Al­most 100 years ago when Australia had a pop­u­la­tion of just five mil­lion peo­ple, King Ge­orge V, with Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter Billy Hughes in at­ten­dance, cut the rib­bon on a con­tro­ver­sial, ex­pen­sive and large new build­ing in the heart of Lon­don. The build­ing was Australia House, our very first overseas diplo­matic mis­sion. Given its size – seven storeys and two base­ments oc­cu­py­ing an en­tire city block – it was con­sid­ered vastly out of scale for a new and rel­a­tively small na­tion and, there­fore, some­thing of a white ele­phant.

It was also an un­der­tak­ing of great ex­trav­a­gance. It cost £379,756 to ac­quire the tri­an­gle of land bounded by Strand, Ald­wych and Mel­bourne Place in 1912 on which Australia House would be built. The to­tal build­ing cost of the project was ini­tially es­ti­mated to be £450,000, but in the end, it blew out to more than dou­ble that, com­ing in at about £1 mil­lion. Even its method of con­struc­tion was un­usual, and it was built in a man­ner that would un­doubt­edly never be re­peated.

The High Com­mis­sioner to Bri­tain at the time of its con­struc­tion, for­mer prime min­is­ter An­drew Fisher, faced con­tin­u­ing crit­i­cism in the Aus­tralian par­lia­ment over the grow­ing cost of the build­ing. The sub­ject of Australia House was rou­tinely de­bated in par­lia­ment and there was a gen­eral anx­i­ety about spend­ing so much money on a huge build­ing in Lon­don when the coun­try’s war debts were pil­ing up at home. Australia House was seen as an ex­pen­sive pre-war lux­ury that the coun­try could sim­ply no longer af­ford. To­day, how­ever, it is one of the jew­els in Australia’s overseas property port­fo­lio (it was in­cluded in the Com­mon­wealth Her­itage List in 2013 and is also a UK Grade II-listed build­ing), and on Au­gust 3 the build­ing will cel­e­brate the cen­te­nary of its open­ing.

Not only is Australia House our first overseas diplo­matic mis­sion, it is also the old­est pur­pose-built con­tin­u­ously op­er­at­ing em­bassy in Lon­don to­day.

“Even by to­day’s stan­dards it’s a big build­ing,” says Alexan­der Downer, the out­go­ing High Com­mis­sioner to the UK (Downer will end his post this month, re­placed by for­mer at­tor­ney-gen­eral Ge­orge Bran­dis). “But it made sense for Australia to have a sub­stan­tial diplo­matic mis­sion here. Lon­don was the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal for a huge Bri­tish em­pire and many de­ci­sions that had im­pli­ca­tions for Australia in all sorts of ways – in terms of se­cu­rity but also in terms of the econ­omy – were made in Lon­don. But even so, it says more than that. This build­ing says that at the time it was built the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment wanted to make a state­ment about Australia. And you find lit­tered around the build­ing ev­i­dence of how the gov­ern­ment wanted to boast about and pro­mote Australia as this great emerg­ing na­tion.”

The de­sign of the build­ing, as en­vi­sioned by the gov­ern­ment at the time, and the lo­gis­tics re­quired to re­alise it were as­ton­ish­ing to say the least. A sig­nif­i­cant amount of the ma­te­ri­als were shipped from Australia to Lon­don in­clud­ing sev­eral types of mar­ble and other stone as well as vast amounts of tim­ber. The main stone used on the ex­te­rior is Bri­tish Port­land stone, but it sits on a base of Aus­tralian tra­chyte. Through­out the build­ing there is Buchan mar­ble from Vic­to­ria, Caleula mar­ble from NSW and white An­gas­ton mar­ble from South Australia. In the main Ex­hi­bi­tion Hall alone, the to­tal weight of the Aus­tralian mar­ble used was more than 1200 tonnes. The join­ery and floor­ing tim­bers in­clude va­ri­eties from all Aus­tralian states. Carved pan­els of black­bean line the Downer Room (for­merly the li­brary, since re­named in hon­our of Alexan­der’s fa­ther Alick, who was High Com­mis­sioner from 1964 to 1972) as well as the High Com­mis­sioner’s of­fice.

Aus­tralian sym­bol­ism adorns the ex­te­rior of the build­ing – the six colon­nades on the Strand side rep­re­sent the six states. A sculp­ture by Ber­tram Macken­nal over the main en­trance rep­re­sents the god Phoe­bus/Apollo driv­ing his horses of the sun, re­call­ing the Rising Sun in­signia worn by the Aus­tralian mem­bers of the AN­ZAC forces in World War I. Two sculp­tures by Harold Parker flank the en­trance: on one side a fe­male fig­ure, a dy­ing ex­plorer and his com­pan­ion rep­re­sent­ing the “Awak­en­ing of Australia”, while on the other side in­dus­trial fig­ures de­pict the “Pros­per­ity of Australia”. In­side, the al­abaster light fit­tings on the ground floor and some of the first-floor rooms fea­ture rams’ heads, rep­re­sent­ing the im­por­tance of wool-grow­ing to Australia at the time, as well as wat­tle mo­tifs.

That Australia House was built when it was is ex­tra­or­di­nary. Con­struc­tion work started in 1913, then in the midst of the war the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment placed an em­bargo on all build­ing works other than those di­rectly con­cerned with the war ef­fort. An ex­cep­tion was made

for the con­struc­tion of Australia House and the labour­ers who worked on it were give spe­cial ex­emp­tion to work on the build­ing rather than go­ing to the front.

The Downer Room is one of the more lav­ishly dec­o­rated spa­ces in Australia House. Ar­chi­tec­tural Re­view in 1918 said the then li­brary was “no­table as much for its grace­ful pro­por­tions as for its ad­mirable dec­o­ra­tions”. Above the book­cases that once lined the room (since re­moved) are a se­ries of em­blem­atic carved pan­els, each con­tain­ing a vase en­cir­cled with a wreath of lau­rel and topped by a shell and a gar­land of flow­ers. Grouped around the base of the wall pan­els are de­pic­tions of the im­ple­ments associated with mu­sic, de­sign, drama and science, all em­bel­lished with carv­ings of leaves, berries and wat­tle. The orig­i­nal fur­ni­ture through­out the build­ing was late Ge­or­gian in style but pro­duced in Australia.

A se­ries of mu­rals by the Aus­tralian artist Tom Thomp­son were com­mis­sioned in 1958 to show­case Aus­tralian in­dus­try, science and the arts, and still line the ro­tunda out­side the High Com­mis­sioner’s of­fice. Through­out the build­ing there are works by Aus­tralian artists in­clud­ing Ray Crooke, Judy Cassab, Sid­ney Nolan and Martin Sharp – as well as unattributed works by un­known in­dige­nous artists.

The build­ing was de­signed by A. Mar­shal Macken­zie and Sons, as­sisted by the Com­mon­wealth of Australia’s chief ar­chi­tect, J.S. Mur­doch, after an ar­chi­tec­tural com­pe­ti­tion judged by, among oth­ers, Arthur Stree­ton.

De­spite the use of ma­te­ri­als from Australia and the dec­o­ra­tive el­e­ments through­out, ar­chi­tec­turally speak­ing the build­ing it­self doesn’t look very Aus­tralian. Built in the Beaux-Arts style, its de­sign in­flu­ences are more French than any­thing else.

One of Macken­zie and Sons’ great­est ar­chi­tec­tural achieve­ments is the main Ex­hi­bi­tion Hall on the ground floor where prod­ucts from Australia were once dis­played. From the main en­trance of the build­ing (should you be able to get close enough to see in) there is an un­in­ter­rupted view to the far­thest end of the room some 60m away. Ar­chi­tec­tural Re­view praised the hall’s de­sign as “a tri­umph of di­rect plan­ning upon which the ar­chi­tects are to be con­grat­u­lated”. Given the grandios­ity of the hall it’s not sur­pris­ing that it has been used as a lo­ca­tion for films such as Harry Pot­ter and the Philoso­pher’s Stone in 2001, where it stands in

for Gringotts Wizard­ing Bank, as well as scenes in the 2017 film Won­der Woman.

Downer, who spent time here as a teenager when his fa­ther was High Com­mis­sioner, says he has a strong affin­ity with the build­ing. He has been in­ti­mately in­volved in the plan­ning for the cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions of Australia House and has overseen re­fur­bish­ments to many of its rooms in prepa­ra­tion. After tea in his pala­tial of­fice on the first floor over­look­ing St Cle­ment Danes church, Downer of­fers to take WISH on a tour of the build­ing. But first: “It’s a fan­tas­tic of­fice, isn’t it?” he says as we pre­pare to leave. “It must be the grand­est of­fice the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment has any­where. It’s so big, and with such for­bid­ding walls, that it’s a bit lonely in here. It’s of­ten said this of­fice was built for the prime min­is­ter when­ever the prime min­is­ter vis­ited Lon­don. But I think it’s al­ways been used by the High Com­mis­sioner, ac­tu­ally.”

He sug­gests we start at the top – and he means the very top. We take an el­e­va­tor, pass through a se­ries of tightly locked doors and up and down sev­eral stair­cases and even­tu­ally emerge at one of Downer’s favourite parts of the build­ing: the rooftop. From here there is a panoramic view over Lon­don. Then it’s down to the base­ment, which houses a two-storey cinema – a re­mark­able in­clu­sion in a build­ing de­signed not that long after the birth of the medium. The base­ment is also home to a se­ries of vaults which to­day are used for gen­eral stor­age but were once full of gold. “At its peak in the 1920s, some­thing like 50 per cent of Australia’s gold re­serves were held here,” says Downer.

Downer’s knowl­edge of the his­tory of the build­ing and its ar­chi­tec­tural cu­riosi­ties is ev­i­dent through­out our tour. “The handrail on this stair­case is the long­est sin­gle brass handrail in Lon­don,” he says as we de­scend one of the two stair­cases on ei­ther side of the build­ing that con­nect ev­ery floor. At other times he points out pho­tographs and mem­o­ra­bilia lin­ing the cor­ri­dors as we pass and tells a story about its ori­gin or mean­ing.

“I’ve known this build­ing for most of my life,” he says. “It’s helps to ex­plain how ex­tra­or­di­nary this build­ing is to re­mem­ber that it was a pur­pose-built build­ing, all of this was built for the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment. All of these things mean some­thing, and they cap­ture the essence of what the gov­ern­ment of the day thought about Australia and its fu­ture.”

Alexan­der Downer Jr in the High Com­mis­sioner’s of­fice; a pho­to­graph of his fa­ther Alick in the same job; the main en­trance and vast Ex­hi­bi­tion Hall where Aus­tralian goods used to be dis­played

Clock­wise from above left: Tom Thomp­son mu­rals around the ro­tunda; the façade on Ald­wych and Strand with colon­nades rep­re­sent­ing the states; the High Com­mis­sioner’s of­fice; the view from the rooftop; the Downer Room; the stor­age base­ment where half of...

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