Parliament’s Secret Stone



’Parliament's secret stone’ Art Monthly March: 16-18 (1997)

The architectural use of stone as testimony to worldly authority seems limited to the age of grand empires. As global markets undermine the nation-state, a less material language of power has evolved. By comparison with today’s information networks, the back-breaking feats of stone construction that legitimised the authority of Egypt, Rome or Britain seem a barbaric folly of power, however picturesque its outcome.

Yet evolution into an information society is far from linear. While the Infobahn looms on the millennial horizon, a trend in the opposition direction occurs. Governments attempt to recover this chthonian legitimisation of state. Is this a ’return of the real’—a counter-reaction to the sensory vacuum of information technologies? Or is it merely a ruse to distract attention from the matters of the day?

In November last year, the British government returned the ancient ’Stone of Scone’ to its home in Scotland. Since its seizure 700 years ago, it had lain under the coronation chair at Westminster Abbey. A parallel homecoming occurs in the state of Victoria. Though the historical canvas is smaller, the story is just as interesting—and intriguing.

While London was returning its ancient stone north, it was lending huge reliefs in gypsum to the National Gallery of Victoria, down south. The Art of Empire exhibition of Assyrian art crowned the warm relationship between the British Museum and the new director, Timothy Potts.

The timing was auspicious. Premier and Minister for the Arts, Jeff Kennett, was promoting a series of bold initiatives that revived the spirit of Melbourne patriarch Sir Redmond Barry. They included an extension to the NGV, Federation Square, new museum at Carlton Gardens, and a $80m refurbishment of the Parliament House—enough to recapture the confidence of Marvellous Melbourne.

The Parliament project was particularly overdue. Its original plans would be finally realised in a manner that provided politicians with workable conditions and the citizens of Melbourne with a splendid new dome. Such a project inspired many with hope, particularly stonemasons who saw it as an opportunity to renew their ranks with apprenticeships.

On 4th December, the government attempted to pass legislation that would allow mining in the Grampians National Park, otherwise prohibited since 1984. The Heatherlie quarry was a major source for the honey-coloured buildings that give Melbourne its august appearance. The Parliament shares with the Supreme Court and the GPO a material debt to this range in Western Victoria. While the specific stone to be used for renovations had not yet been selected, the government wished to keep options open by allowing the possibility of mining.

Reality began to intrude on the dream. The opposition called for a division on the bill, threatening Kennett’s call for ’bipartisan support’. Active steps had been taken by the opposition to promote alternative sources of stone from nearby quarries in Dunkeld, Port Fairy and Western Australia

Kennett’s response the following night was to announce the project’s abandonment. It surprised everyone. As reported in The Age (6/12/96, p. 3), Kennett justified his decision, ’If we don’t get the right stone then it ain’t worth the project.’ According to leader of the opposition and shadow Minister for the Arts, John Brumby, ’ The Premier was well aware of the ALP’s opposition to mining from early November when we issued a press-release. The fact is that we attempt to amend hundreds of pieces of legislation. The Premier’s response was petulant and short-sighted.’

Political commentators claim that the stone issue is a ’furphy’. For the informed, the ’real’ story is a complex of factors that soured the taste of the idea for the current government. With a budget blow-out to the proposed cost of the NGV extension, and a similar upward revision to the Parliament House completion, there was fear that the State Coalition might be laboured with an increasingly overweight honey-coloured elephant.

Kennett claimed that action on the left jeopardised the project’s bipartisan support. In response to reductions in worker’s compensation entitlements, unions threatened industrial action. The prospect of an ugly confrontation worried Kennett. His statements reveal a sentimental attachment to this bastion of government: ’I am not going to have this grand old lady of a Victorian building put in the position where it is going to be subject to industrial disputes.’ Elsewhere, Kennett was quoted as claiming that the vacant building would be ’naked for many years’ to industrial action (The Age, 7/12/96, p. 3).

Thanks to independent MP, Russell Savage, the Parliament failed to pass the legislation necessary to disband the Parliament House Completion Authority. Many hope that summer will have cooled passions to the point where the decision may be reversed when Parliament sits again in March. One can only hope that the debate goes beyond the usual schoolyard rhetoric of ’bully’ and ’dummy spit’.

Despite the acrimony, the debate itself had a positive consequence. The focus on stone has provided masons with a public voice for their specialised knowledge. Responsible for the physical construction of Melbourne’s architectural heritage, their rare understanding is in danger of being lost to more efficient building technologies.

Stonemason Henry Behncke has a quarry at Dunkeld, 50k south of Heatherlie. He claims to have an alternative material which to the untrained eye looks identical to the original sandstone.

Behncke’s assertion begs an aesthetic question that is intimately tied to the politics of the day. Is it enough to say, ’I don’t know much about stone, but it looks good to me’. Alternatively, to heed the experts’ eye seems out of step with our customer-oriented times. Our times are better illustrated in the title of a discount store near the Victoria Market—99% Perfect. What is at stake in that invisible 1%? Craftsmanship?

Traditionally, craftsmanship was an ’open’ secret, celebrated in a variety of public rituals. In Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities, a building is opened with customary verses from the master builder, introduced with the comment:

’The mason’s work’, the speaker continued, ’though now in the open air, takes place, if not in secret, then for a secret purpose. The levelled ground is filled in, and even in the case of the walls we build above ground, one hardly thinks of us in the end. The work of stonemason and stonecutter is more in evidence, and we even have to accept it when the painter completely obliterates all traces of our work, making it his own by covering it up, smoothing it out and colouring it.’Parliament’s Secret Stone

Through such ceremonies, masons stake a professional claim to an ’intimate’ knowledge of their work.

While the fuss of such an occasion seems lost in our pragmatic world, there is a tenuous echo of this ritual still present today. According to Behncke, it is common for builders to throw an ordinary thing, like a Coke can, into the spaces between walls during their construction. This ’sub-conscious’ act communicates privately from today’s workers to another future generation of fellow builders.

Stonemasons from the time of the initial construction of Parliament House have left our generation with their own reminder. In a letter to The Argus on 11th October 1880, Hamilton masons Coutler and Howell invited opinion from ’the public and all parties interested in the development of a good building material within the colony’. They set up an exhibition of stone at the Museum of Technology principally to demonstrate the advantages of the same stone now being promoted as an alternative to Heatherlie.

Unfortunately, there is no corresponding exhibition in the 1990s. A walk around the present Parliament House will reveal a patchwork of materials, including much stone from Bacchus Marsh. Why not choose a completely different stone? The commitment to the Heatherlie stone has perhaps more to do with the current spate of privatisation: it offers a symbol of continuity to allay anxieties about the dismantling of state services.

The scrutiny of stone begun by the Parliament project has reawakened a valuable appreciation of our urban fabric. It would be a shame to see it buried under the business of the day.