Late last year saw a portrait of Romaldo Giurgola gifted to the National Portrait Gallery, and the completion of the Integrated Art Programme at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Justine Clark talks to Giurgola and long-time collaborator Pamille Berg about his architecture and working with artists.
PHOTOGRAPHY Hamilton Lund
Justine Clark I’d like to begin with the
portrait of Romaldo, which was gifted by
the RAIA to the National Portrait Gallery at
the end of last year. Can you tell me where
the idea came from, and how the portrait
was organized and commissioned.
Portrait of Romaldo Giurgola by Mandy Martin. Martin describes the portrait as “presenting Aldo Giurgola’s life-work in the context of his life-journey. I wanted to present him as a man of humility who has truly served humanity and to represent this through his three ‘houses’, that of God, Parliament and his own house.” The painting is in three panels
“united by the ellipse of light”. The first panel depicts St Thomas Aquinas Church, Charnwood, Canberra (MGT, 1989/90). Beyond the church are the snow-covered peaks behind the Technical High School at the small Italian village of Maniago (Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, 1981). In the second panel the Italian Alps connect to the Brindabellas in the ACT. This panel also represents Parliament House (MGT, 1979–1988), with Giurgola in the foreground, reflected in the pool of the Members Hall. In the third panel, the Brindabellas connect with a vista of the far shore of Lake Bathurst, where Aldo built his country house (2004), which is shown in the foreground.
View along the length of the new cathedral, with stone altar and cathedra by Anne Ferguson, aureole by Robin Blau and pews by Kevin Perkins.
The new entry to St Patrick’s, through the nave of the old building. Entry gates are by Robin Blau and the stained glass windows designed by Klaus Zimmer and fabricated in Germany by Derix Glasstudio.
Looking along the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. The baptismal font in the foreground is by Anne Ferguson and the screens by Robin Blau.
Altar furniture in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament by Kevin Perkins and Tabernacle by Robin Blau.
Cross with Corpus by Robin Blau, seen at the dedication of the cathedral.
Entry to St Patrick’s photographed during the dedication.
The first mass in the new St Patrick’s Cathedral.
The dedication, with Stations of the Cross by Philip Cooper seen beyond.
Pamille Berg The idea began with David
Thomas, the Chief Architect for the Joint
House Department at Parliament House.
David noticed that there was no reference to
the architect anywhere in the building, and
he suggested that Parliament House should
commission a portrait for the building. That
got nowhere – politicians really don’t care.
This got him thinking about how architects
are recognized in Australian society. Then
he and several others, including RAIA ACT
councillors, realized that the National
Portrait Gallery only had three portraits of
architects, none of which had been
commissioned. This was disappointing
given that the gallery’s brief is to represent
people from all walks of life. So David, in
association with the ACT Chapter, came up
with the idea of the Institute commissioning
a portrait to be presented to the gallery. This
was agreed with the gallery in advance.
Romaldo Giurgola I was quite hesitant
about accepting this. The idea of a portrait
is not my cup of tea. But, after discussing it
with Pam and thinking it through, I
accepted the notion that it was really a
celebration of architecture for the National
Portrait Gallery. And the RAIA was the
commissioner, the driver in a sense. So the
process started and Pam was engaged by the
RAIA to develop the design brief, which
reflected the kinds of briefs she prepares all
the time for artists. This began with a
competition between three artists. Then
Mandy Martin was selected on the basis of
her sketch design. I had contact with her at
three points in the process – in the
beginning she asked for photographs and
material, then in the middle with the initial
sketch, then close to the end, when she
already had already set up the portrait
elements, we had another meeting with the
committee. She made the final portrait from
PB It was a very formal process, with a
written brief. Each of the three artists was
properly paid. There was a good solid
commissioning committee with very
different points of view. It had six members,
some with qualifications in art as well as
architecture, including the head of the
National Portrait Gallery and the senior
curator of Australian Art at the National
Gallery of Australia. We also made Aldo a
member, so that he was part of the process.
We always find it works well to create solid,
professional, formal situations, which allow
the artist to experiment within a protected
At schematic design stage, each artist
had five hours with Aldo to use any way
they wanted – some people might want to
come back and sketch over time, somebody
might want to take him to lunch and drink a
bottle of wine. The brief also included some
of Aldo’s writings and we had a full-day
design orientation with all artists going
from building to building with Aldo talking
about his architecture. This was the
beginning of the inspirational process of
exploring what a portrait in the twenty-first
century might be.
This was an important question, as was
the related issue of how do you make a
portrait of an architect that conveys a
commitment, a practice – particularly when
it is to hang in the National Portrait Gallery.
The intention was to memorialize a practice
and thereby memorialize an individual, as
opposed to memorializing the individual
and hoping that there is some resonance
with the practice.
RG There was an interesting episode in the
second stage. The basic idea of having the
figure with the architecture in the
background had already been approved, but
I was concerned by the fact that I was
pictured looking into the pool – I said, “that
looks narcissistic”. But the committee was
very good and pointed out that really I
shouldn’t interfere. It was very true. If the
artist has an intelligent brief, then you
shouldn’t interfere because you can
interrupt the flow of his or her thinking and
the proper expression of things. That was a
good lesson for me; I’m a little bit too
Once the artist has been involved in
clarifying the process, they have to be left to
develop their own ideas. In architecture,
too, it’s so important to have everybody as
part of the process on his own or her own
terms. For example, with our work with
Kevin Perkins on the choir stalls here at St
Patrick’s, there was a certain moment when
you don’t have to talk with him any longer,
because he understands the process and the
programme, and you shouldn’t disturb that.
PB Aldo is describing the process by which
we collaborate with artists. It is not a
“free-for-all, anything goes” kind of process.
Instead we try to give a clarity and a
direction and then find those moments
when it’s right to step back. With Kevin and
the choir stalls, there were a whole series of
very precise steps: going down to Tasmania
and being in Kevin’s workshop; prototyping
everything in MDF at one-to-one scale;
sitting in it; asking, well if somebody is
really fat can they fit, can they walk down
the aisle, where’s the light, et cetera. But at
the same time it was a matter of being able
to see those things that Kevin could bring to
it which, if we were too dominant, we
would squash and kill. It’s a process that is
forever intriguing and fascinating and very
scary, because you never quite know how to
do it. It is a nurturing process, both on their
part and on ours.
The other thing about the portrait was
that, although the artists selected were of
national stature, we wanted artists who had
never done a portrait before. So, to the
extent that it was possible, everyone went
through the process of thinking through the
issues from the beginning. We find that
really useful – to have very bright, good,
strong people who are attacking something
fresh. Remarkable things come out of that.
RG That was a great discovery for me here
in Australia. Artistic output here is very
spontaneous, it was a revelation to me.
I was used to New York, with all its
galleries, where art was an institution. And
in Europe the artist soon belongs to the
academy, no matter what kind of attendance
he has. But here there were all these people
doing things spontaneously – they were
living with it. There is a transformation of
the whole perception of what an artwork or
an artist is here. Imagine, people were in the
middle of an abstraction in New York, and
here you had people like Fred Williams and
Arthur Boyd. I came here and everybody
was working on the landscape. Nobody was
working on landscape anywhere in the
world. It’s wonderful.
JC Aldo, what aspects of your work did
you want to be conveyed in the portrait?
RG Every project for me is starting from
scratch. I really always think that the one
that I have at the moment is the most
important that I ever had, honestly. My
approach has always been to discover all
there was in a particular project and to work
with that. I don’t have any prejudice about
stylistic character or about my hand being
present in the form of the building.
To be honest you don’t put a church into
a situation of doing something that they
can’t afford – and that is how things should
be done all the time. Maybe it is because I
am used to Modernism, but I feel it very
profoundly. Otherwise, what is your
responsibility to society? It’s not making a
good firework; you have to be more than
conscious of what you are doing.
PB In the portrait brief we described three
important aspects of Aldo’s practice. Firstly,
that he has done hundreds of public
buildings and has been continually trying to
figure out what it means to build
responsibly in public. Secondly, that Aldo’s
way of working has always been to roll up
his sleeves – to sit down with the youngest
members of the firm and his trusted
associates and work again and again. We
wanted to capture that sense of personal
responsibility and involvement. Thirdly,
that he has been interested in the notion of
a humanist practice – how does one quietly
entrench the resonance of content into a
project. We included a quote from a paper
by Harry Margalit, where Harry said that the
work of Mitchell/Giurgola in the States and
of MGT was firmly based in an
understanding of Modernism which is
framed by a sense of responsibility – of
material, of cost, of modesty, of rightness
for a situation.
JC So, Aldo, although you start afresh with
every project, there are modes of working
and general commitments to the idea of
what architecture might do culturally which
tie the work together.
RG Well, I have had many experiences, and
I figured out that the important thing is the
work and not the person. I’m also conscious
of the fact that in this country it’s so very
important to try not to be satisfied simply
by a great exercise of talent. When Jørn
Utzon came here he left a wonderful
monument, but these things are very rare.
Also, the invention of the site that was
given to him was the first great thing. I don’t
know who decided that was the site for an
opera house, but that was enough, because
immediately it unleashed a number of
attitudes and things, and certainly Jørn’s
was the best one. But especially here, in this
growing country, with this wealth all over
the place, it’s so important to also approach
things intellectually. You think about what
you can do, and what you cannot do; about
what is important for everybody else and
what is just an exercise of the talent of a few
people. It’s a consciousness which in
architecture I think is essential.
PB Aldo also often says that his approach to
architecture was conditioned by being
caught in the war in Europe as a young
man. It took a very important chunk out of
his youth. Leading up to the war, Aldo and
his friends in Italy placed great hope in
existentialism as a way of avoiding what
was about to happen. Then there was the
cataclysm of the war. When Aldo was
finally able to start practising architecture it
was not about ephemeral stuff, it was not
about a nice life. It was pretty seriously
about finding ways to construct a good
democratic society, and exploring what that
means after something like the Second
World War. Then Aldo went to the US,
initially as a Fulbright scholar.
Aldo also came out of a time in Italy
when an architect had a classical education.
Even in America, when Aldo was chairman
at Columbia, students were encouraged to
do a bachelor of arts where they studied
literature and poetry and philosophy and
history and everything else. Then they came
to Columbia and did a two-year architecture
degree. That was not thought to be a waste
of four years; it was understood as a proper
foundation for being an architect. In
Australian architecture schools now there is
a sense that 18-year-olds get trapped into an
architecture programme where they never
read Plato, they never read Faulkner, they
probably haven’t read Tim Winton. They
don’t have the opportunity to ask, “Who are
the poets of this country?”, “What is my
history?”, “Do I understand Indigenous
culture here with all its disjunction?” et
cetera. Such questions give an urgency to
what architecture can be, as an art that
synthesizes and acknowledges these things.
RG Look at the work we did with the artists
here at St Patrick’s. We started from scratch.
They were artists that we knew, but they
faced this problem for the first time. And
they established a connection between the
value of certain space, a certain light and so
on and the object that they are making. It’s
been a wonderful experience. For instance,
with the Stations of the Cross, the artist
connected immediately with the spaces we
were designing. We started approximately at
the same time, together, and the art belongs
to the architecture immediately, to the point
where we say we don’t put anything else
here except the cross, because this so
belongs. I have photographs without it and
everything is an abstraction, whereas with
the Stations it becomes something tangible,
which starts to talk with you. This is really
the secret of architecture, I think. It’s really
important when the elements in it start to
talk with you – a brick wall, a piece of
stone, a piece of timber and so on. When
you start to have this kind of response,
because it has to do with the human being,
not with an abstract entity.
JC You have said elsewhere that art
should help and identify and extend the
content of architecture, which otherwise
tends towards abstraction. I thought that
was an effective and quite beautiful way
of putting it.
RG We succeeded because we started
together. We all sat down in the beginning,
before I even started making sketches of the
building, and we talked about it.
PB We try to make each of these things
slowly come to be, rather than looking for
an instant solution. It takes a huge amount
of time. St Patrick’s is seven years of our
life, even for a tiny little $11.5 million
building. We said to ourselves all along,
“This is a very simple, very modest, very
minimal place”. In one sense, it’s not a big
deal, and yet for us and the participants and
the Diocese, it is a big deal.
To me, having watched the architectural
process over all of these years, the modesty
of architects and architecture in the face of
the task is such an important thing. When
the modesty is there it has a chance of being
right and when the modesty isn’t there, then
it usually hits the rocks at some point.
RG Modesty is not submission. I admire the
modesty of the arcade of the Ospedale degli
Innocenti. That’s a modest piece of
architecture, now look at that. The most
beautiful buildings in Canberra are two
little buildings, the Sydney and Melbourne
Buildings. Everybody loves them, although
they’ve been massacred in all sorts of ways.
The Capella de Pazzi in Florence is a
modest piece, a very modest piece of
architecture, but look at the resonance that
Brunelleschi had in every direction.
PB Another part of Aldo’s work, which I got
to participate in first hand and which also
has something to do with the portrait and
his practice, is the work he did with Pehr
Gyllenhammar, who was then head of Volvo
International. Pehr turned Volvo’s assembly
line on its head. Instead of workers doing
difficult things to make it easy to make cars,
Volvo were the first to send car engines
around on little robots, and to have design
teams and work teams where people figured
how they wanted to work and how they
could build good cars. Aldo did a series of
buildings, which culminated in the Volvo
International Headquarters in Gothenburg.
He was also involved in masterplanning
factory complexes and he advised on every
significant building that Volvo built
internationally through the Volvo Advisory
Board on Architecture and Design. This was
based on the premise that if everything that
Volvo did – buildings or products or
anything else – was excellent, then that
would enhance Volvo’s viability. Pehr
understood the value of good design, of
good work and of good places. So, as an
architect, Aldo could have important
conversations with someone who
understood the potency of the making. The
role of an architect isn’t just about making
buildings, it really has the potential, if it’s
taken properly, to make a difference.
JC Can I ask a bit more about your role,
Pam. How long have you and Aldo been
PB We first met at the American Academy
in Rome in the late 70s. We got on well and
I started doing some writing and editing
work for Aldo – I was an impoverished
graduate student. Then Aldo offered me a
full-time job in the Philadelphia office.
RG And Pam became partner in MGT in
1988, because embracing the critical ability
that she had to offer was fundamental to us
maintaining the direction of the firm.
PB It’s unusual to find an architectural firm
that is comfortable having non-architects in
it. Aldo and Mitch, his partner, found that it
was a big asset to have someone who heard
with ears that weren’t architectural ears,
who thought with a mind that wasn’t an
architectural mind. This helped the process
of defining briefs, listening to clients, and
trying to find the heart of the project. It was
sheer privilege on my side.
It’s also important to acknowledge the
way those offices worked, and the number
of people who were close to Aldo, who had
worked with him for decades, who really
served the process of making architecture.
It’s very unbalanced to have this
conversation without Hal Guida and the
others. They were fundamental to Aldo
being able to do what he did.
RG They were all students of mine in
school, they came and worked for me and
they are all there still here and in the office
in New York.
PB The Philadelphia office has changed its
name but it’s still there. And there is the
legacy of FJMT in Sydney, of GMB in
Canberra, of Mitchell/Giurgola in New York.
All those people have found their legs, and
decided to go off and do architecture in a
JC Earlier you mentioned in passing what
it means to move to Australia, to emigrate.
Could you talk about this further?
RG There were quite a few Americans here
when we were doing Parliament House –
we had an office of 150 people. When the
building was completed most left but some
of us remained here – Hal Guida, myself,
Pam. We started over.
PB And Rick Thorp, an Australian who’d
been working in the New York office and
was also an American citizen by then.
And as Aldo says, we started over. Even
though MGT existed and it had employees,
no one in Australia thought that a billion
dollar Parliament House was a good
recommendation for doing anything else.
So, although we had longevity and Hal
Guida had already worked with Aldo for 22
years at that stage, we had to start a practice
from scratch. It was very strange and
wonderful but scary.
I still remember the first time that I flew
into Australia, two years after the project
had begun and we were ready to start the art
programme. As we got closer and closer to
Canberra I got more and more excited
because there were still sheep and dams
and trees and no city sprawl and I thought,
“fantastic, this is a place that counts”. We
thought to be able to live in a national
capital and live in the country but still fly
in and out easily to work on international
projects was remarkable. I really didn’t
want to go back to the US. The Vietnam War
had been pivotal and I didn’t want to be a
part of where America was going with its
imperialism, even though my other
American connections and roots,
particularly with the west and the far
north-west, were very strong.
To me, Australia was a place where you
could live simply, you could live modestly.
I was hugely impressed with the socialism
in Australia in the 1980s. It allowed
professional people and other people a huge
number of choices – you weren’t locked in
immediately to the big mortgage and the
60-hour-a-week job. I married an Australian
and have a remarkable life between the city
and the country.
It was much more unusual for Aldo to
decide to stay than for any of us because
had he gone back to New York he would
have plugged back into a world where he
was known, he was esteemed, he had a
position, he had a place, whereas in
Australia, particularly in the 80s, nobody
much cared who he was. It was a very
courageous choice because he was
nearly 70. But, in effect he said, no, I don’t
want to just go back into the comfort of that
architectural fraternity. I want to stay here
and figure out what it means to build in a
place I don’t know.
RG You always carry yourself with you.
I’ve found myself at home in many places;
maybe it’s in my nature that I make friends
anywhere through my work. But I really
enjoy it here, I must say, without any
pretence of just being nice because I am
here. I really look at Australia as a sort of
an ultimate place where things can happen.
It is the Antipodes.
JC Aldo, can you talk about Canberra and
your ongoing involvement with the ACT.
RG Well, I knew about Canberra since I was
at school in Rome. I remember Ludovico
Quaroni showed us Walter Burley Griffin’s
plan. I always admired the notion of
building a place in relation to the natural
environment. I have always considered that
a building is not an ending, it is always
connected, in both conceptual and physical
terms, with the environment. So I aspired
to see this place. In fact I thought it was
already built, but instead there was nothing
here at that time, only a hill.
Later I entered a competition for a
memorial for Walter Burley Griffin on
Mount Ainslie. Nothing came of it, but I
was in contact somehow. Then John Overall
came in our office to look for an assessor for
the Parliament House competition. As soon
as he started talking I said, “Look, don’t go
too far, I would like to participate in the
JC And you came and did Parliament House.
RG Yes, and I have always maintained
contact with the NCDC, which became the
National Capital Authority. I consult and
recently I participated in the Griffin Legacy
programme. I continue to be interested in
the future of this city. In Canberra, there is
always the dilemma of how far we should
go before we say stop. I’ve seen many cities
in the world, and beyond 600,000 people a
city loses control of its independence.
So, I developed the idea that we can
sustain the spirit on which this city was
invented – not only by Burley Griffin
because you know the problem that we
have with the legacy of Burley Griffin; it’s
nice and dandy, but there is always the
danger of ending up with a physical
reproduction of what Burley Griffin had in
mind. That isn’t possible now – you can’t
think any longer on those terms. But if you
look too much at the geometry of that plan
you are bound to do it. Instead you have to
consider the initiative they had at that time
– the spirit of making a new town, from the
surveyor to the politician, from which they
invented the idea of making a lake, and the
emphasis on conservation, because that
came very early.
I’ve been presenting the idea that, yes,
you can establish a sense of a magnet city
like Canberra, providing you are involved
in a regional plan that makes sense. You can
think in terms of the local region – in fact
the more global you are the smaller you are
– and take this territory between Goulburn,
Canberra and Wagga, which has pretty much
consistent physical characteristics, and
limit the magnet cities and then try to
develop the towns that already exist, so that
there is always an equilibrium. The modern
urban problem is that we always think of
what happens within, rather than thinking
about what happens in between. That is the
really important thing to do.
The city could grow, but grow in a
different way. Canberra can remain a hub
and Wagga can be one and Goulburn could
be one too, because it has other potential.
The point is to introduce the notion that
those places already have their own culture,
and you have to work with that, not try to
transform everything all of a sudden.
PB It’s part of that spirit of generating ideas
for ongoing discussions and bringing those
ideas out of 60 years of experience of work
to try and see where they go. That’s what
he’s still doing.
ROMALDO GIURGOLA NOW OPERATES A SMALL
OFFICE IN CANBERRA WORKING AS A
CONSULTANT FOR INDIVIDUAL CLIENTS.
PAMILLE BERG AO HON. FRAIA, A FORMER
DIRECTOR OF MGT ARCHITECTS, IS THE DIRECTOR
OF PAMILLE BERG CONSULTING IN CANBERRA,
PROVIDING PUBLIC ART MASTERPLANNING AND
COORDINATION SERVICES TO ARCHITECTURAL
FIRMS AND PUBLIC CLIENTS.
RAIA Giurgola Project committee
Ross Feller, Catherine Townsend, David
Thomas, architects; Dr Eugenie Keefer Bell,
designer/maker and lecturer; Dr Andrew Sayers,
Director of the National Portrait Gallery; Dr
Deborah Hart, Senior Curator of Australian Art,
National Gallery of Australia.