exhibitions at the Tate is free.

The London Eye

Although the latest and newest of London’s great landmarks, the London Eye has rapidly become one of its most popular. 3.5 million visitors per year pack like cattle into the queuing channels that stretch back from the river alongside County Hall, and wait for hours for a 45 minute whirl through the sky above the Thames.

Originally named the Millenium Wheel, and quickly dubbed “the big bike wheel”, the Eye was commissioned to mark the turn of the 21st century. The spinning circle of the Eye is a metaphor for the passage of time.

A view from the Eye
A view from the Eye

This great feat of architecture, engineering and design was masterminded by husband and wife team David Mark and Julia Barfield. The massive 2,100 ton structure was built further along the Thames then transported down the river in sections and assembled by a giant floating crane, probably something a lot bigger than you’re able to hire from companies, if you’re looking on hiring a crane that is. The official opening and inaugural spin took place on December 31, 1999.

At its highest point the Eye is 135 metres high. Its 32 air-conditioned glass observation capsules, each accommodating 25 passengers, give a spectacular 40 kilometre view over London.

The London Eye was the tallest wheel in the world until 2006, when it was eclipsed by the Star of Nanchang and shortly thereafter by the Singapore flyer. Now it seems, every second city has its own Eye in the sky.

While it has the look of towering ferris wheel, the Eye offers none the thrills. Apart from the quick and measured step into and out of the moving capsules, a turn in the Eye is a somewhat tame experience, not unlike a slow, gentle and silent scenic circle in a plane. Sponsors, British Airways, offer the same kinds of “This-is-your-Captain-speaking’ welcome on embarkation, as well as in-flight cautions about refraining from smoking, eating, drinking and leaning on doors (– as if!) and “We hope you enjoyed your flight” farewells as any plane trip. However, the panorama of London and the Thames is breathtaking. The close-up view of the hub and spokes of the huge, turning wheel and the companion capsules hanging above and below is awe-inspiring.

For the vertiginous and claustrophobic, however, the Eye is as lovely from below and afar, as from inside and atop. From any vantage point, it looks sensational; it is beautiful seen from both the Westminster and the Hungerford bridges, looking from Embankment across the Thames, approaching from Waterloo past Shell Centre or strolling down Southbank. It is stunning by night, a radiant circle of neon suspended in the dark and at New Year, it is a shower of brilliant lights as fireworks explode around it.

The Eye is a feature of the city skyline now, just as the Eiffel tower is part of the Paris horizon. Just like Gustave Eiffel’s tower on the Champ de Mars, the initial appearance of Mark and Barfield’s Eye on Southbank provoked fierce controversy and debate with the cons condemning it as an eyesore and a waste of money and the pros defending it as a monumental achievement of design, architecture and engineering. Just as the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of the French reach into the twentieth century, so too, the Eye is a symbol of the English turn into the twenty-first. And in the same way as the Eiffel Tower has endured to become a Paris icon, so too is the Eye becoming a London icon.

London City

The City of London, generally referred to as “The City” is London’s business and financial centre. It stretches along the north bank of the Thames from the Old Bailey, at the west end, to the Tower of London at the east.

Although there has been a settlement on the site since the 8th century Roman fort of Londinium, it has been razed and rebuilt many times. Most of early and mediaeval London was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. Again, during World War Two, bombing attacks took levelled many18th, 19th and early 20th century buildings.

Today, the city is a showcase of spectacular, towering modern architecture. Ever-rising scaffolding and the din of jack-hammers speak of constant renewal and the criss cross of cranes against the sky of the continual upward climb. Although, alongside modern buildings filled with victoria office space, there are still remains of the London of old, with classic architecture that produces a poignant contrast between the modern day and centuries gone by.

Contrast of old and new in London City
Contrast of old and new in London City

The city is the domain of the safety helmet, the yellow vest, the suit, the briefcase and, even sometimes, the bowler hat. It is a powerhouse of construction and commerce, a busy, vibrant place, which hums with daytime activity during the week and pumps on Thursday and Friday nights. Most of the rest of the time it is empty and deserted. Very few people have actually lived here since the 19th century.

Yet, still, threaded through the construction sites and dotted around the twentieth and twenty-first century monoliths are traces of old the city and the lives of the people who lived there. Plaques indicate the homes of famous figures from history, like prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry’s on Threadneedle Street.

There are streets which recall neighbourhoods of another age, like Bread Street, Cornhill Street and Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire started. Some districts are as old as Shakespeare, like Billingsgate, one of London’s oldest quays and home of its fish-market for 900 years until its 1982 re-location to the Isle of Dogs.

The Ornate Victorian Leadenhall Market, on site of the Roman Forum, was designed by Sir Horace Jones in 1881 but has housed a food market since the Middle Ages. Today it offers additional gourmet fare; wine, cheese, chocolates and delicatessen. At breakfast and lunchtime it is crowded with shoppers, stalls and diners.

Nine of the 52 beautiful churches built by Christopher after the Great fire still survive. The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, completed in 1708, still dominates the city skyline. The bells of St Mary Le Bow still chime and the tradition still holds that anyone born within their sound is deemed to be a true Londoner or Cockney. Still standing, also, is Wren’s 62m stone column commemorating the Great Fire. The tallest isolated stone column in the world, it goes by the unassuming name of Monument.

Many public buildings remain too. The Royal Exchange building, 1844, is the third on its site between Threadneedle and Cornhill Streets. The first was founded by Sir Thomas Gresham, Elizabethan merchant and courtier in 1565 and was given its Royal Title by Queen Elizabeth I. It is still one of the sites from which the new regent is announced. Britain’s first public (men only) lavatories, a symbol of the country’s sanitary enlightenment, were built in the forecourt of the Exchange. The Mansion house, official residence of the Lord Mayor of London, designed by George Dance the elder, was built in 1853 and of course housed such legends as Dick Whittington. Also “housed” in its concealed prison was the suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst.

The City of London is many ways a hodge-podge of new, old and older still, with tiny sunless pedestrian alleys curving off at odd tangents and roaring streets full of traffic, intersecting at strange angles. It is a mess of differing heights, styles and media with no architectural uniformity whatsoever and no apparent plan. But, yet it is the contrast of the old and the new, the high and the low, the stone and the glass, the plain and the effusively decorated that give the city its distinctive character. It is the scarred stone church against the gleaming steel diamonds of the glass tower that give it its charm. It is the tall, pale, angular, planes of the skyscraper behind sepia stained statues, friezes and neo-classical pillars or the glimpse of a pristine, white cathedral dome between two dark walls that give it its drama. And it is the reflection of elaborate Victorian façades in the stark steel-framed windows of the modern office block that gives it its magic.


The Grand Palace

Set at the heart of Bangkok, the Grand Palace is one of Thailand’s greatest and one of the world’s most memorable examples of architecture. Every surface, every corner, of every building in the sprawling complex is richly and lavishly decorated in exquisite and minute detail. Nothing, it would seem, has been spared in the process. If you’re thinking of going to see Thailand soon, you might be interested in these Thailand tours.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Construction of the Grand Palace began on May 6, 1782, when the then King, Rama I, moved Royal Court from Chonburi and established Bangkok as Thailand’s new capital city. Over the next two hundred years, successive Kings added new buildings, each shaped by the particular style of its time and each marked with the regent’s individual flourish.

The organic development of the Grand Palace has resulted in a large, rambling rectangular complex with an eclectic mix of halls, pavilions, temples and palaces grouped around courtyards, lawns and gardens. It is divided into several quarters; the Inner Court and the Siwalai Gardens, the Middle Court, which is the central part of the Grand Palace, where the most important residential and state buildings are located, the Outer Court which houses the public buildings and lastly, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, where the Emerald Buddha, one of Thailand’s most precious icons resides.

By 1925, the Grand Palace was no longer the permanent residence of the Royal Court or the seat of the government. Then, when the Absolute Monarchy was abolished in 1932, all government agencies moved out of the palace.

Although the current Monarch no longer lives at the Grand Palace, it remains a place of work and several Royal offices are still located there. It is still used for official events and both royal ceremonies and state functions are held there every year.

The Grand Palace is currently partially open to the public as a museum and it is one of Thailand’s premier attractions.

As dress codes and protocols are strictly enforced at the Grand Palace, it is advisable to take a guided tour to avoid risking offence. Besides, as the buildings are so numerous, so steeped in history, so rich in symbolism and so lavished with intricate ornamentation, it is helpful to have someone to tell their stories and explain their significance.


The Jim Thompson story

Many people come to Thailand, fall in love with it and never leave. Jim Thompson was one of them..

Born in Delaware, USA in 1906, Thompson worked as an architect until World War II, when he volunteered for service and was sent to the European theatre. Towards the end of the war he was posted to Bangkok, where he worked in military intelligence for the O.S.S. After his repatriation and release from the military, Jim Thompson returned to Thailand forever.

Thai silk Travelstripe
Thai silk Travelstripe

The art of Thai silk weaving captured Jim Thompson’s imagination and he set about reviving this almost lost industry. With his talents as a designer and textile colorist, he had a great deal to contribute to the manufacture and production process. A skilled marketer and promoter, he soon won worldwide recognition for Thai silk and it became a highly desirable commodity. The production of exquisitely designed and produced silks still continues under the Jim Thompson label. The main showroom is 9 Surawongse Road in Bangkok but Thompson silks can be found all over Thailand in prestige boutiques and top-end department stores.

Just as famous as Thompson silk is the  Jim Thompson house, or rather complex of houses, on the Klong (canal) at 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1, Road Bangkok. Consisting of six  teak houses,  which Thompson dismantled  brought from sites all over Thailand, It represents the best in traditional Thai architecture,

Authentic Thai  traditions were followed in the construction of the Jim Thompson House. All the buildings were elevated a full story above  ground  to avoid floods in the rainy season. The roof tiles were fired in Ayudhya using an ancient design. The outside walls were preserved with rare, old red paint. Even the “modern” chandeliers came from 18th and 19th century Bangkok palaces.

In 1959 the house was finished. After all the correct traditional religious observances and on an astrologically auspicious day, Jim Thompson moved in. In time, the house and its collection of art and antiques, became such a point interest to Thais and tourists alike, that he opened it to the public.  All revenue from the Jim Thompson House is donated to the preservation of Thailand’s cultural heritage.

On March 27, 1967, while on holiday in Malaysia’s Cameroon Highlands, Jim Thompson vanished. The mystery of his disappearance has never been solved. Still his beautiful silks and his famous Thai house remain as lasting evidence of his creativity and his love of Thailand.