In the years following the end of the Second World War classical architecture did not enjoy widespread appeal. It lost credibility with the downfall of the Third Reich, which had employed classicism in its monumental prestige buildings of the 1930s and 1940s. In addition, the main feature of classical architecture—symmetry—was rejected by the modern international style.
Philip Johnson’s design for the Lincoln Center in New York started something of a revival in the stripped classical style in the early 1960s. With its variety of formal settings, the developing city of Canberra was a good location for buildings in this style. One of the earliest examples in Australia was the Law Courts of the ACT (1961), followed by the National Library of Australia (1968).
The style is basically classical architecture without the use of classical details and motifs. Symmetry, a repetitive rhythm of columns or column-like elements and a reliance on carefully considered proportions are important. In Canberra, there are very few examples of domestic architecture in the stripped classical style, but it has proved popular for prominent buildings such as the Law Courts of the ACT and the National Library of Australia.
The Law Courts of the ACT building was designed by Roy Simpson of Yuncken, Freeman Brothers, Griffiths and Simpson in 1963. The building acts as a terminating point for University Avenue at City Hill and is the focus of the law courts precinct at Knowles Place. The two other buildings forming the precinct are the Reserve Bank building (Howlett & Bailey, 1963) and the ACT Police building (Hassel McConnel, 1968). It is an excellent example of the post-war stripped classical style of architecture.
The building is raised up on a podium, responding to the slope of City Hill and emphasising its importance, and is accessed by steps up from Knowles Place to its central entrance. The exterior consists of large panels of veneered marble within a grid of slender columns. A continuous ribbon of clerestory glazing and a flat roof give the building a horizontal skyline. The courts and various ancillary functions are grouped around a central courtyard—its most interesting feature, though not visible from the exterior of the building.
The law courts precinct is an important and successful example of twentieth century civic urban design incorporating three buildings that express the post-war stripped classical style, within a masterplan established by the NCDC. It is the most intact mid-century precinct in Canberra, and only the planter boxes near the Reserve Bank building detract from its original appearance.
The National Library of Australia (NLA) was designed by Bunning and Madden in association with T E O’Mahoney for the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) and opened in 1968. It is one of the major early achievements of the NCDC, along with Lake Burley Griffin and its associated engineering works.
The NLA was designed to be a modern take on the Parthenon on Athens’ Acropolis, and it is one of the most prominent of the monumental buildings in the Parliamentary Zone, dominating the western lakefront and approach to south Canberra from Commonwealth Avenue Bridge. Raised above ground level on a major podium, and surrounded by a restrained colonnade, it was the first of the national institutions in the zone and established what would be a pattern of raised floor levels for other buildings in the area.
Its straightforward classical architecture has not been well received by architects, but that hasn’t stopped it achieving iconic status. The interior spaces are interesting: beaten copper panels by sculptor Tom Bass sit prominently above the entry, leading to a generously proportioned foyer with finely detailed stair and stained glass windows by the artist Leonard French. Elsewhere in the building was furniture by Fred Ward, although much of this has been replaced over the years.