The Lodge and Ostentatious Humility

The Lodge in Canberra, the official residence of the Prime Minister will be closed for repairs for the next 18 months. Several figures, including Jeff Kennett, former NCDC head Tony Powell and Andrew Carr of the Lowy Institute deem this an exercise in turd polishing. A new, architecturally inspired and inspiring building should be built. They argue that we should view this not just as a house for a politician, but a building that plays an important role in Australia’s Governance and diplomacy.

Indeed, by the accounts of others (unaccountably I am yet to be invited to dinner) very little can be said in favour of the existing building. A building that sets itself on fire during functions, or leaks in the meals of visiting dignitaries or merely gives them asbestosis would probably have a negative. The semiotics of the Neo-Georgian styling aren’t the best. A bastard child of a foreign style awkwardly transplanted to an Australia that ill suits it.

But what kind of architecture would be useful in showing off Australia to the world in a way that works in our interests? Surely not something grand or flashy. Any tin pot dictatorship can, and does do that. It doesn’t seem to impress anyone. A more sensible option would be mixing indigenous styles with clever environmental design. A showpiece of knowhow instead of power.

But I’d be really tempted by a display of ostentatious humility. The major reason the ostensibly temporary Lodge has never been replaced is a fear that the public would never accept the expenditure on a politician’s house. The cost would be negligible compared to  government expenditure over the lifetime of the new building (likely many generations), but this reluctance is also a strong symbol of the power Australians have over their government representatives. Elsewhere in the Westminster tradition the dingy and dirty dwelling on Downing Street is a similar symbol.

Maybe this humility can be used in diplomacy, and as an advertisement for democracy. . I tend to think that over the long run democratic government is better at providing stability and prosperity, and that peace and prosperity abroad is good for Australia. The best way to promote democracy is demonstration. Any building would only have a minor effect on the dignitaries themselves given they will already know enough about Australia, but it might have an effect on the public abroad .I’ll note two stories from China. It might be only one of many relationships we need to manage, but it’s important. The first is the goodwill received by the new US ambassador to the PRC merely by purchasing his own coffee – something implausible for senior CCP figures. The second is this description of Australia by race car driver and world’s most popular blogger Han Han in which he describes government buildings here as indistinguishable from public toilets. Like every other “criticism” of Australia in the article, it is actually a criticism of the fuss, power and expenditure of Chinese governments. Australian humility in  government buildings makes it look good compared to a government that struggles not to appear plutocratic and remote. Any goodwill garnered might pay off in diplomacy.

Having a building that leaks, spews asbestos and may catch fire may be too extreme a way of showcasing this modesty, even if it’s effective. But modest aesthetics should be put into the design brief for any replacement. We could end up with a mansion that showcases the best in energy and water efficiency technology, but one that looks like a cottage.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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Don Arthur
Don Arthur
10 years ago

Richard – Are you suggesting we demolish the Lodge?

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

My recommendation is that they start building the new buildings about 200 kilometers East on the coast (or however much it is), and slowly move Canberra to somewhere people might actually want to live. We might then have a 4th decent city on the East coast in 50 years time, and not the crappy place which Canberra will remain otherwise.

I must also say that after working in China (albeit a long time ago), I can vouch for Australian government buildings being quite distinguishable from the People’s Stinky Public Toilets (or whatever the real translation is), even if the architecture isn’t much different (with the optimum word in this being Stinky).

chrisl
chrisl
10 years ago

Build the new one out of concrete tilt slab, lots of blue board and some of that dinky stack stone that you see in the new estates….
Perfect

Alan
Alan
10 years ago

The building doesn’t work. The building cannot really be bought up to scratch because it was only ever designed as a temporary measure and the program for an official residence has been radically changed by the development of international travel and communications. Whether the federal government stays where it is or moves to a new Canberra-on-sea the country needs the prime minister to live somewhere that meets the functions of a contemporary official residence.

Oddly enough, the inadequacies of the Lodge mean it can only ever be a private perk because it is unusable for any public function.

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

Good question. How do you come up with a good design that will be suitably timeless? Far too late to do something classical. A Murcutt shed?

Alan
Alan
10 years ago

I’d go for Murcutt, but hopefully there will be an open competition.

JMB
JMB
10 years ago

I read somewhere that the Lodge which is still in use was intended to be temporary, akin to the first Parliament House which served us for 70-odd years. There is a site reserved for the permanent version, perhaps on the shoreline of Lake Burley Griffin.

In which case, why did they not use a bit of the stimulus money to throw up something in 2009, while attention was focussed on the BER project?

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
10 years ago

All the Very Special Buildings we’ve built in this country since the 1940s have been pretty poxy – with the obvious exception of the Sydney Opera House. Meanwhile there isn’t a building built in Canberra in the 1920s and 30s that isn’t lovely in its own quiet way – Albert Hall, the now Hyatt Canberra, and the lovely Parliament. I’ve never been to the lodge but I find it hard to believe that it’s not lovely in the same way – calm, modest, human scaled. I can’t believe it can’t be done up nicely. And no doubt it has a nice dining room suited to official occasions – it just won’t be large enough for lots of functions – which can be held less than two hundred metres away in the PM’s office or another function room in the new Parliament House – the architecture of which is a good idea (nestling in the hill) executed with lots of money and some lovely materials – like the marquetry – and otherwise with the sensibility of an upmarket Westfield Plaza.

James Rice
10 years ago

During unusually hot summer days in Canberra, when my nipper was still learning to walk, my family and I used to head to the new Parliament House in search of air-conditioning. I thought it was a great place for a toddler…cool, a lot of wide open spaces to wander, pretty child-safe, usually not too many adults rushing around. The perfect place for the youngest Australians to spend a little time! Definitely a lot more relaxing than a Westfield Plaza.

Peter Whiteford
Peter Whiteford
10 years ago

Richard

i must say that i enjoyed the link to Han Han!

john
john
10 years ago

The ABC report describes a building that has had no basic maintenance-upgrades in decades and decades – “old copper wrapped in cloth, and so is therefore a substantial fire risk” !
Sounds like it lacks modern fast circuit breakers i.e is also a substantial electrocution risk; no wonder they got into trouble in the pink bat roof space.

Andrew Carr
10 years ago

Good argument. There’s a lot of great anecdotes about early & mid-century Australian politicians displaying and benefiting from such humility (Lyons, Curtin & Chifley spring to mind). It’s part of our culture and our architecture and organisation of government should reflect that.

That said, I don’t think Australia should be complacent about merely taking care of our own patch of land. I don’t think we can afford to either in the coming century. Our economy, security and culture are all tightly connected to the region and globe, and we need to have a significantly higher impact on the region than we currently do.

Right now, the Lodge, hidden behind high walls (though still looking expensive), and largely useless for public business doesn’t do anything to help our image, either as a humble pragmatic nation, or as a outward-looking bold nation. Unless we can somehow return to the old pattern where the PM can walk home while chatting to the public, and live in a small place (Gillard’s Altona house, with the cops in a camper van across the road was a perfect image for this), then we should go the other way with the Lodge and use it to reflect our standing and seek to turn it to our benefit as a diplomatic asset.

john
john
10 years ago

Any published figures for the cost of this restoration ( versus the cost of building a new lodge)? Anybody who has restored an run down old building knows how costly it can be.

billie
billie
10 years ago

I would like to see the Prime Minister live in an environmentally friendly solar passive house. A former Canberra resident said that The Lodge is not in a very secure location, it would be very easy to attack, so the new house should be built on the reserved land. Perhaps the Prime Minister has been moved because The Lodge is so insecure and contemporary politics are so toxic.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

My facetious vote is for the PM to live in an exact replica of the worst housing stock in the most disadvantaged Aboriginal community, with a view to “enforced empathy” and thus policy responsiveness.

john
john
10 years ago

Dan Nice idea.
But…
Australia has a lot of crumbling infrastructure , old bridges, roads, railway roadbeds, buildings –so on– that have neither been properly maintained nor allowance made for the future costs of replacement.

The Lodge in its current state is is a fitting symbolic residence and who ever is the temporary occupant should be required to regularly climb into the roof space with a staple gun.

Peter Whiteford
Peter Whiteford
10 years ago

Richard

I took his comments to be totally facetious.

Tim Macknay
Tim Macknay
10 years ago

I second the Murcutt suggestion.

derrida derider
derrida derider
10 years ago

The Lodge always has been a badly designed, badly built and badly located building – something I often contemplated when I used to commute past it every day on my pushbike. Georgian architecture is inappropriate for Canberra’s climate, for a start. I sympathised with Howard’s refusal to live there.

I take the point about the democratic virtues of architectural humility. The in-your-face vulgarity of the Chinese embassy, for example, has won no Canberra friends. But a new Lodge can and should be understated – it would still be smallish, just well designed and in a better spot. I reckon it should be modelled on a traditional station homestead – single storey, verandahs all around, colourbond roof (you can even build a tin shed for Tim). It’s a great and distinctive mode of architecture perfectly suited to the climate and the abundance of land we have.

But don’t get me onto the iniquities of Parliament House. Really, the Canadian architects should have simply been taken away and shot.

john
john
10 years ago

Derrida , a blog post on ‘architects’ could be fun , please do get started.

Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
10 years ago

I don’t know about the Glenn Murcutt latter day tin shed idea for Canberra. It’s possible to insulate a tin shed but it’s still climatically and stylistically inappropriate for Canberra. Similarly with DD’s homestead idea at least in terms of style. In the urban Canberra setting both would be just as twee and crass in their own ways as mock Georgian.

I suggest that a new Lodge should adopt an updated version of the Burley-Griffin/Frank Lloyd Wright early modernism architecture paradigm on which much of the early Canberra architecture was based, perhaps with some eclectic post-modern decorative elements instead of the art deco ones that Walter Burley-Griffin mostly favoured.

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

I agree Ken. Nothing of Murcutt’s that I can think of has a public building look, which any lodge replacement surely ought to have. As for the repro-squattocracy pile, perhaps Baz Luhrman can pick the curtains.

James Rice
10 years ago

I have fond memories of the new Parliament House. During unusually hot summer days in Canberra, when my nipper was still learning to walk, my family and I used to head to the new Parliament House in search of air-conditioning. It was a great place for a toddler…cool, a lot of wide open spaces to wander, pretty child-safe, usually not too many adults rushing around. The perfect place for the youngest Australians to spend a little time! Definitely a lot more relaxing than a Westfield Plaza.

Each to his or her own, of course, but I quite like some of the public architecture that has been built in Australia since the 1940s. The National Gallery of Victoria (International) in Melbourne and the National Library of Australia in Canberra spring to mind. But what would I know…I like Federation Square (Melbourne, more than Canberra/Hall…) and I don’t really like the Sydney Opera House…!

philatvvb
10 years ago

Something simpler and more representative of modern Australia, I suggest. You just get one of each of the dominant styles of McMansion – ersatz homestead, neo-Georgian, fake Mediterranean villa, large square pink and purple box, you get the idea – and bung ’em together, such as is often found on the more expensive estates. If you must have your Murcutt, get him to design a covered pathway between each.

In fact if you drive through O’Malley in Canberra, you’ll see what I mean.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
10 years ago

I don’t know why we decide that a tin shed is stylistically inappropriate for Canberra. There are, after all lots of shearing sheds around there and they were there long before most other buildings.

More generally I’m a bit bemused by the idea that we know what a public building looks like. Of course back in the days when there was a stable tradition of such things, I’d know what that meant. And we built some absolute beauties.

But I can’t think of a single really satisfying public building that’s been built in my lifetime (though paraphrasing Groucho Marx in the case of the Sydney Opera house – and Richard’s comments notwithstanding – I’ll make an exception. That’s why I’d err on the side of restoring what’s there already.

This combination of everyone having ideas about what a ‘public building’ looks like but architects really having no idea and there being no strong cultural tradition of such buildings (except the defunct one which was killed off by modernism after WWII) means that I’d expect a disappointment.

Seriously, I guess they exist – there are certainly nice(ish) public buildings built in the last fifty years but can someone set me straight with an example of a really good one?

Alan
Alan
10 years ago

Architecture is inherently risky. The Sydney Opera House has a magnificent exterior and a deeply unsuccessful interior. The NSW government probably thought it was doing the right thing by sacking the risky Utzon and commissioning the safe NSW government architect to finish the interior. Most of us take a different view now.

I do not especially want a residence to look like a traditional public building. I do not want grand entrances, domes, columns, coats of arms etc etc. For me an ideal public building would follow Murcutt in treading lightly on the earth.

I do not know how to guarantee loveliness in a building but we will certainly not get it by going for lowest common denominator designs. Burley Griffin certainly had a site for permanent residence. I wonder if he ever prepared a design.

FDB
FDB
10 years ago

I don’t think a private residence ought to look like a public building at all.

I like the station homestead idea (though it plays to a kinda tired trope that we’re all pastoralists). Verandahs galore, colourbond steel, a large, paved ‘breezeway’ for entertaining between the house and the shed. Ramshackle homemade brick BBQ, a dam stocked with yabbies…

Basically, my grandfolks’ place near Boddington.

john
john
10 years ago

Alan my father was assistant director PWD , Utzon went for a number of reasons – one was the only way to test variations on the designs was to build very expensive models , The ‘design kept changing it was getting very expensive. Another was that nothing like it had ever been built and when the engineer who had worked out how to make i.e design the shell lost faith in the architect something had to go.

Re functionality it is often forgotten that the opera was meant to have the (bigger) space that was designed for opera and the orchestras the space that was designed for orchestra.

derrida derider
derrida derider
10 years ago

To be fair to architects, their mistakes are obvious to many people for a very long time. Our mistakes in contrast are decently obscure. Plus they have the problem that those who control the money are likely to have even worse worse taste than theirs. There is a good reason that most architecture is boring; taking risks is more likely to end in disaster than triumph. For every Opera House there are several High Courts.

Still I would have thought that the design of public buildings such as a PM’s residence could reflect the country’s values and history while still being fit for its practical purpose (the latter, more than the aesthetics, is my objection to Parliament House). But de gustibus non est disputandem.

On the Opera House, a big part of the triumph was not Utzon’s but the engineer’s. Utzon specifed a literally unbuildable design for those curves – the maths showed they could not be self-supporting. As that became clear it is not surprising the builders lost faith in him, or that the design had to keep changing to deal with the problem. Arve Parbo’s modifications used cables under tension hidden inside the shell to keep the appearance while restoring stability; it was a terrific piece of ingenuity. Though cheap it wasn’t, and it actually worsened the existing problems with the interior spacing.

john
john
10 years ago

the big crisis with the opera house was about the interior . None the less they were all in love with ‘her’ and she really is a thing of rare grace and beauty- who cares if she has imperfections- Ove Arp also contributed a bit.

Alan
Alan
10 years ago

John, if we start on the opera house dispute other commenters will cry out in anguish for something civilised and rational like a climate change v denialist thread.

john
john
10 years ago

O my god !! you are right!

JC
JC
10 years ago

But I can’t think of a single really satisfying public building that’s been built in my lifetime (though paraphrasing Groucho Marx in the case of the Sydney Opera house – and Richard’s comments notwithstanding – I’ll make an exception. That’s why I’d err on the side of restoring what’s there already.

Really. I can think of lots of new buildings that absolutely trump the old stuff. The old stuff we have is essentially British colonial to straight London copies.

The Australian parliament is a work of art. You mentioned the opera house of course. The Menzies bridge in Melbourne is another. The Melbourne Arts center and of course the Square which (at night only) are brilliant. The Square is only a night time building). How about the new soccer ball building in the stadium region in Melbourne? It’s beautiful.

I think the old stuff like the parliament building in Melbourne was both (simultaneously) a vanity and a cultural cringe project… like “look ma, look at what I’ve done”.

The Australian parliament captures our culture just perfectly.. not too out there but as solid and as modern anything possible in the world. It’s a spectacular building in terms of what it symbolizes and the lines a wonderful.

And the Melbourne Arts center is truly exquisite and surprising how well it turned out from the awful architecture of the 60’s. The blue stone is literately timeless.

You have to let buildings speak to you and try to get into the mind of the designer and what he was trying to do.

I think the raft of modern architects are just wonderful as a large number of them, though not all, are inspirational. They get it like the ones who built Rome, Paris, London, Berlin and New York. The new breed aren’t just architects they are also artists and the materials they have to work with just keep getting better.

JC
JC
10 years ago

I don’t know about the Glenn Murcutt latter day tin shed idea for Canberra. It’s possible to insulate a tin shed but it’s still climatically and stylistically inappropriate for Canberra.

I think FDB also mentioned a homestead style.

But why look back? Why not look forward and create a building that represents our style and how we see the Prime Minster’s position. It’s a favored one but not too far removed from us (or else).

The brief would be somewhat complex as it serves both as a state house for state functions, a political house for those sorts of functions and also a family residence of the PM. So the building would have to also pretty large and possibly in some sort of modular form.

I don’t think we need to copy the past like a homestead. It should be a modern building that also is respectful of the past history and what it represents. A good architect would be able to achieve all that and more.

Sally
Sally
10 years ago

JC as usual shows his blowhard ignorance.

The old stuff as he collectively calls Australian architecture from the earliest white settlement up to the first quarter of the 20th century is in fact almost all *vernacular*-colonial (including Georgian) but also gothic, romanesque, art deco, classical etc with direct design influence incorporated from many other cultures as diverse as America, China, India.

I’d go for an earth house concept for any new Lodge.

JC
JC
10 years ago

I’d go for an earth house concept for any new Lodge.

Phil. would you use mud brick and a thatched roof?

Sally
Sally
10 years ago

No Gab, I would use river rock, stone, timber and other locally indigenous or available constituents and a tin roof, definitely, in part to highlight the sound of rain, the other sections topped by earth, i.e. soil and a garden growing from the rest. And glass of course to see the stars.