BUILT AT OUTRAGEOUS COST AND EXEMPT FROM A WARTIME CONSTRUCTION BAN, THE CENTURY-OLD AUSTRALIAN HIGH COMMISSION BUILDING IN LONDON IS A HUGE, LAVISH MONUMENT TO THE ASPIRATIONS OF A YOUNG NATION.
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...