Features

Interview: Romaldo Giurgola

May 6, 2011

This year marks the 90th birthday of Romaldo Giurgola, architect of Parliament House. Maitiú Ward speaks to Giurgola about his hopes, and his concerns, for the future of Australia’s cities.

Maitiú Ward: An exhibition of your drawings has just opened at Parliament House. Drawing is becoming less commonplace nowadays in architecture, so I’d be interested to know what role it has played in your practice?
Romaldo Giurgola: We have two aspects of practice nowadays. One is involved very much in the presentation of buildings, buildings that are there for publicity, to which the architect unfortunately becomes a servant in a way. A building becomes a piece of merchandise, and therefore the eventual form of it becomes a saleable form. Then there are the practitioners that, in the famous phrase of Le Corbusier, really dedicate themselves to the “patient search”. There are not so many of them, but they are there; starting from Glen Murcutt, and others such as Lindsay and Kerry Clare, Richard Johnson, who did that beautiful building here recently.

MW You’ve had an incredible career, with AIA Gold Medals in the United States and here. In your opening essay to Luminous Simplicity, the St Patrick’s monograph, you mentioned that your motivations when you began work as an architect were too empirical, and then gradually over the course of your career, there’s been this shift towards an understanding of architecture that allows for difference; a pluralist architecture, I suppose. But at the same time, you’ve never given up striving for, as you describe it, “a logical structure that offers a comprehensive process for building”. There seem to be two competing processes at work: on the one hand you have this desire for order, which symmetry plays a part in, and on the other hand, there’s an obvious humanism and respect for complexity and cultural variation. How have you managed to reconcile these two forces?
RG It’s not that I reconcile them really, but it happens in a way, perhaps because I have an eclectic temperament sometimes, which is a characteristic of our times too. In other words, reflecting on our changing condition and so on, leads to an eclectic response. But I hope there is not only that. The search for me is the search for the appropriate answer to a certain problem, where the stylistic result is dependent on the answer to the particular problem. That is why I have spoken often of content in architecture.
I think content has often been excluded in favour of making form, but form in itself is nothing – form is the instrument of communication, but you have to have something to communicate, and unfortunately we have been dealing in form as an aesthetic exercise to no end for a long time. In architecture it’s very difficult to do that; you probably can in painting and the other arts, because you can set up certain principles for which the form becomes an intimate part. But in architecture, many of our principles come from the life of people. Making a building for me is to make a thorough study of why the building has to exist, of the people behind it.

MW Which is a nice segue to my next question, which is you talked in your essay in the St Patrick’s monograph of an architecture of a possible future, addressing more significant cultural and spiritual connections with human needs and values. With this in mind, do you think that we’re on the right track in Australia?
RG We may be, because there are lots of young people who feel very strongly about that, and also because we are in a place that is totally different to Europe, and even America. We are a little piece of Asia. Niall Fergusson has spoken of the end of an epoch and the collapse of Europe and the United States, and he says we are lucky in Australia because we are in the sphere of another kind of empire, which would be China and southeast Asia and so forth.
We say culture is always generated gradually through the consistency of a certain place – how to deal with the environment, your train of thought, your aspirations in life. In the world there is this fabulous wealth that you see in the States and Europe and so forth, but here the inequality is much less than in other places. It’s a bit like Scandinavia. I find potential here from a social standpoint, because again, we deal differently with the urban environment, and our sense of community is relatively new.
But culture is born from a small place – from where people can talk to each other, if nothing else, and look each other in the eye. In Canberra when they say we have to have culture, they ask somebody from Sydney to be a consultant. They should ask someone from here, because it’s only in this way that you gradually build a culture.

MW What do you think is the biggest challenge facing architects today?
RG One thing that needs to be reassessed is the relation to society. This will always be a preoccupation for architects, of course. The modern movement created a theory about it, but this also became an almost meaningless standard – the house for everybody, which is the same box for everybody! [laughs] But our challenges are much vaster, much more comprehensive – how we humanise what the environment is in terms of both the city and the country, how we make the scale at which man is a participant and an indispensable but not dominating element of nature. I feel very strongly about that. Even in this project [Parliament House], I tried desperately not to fall into the trap of making a glorious building.
I’m not a particularly religious person, but I must say that for the St Patrick’s Cathedral we laboured for seven years, because from the beginning they didn’t know where to go. At the beginning, following the fire in the heritage-listed church, the client said maybe we should select a new site for the cathedral where the business is, or where the community is. And then there was the historical option – to continue to have the cathedral located in the place where they had the first church. So we dug into it and worked with them, and eventually we all arrived at the conclusion that the historical place was the most important one for the Cathedral, that people would go there because there is a precedent. So we built the new church, incorporating the old chapel, in that place. And now it’s very successful; people come to the church not only from the community, but from everywhere. The project happened because there was good motivation for doing it. You cannot do something simply as a business transaction.

MW You’ve spoken of architecture in that regard as being created collectively and built collectively, for a collective purpose.
RG Absolutely.

MW Where do you see the role of the architect in regards to that process?
RG Certainly the role of elucidating his task, and then not being afraid of collaborating intensively with people, to have a project where everybody can be part of it as much as possible. Architecture is an art, but it’s a particular art. A painter can say, “If you like it, you take it; if you don’t like it, I can do something else.” An architect is not in this position; an architect has to work with the life of other people, to get the right sensitivity to the nature of a problem. So I very much believe in collaborative work. For this building [Parliament House], we all had a wonderful relationship, from the builders’ union to the parliamentarians. It was a very special time because everybody wanted this building – there was not this pressure on the design of making money with the project.

MW What drew you to establish your home here in Canberra?
RG We finished Parliament House, and to be frank, I found myself in a wonderful place. I had a wonderful experience. It was the greatest thing that I’d done in my life, if nothing else in size [laughs]. I was born in Italy, and spent most of my career working and teaching in America, but I found that I belonged here.

MW You’ve been here in Canberra now for more than two and a half decades. How do you feel the city has evolved over that time?
RG Unfortunately, I lived in that period where everybody was disoriented in a sense from the economy, and then the city was split. Before self-government in the ACT, the city was part of the government, and then it became an independent entity. The local government had to try to survive financially as much as it could, and they started to build this process of creating revenue for the city, and they kept building and building. In contrast to this are the strict conservatives in Canberra that want to defend every little inch of the city from development. In the city, life changes and you have to accept that something has to happen. What should happen is another thing, but you cannot defend something just because of the Griffin legacy. Griffin said a wonderful thing: that this is a model for a democratic city. I take it that he was thinking in terms of Frank Lloyd Wright and Chicago in the early 1900s. So by taking a position like that, nobody listens very closely to these people. That’s an archconservative position – they say, “You shouldn’t build there because otherwise you don’t have the view of the Parliament from a certain distance.” But you walk 10 metres away and the view changes! [Laughs] So that position is more dangerous than the people that take action. But I still believe that they have to be careful about increasing density, about what that means. The row house is an important model. Why can’t we sit down and design what is proper for this place?

MW You mentioned in your Sir Roy Ground’s Memorial Lecture in 1983 there was this issue of the city becoming more and more sprawling, which is creating more and more problems. Twenty-five years on, we’ve had a vast amount of sprawl, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney. It’s become very problematic, and obviously one of the solutions that architects are talking about is density. You’re saying that density of a certain form is a bad idea, but you yourself lived in a Roy Ground’s apartment, which you referenced in that lecture…
RG I live in an apartment, yes, with a beautiful view. But you see it depends how it’s done, because when an architect says density, there are various ways of thinking about what it means – big apartments, small row houses… We have to think here of what density means in terms of Canberra. The problem also is what the developer means when he talks of density, because governments can be very weak. So we have to be very careful when we pronounce a statement like that, “an increase in density”. For them it means the big buildings that you see around, but we don’t have a plan – planning is very important, but they have two planning offices here with no power and not enough professional staff. It’s not that I deny the need for density, but for every place there should be a particular density.

MW In the course of your career, have there been any disappointments at all?
RG We had a project in Seattle. I’d never worked for a developer, and the first time that we worked for a developer, I got in trouble [laughs]. We spent years doing a project that was for a complex building in the city, and again, I was trying to make a building open enough to be receiving people easily, and he wanted instead to use every little inch available from the ground up. I couldn’t stand it because doing that was also creating overshadowing for other structures. That was a real disappointment. But there was another disappointment that was eventually successful in a way, which was the competition we won for the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects in Washington. There was an old building, and we designed a circular building with specially configured glass walls that reflected this heritage building. It was a very nice thing. When we went to present the project to the Commission in Washington, it was rejected because it was too modern for their taste – I don’t know why. There were actually some good architects in that Commission – Skidmore Owings and Merrill was there, but they didn’t like it. We did five different design stages for that project and eventually we resigned the commission, and we became famous for that [laughs] – our fame is not a result of being great architects, but because we resigned a major commission! Another disappointment I had was that we were commissioned for an addition to the Kimbell Museum in Texas. We were engaged for a first design stage to expand and complete this building by Louis Kahn, but our design proposal got everybody against it – artists and some architects, especially critics.

MW Kahn of course was a friend of yours?
RG Yes. And I knew the original design which he had completed for the Museum, which was never fully constructed. We didn’t do anything special in our design proposal; I just faithfully extended what he was doing. The image was very strange that people make in their minds, because since Kahn’s building was unfinished in that way, people think that it is precious in that form, when in fact Louis Kahn intended to do a much bigger building. But because the Kimbell Museum image was crystallised into what they saw in a particular way, it didn’t go through. It was a disappointment.

MW So what has been the most defining moment of your career?
RG I think I would say it was this building [Parliament House] because I have never been so delighted by the generosity of the people involved. It was a choral effort around the idea of making this place be a culmination of the city plan. I wish you could have this kind of fortune some time in life; I wish everybody could have this experience…

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