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The houses of Parliament

Design of the houses

While the names of the House of Representatives and Senate were taken from US Congress, the design of the two chambers was influenced by the British Parliament, as well as borrowing from European assemblies. The architects of Australia's Parliament House, which opened in 1988, adapted this rich heritage to give the House of Representatives and Senate a distinctively Australian feel.

Layout

In the House of Representatives and the Senate, the seats are arranged in rows in a horseshoe, or 'U' shape. The government sits on the right and the opposition on the left of the chamber. This is modelled on the layout of the chambers in the provisional (Old) Parliament House. These chambers, in turn, were based on the horseshoe or semicircular pattern of European parliaments like the French Chamber of Deputies.

Initially, John Smith Murdoch, the principal architect of Old Parliament House, designed the chambers to look like the British House of Commons with the government and opposition sitting on rows of benches facing each other. However, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, who oversaw the design and construction of the provisional building, preferred the 'U' shape. They believed it allowed members of parliament to hear and see proceedings, or meetings, more clearly.

Colour

House of Representatives

The green of the House of Representatives is based on the colour of the British House of Commons. No one knows for sure why green was used in the Commons, but there are a number of theories about it. St Stephen's Chapel may have been decorated in this colour before the Commons began to meet there. Green was a colour favoured by monarchs from the Plantagenet dynasty, who ruled Britain from 1154 to 1485, and who built and later renovated the chapel.

However, the choice of green may have been simply practical. In the 16th century, when the chapel became a meeting place for the Commons, green dye was the cheapest and easiest to make. Over a century later, the financial records for the House of Commons show that baize, a green fabric which was inexpensive and hard-wearing, was ordered to furnish the Commons. Later, green leather replaced cloth on the benches.

There is also a theory green was chosen because of its symbolic link to, or association with, the 'common' or ordinary people. These, of course, were the very people the House of Commons represented. This association came about because in medieval society most people lived in rural villages and worked in the fields. As well, the village green was a shared space for people to meet for sport and recreation.

The dark green of the House of Commons was replicated in the House of Representatives in Old Parliament House. When the current Parliament House was built, the green was adapted to reflect the Australian landscape. The greens used in the House of Representatives are similar to the grey-green of Australian native plants like eucalypts and wattle trees. They are a lighter colour than the green of the Commons.

The green is darkest on the floor of the chamber to draw the focus to the members present in the House. The colour gradually lightens until it reaches the ceiling and a large skylight, which brings natural light into the chamber. This gives the space above the chamber an airy, floating feeling, which the architects wanted to be a symbol of 'a free and open society'.

Senate

House of Lords +

House of Lords: one end of the chamber is taken up by a large and very ornate gilt throne on a dais. This is where the monarch sits during the opening of Parliament.

Reproduced with the permission of UK Parliament

Like the House of Lords, the Senate is red. Historically, red was the colour of royalty, and was used in rooms where the king met with his nobles. As the House of Lords was originally made up of noblemen, the chamber contains red benches and a deep blue carpet.

In the Senate, the traditionally rich red of the Lords was also adapted to reflect the Australian landscape, and the particular reds found in native plants such as eucalypts. The colour designer who worked with the Parliament House architects thought the deep red of the House of Lords was too intense for people to work in all day. As a result, softer colours were used in the Senate.

As in the House of Representatives, the Senate's colour gradually changes from dark to light, towards the skylight in the ceiling. Again, the deeper colour at the floor level draws attention to the participants. Similarly, the lighter colours above, and the skylight bringing in natural light, also work to create an airy, floating feeling.

Style

The architectural styles of the Senate and House of Representatives are deliberately distinct from one another. In the Senate, it is based on circles and ellipses (breaks) and in the House, on angular shapes. The chamber ceilings provide a striking example of this contrast. It can also be seen in the rooftops of both chambers: the Senate has a circular roof and the House of Representatives roof is angular. Both rooftops are finished with red terracotta tiles – a reference to the red-tiled rooftops of many Australian homes.

The large skylight in each chamber not only lets in natural light during the day, but at night glows with light to indicate Parliament is sitting. In Old Parliament House, a red light on the roof above the Senate chamber and a green light above the House of Representatives indicated when each chamber was in session.

Speaker's Chair

The Speaker’s Chair in the House of Representatives +

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Hon Tony Smith MP, presiding over Question Time

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The Speaker's Chair in the House of Representatives is on a dais at the head of the chamber. This raised position helps the Speaker oversee proceedings in the chamber.

The Speaker's Chair in the House of Commons is similarly elevated. When the Commons first met in the Chapel of St Stephens, the Speaker's Chair was placed on the steps leading up to the chapel altar, where the Speaker could see and be seen by members of parliament.

The Speaker's Chair in Old Parliament House is a copy of the one in the House of Commons. Large and imposing, it resembles a throne. Made mainly from oak, the chair contains a small amount of timber from Westminster Hall in UK Parliament, and HMS Victory, which was Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson's flagship in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. The chair represents the ties between Australia and England, and the continuation of the Westminster system of government.

The architects of Australia's new Parliament House designed the Speaker's Chair to suit the style of the new chamber. They wanted it to remind people of the chair in Old Parliament House, but be less 'throne-like'. Like much of the building, it is made from Australian materials, including grey box eucalypt with a timber marquetry wattle design in the screen wall at the rear of the chair.

President's Chair

The President's Chair is located at one end of the Senate facing the U-shaped seating. Like the Speaker's Chair, it is on a dais so the President can see and hear everything that happens in the chamber and so everyone in the chamber can see the President. The chair was a gift from Canada and is made from North American cherry wood.

Behind the President's Chair is the Vice-Regal Chair, which is used by the Queen or the Governor-General. When the Vice-Regal Chair is occupied, it is moved forward and the President's Chair is moved to the right of its usual location. The Vice-Regal Chair was a gift from Great Britain and is made from fumed English pearwood.

A third chair to the left of the Vice-Regal Chair is for distinguished visitors to the Senate, such as visiting heads of state. When this chair is in use, it is placed immediately to the left of the President. It is made from New Zealand kohekohe timber and was a gift from New Zealand.

The timber in all three chairs resembles Tasmanian myrtle, a timber used in much of the Senate chamber furniture. Custom-dyed Australian leather and wool fabric was also used in the chairs.

President of the Senate +

President of the Senate, Senator the Hon Stephen Parry. The Vice-Regal Chair is directly behind him, and the chair for distinguished visitors is on his left.

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