National Heritage Places - High Court - National Gallery Precinct

Australian Capital Territory


The High Court - National Gallery Precinct is outstanding as a group of national buildings in a landscape setting with a clear Australian identity. As envisioned in Walter Burley Griffin's plan for Canberra, it provides a grand panorama of public buildings reflected on the waters of the lake.

The High Court has critical importance to all Australians as the focus and pinnacle of the justice system in Australia. The National Gallery is also important as the home of the national art collection and a major venue for art exhibitions. Both buildings are open to the public and are major tourist attractions in Canberra.

The High Court - National Gallery Precinct was included in the National Heritage List on 23 November 2007.


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The High Court - National Gallery Precinct is an integration of buildings, terraces, courts, paving, gardens and water features. The style of architecture expressed in the structures is the late 20th century architecture style known as Brutalism, showing characteristically bold, strong shapes.

The style promotes a monumental presence to the buildings within the High Court - National Gallery of Australia Precinct.

Brutalist Architecture

Brutalism is an architectural style that spawned from the modernist architectural movement and which flourished from the 1950s to the 1970s.

The original inspiration for the Brutalist style came from the designs of Swiss architect Le Corbusier as well as those of German designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The name originates from the French term bton brut, or 'raw concrete', although concrete was not the only material buildings were constructed from.

Brutalist buildings demonstrated an aggressive largeness of scale and a strong, muscular character. The style aimed to be honest with structural material, with concrete walls, columns, beams, and services such as lift shafts expressed as design features. This philosophy can be seen today in the High Court and the National Gallery Precinct, particularly in the internal support columns and the patterns of the supporting beams as well as in the external architectural elements.

High Court of Australia

A national competition for the design of a permanent home for the nation's highest court in Canberra was held in 1972-73, with the winning design submitted by the architectural firm of Edwards Madigan Torzillo and Briggs Pty Ltd. The design competition guidelines emphasised the symbolic importance of the building:

'In its siting and in its form, the High Court building imparts a sense of strength and security. The visitor is made to feel aware of the rights, privileges and responsibilities of the Australian judicial system' (High Court design competition guidelines).

The builder, PDC Constructions (ACT) Pty Ltd, began construction of the building in 1975, and it was completed in 1980 at a total cost of $46.5 million. The Court and its Principal Registry were immediately transferred to the new building and the first sitting in its new home took place in June 1980.

The 40-metre tall building is essentially one of concrete and glass comprising a number of major functional elements, namely a large public hall, three courtrooms, an administrative wing, and Justices chambers. A waterfall, designed by Robert Woodward and constructed from South Australian speckled granite, runs the full length of the entry ramp.

The High Court as an institution has long been associated with decisions that have impacted on Australian society. The Building itself was the setting for the landmark Mabo (1992) and Wik judgements (1996), which recognised Indigenous common law rights to land and provided the basis for the recognition of Native Title.

National Gallery of Australia: Home of the Nation's Treasures

The National Gallery of Australia's (NGA) collections include works of art across four main areas: Australian art, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander art, Asian art and international art. Works in the NGA are part of Australia's National Collection.

In 1912, the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board began purchasing works of art for the National Collection. These works were, in the main, portraits of Australians renowned in politics, art, literature and science. These acquisitions continued throughout the following decades, with serious collecting of Australian art increasing in the late 1960s, followed by acquisitions of international art in the early 1970s.

In 1967 Prime Minister Harold Holt announced that the government would build an Australian National Gallery in Canberra to house the National Collection. A limited national architectural competition was announced. The contract for the design was won by the architectural firm, Edwards, Madigan and Torzillo International Pty Ltd, designers of the High Court of Australia. The building was constructed between 1974 and 1982.

The major challenge in designing the NGA was how best to display works of art to the public, while conserving and storing these works in absolute physical and environmental security.

Much of the building is made of reinforced brush-hammered concrete - an example of Madigan's philosophy that concrete has as much integrity as stone. Concrete slabs are the main facings for walls; they are also the major reinforcing structural component, enclosing and camouflaging numerous service shafts and ducts.

The Sculpture Garden is an important feature of the design and was landscaped by Harry Howard and Associates in 1981. The tranquil garden displays monumental sculptures from many countries within outdoor 'galleries', including a number of individual statues from Rodin's Burghers of Calais series as well as works by modern and contemporary artists. Native plants and various ground surfaces define the areas, providing a sense of privacy and intimacy to appreciate the works.

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