Classicism Meets Modernism

Classicism Meets Modernism

The design of the National Library of Australia combines an ancient exterior with a modern interior, explains Dr Grace Blakeley-Carroll

On 15 August 1968, the National Library’s lakeside building was officially opened. The building came into being for practical and symbolic reasons. On a practical level, the objective to house all Library staff and collections in one place was the driving force. On a symbolic level, politicians and Library management desired a grand home for the institution’s collections that would represent Australian cultural development and also elevate its capital city, Canberra.

Max Dupain, Front View of the National Library of Australia with Forecourt and Fountains, 1968,

In the early 1960s, the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) invited several architectural firms to submit pitches. Bunning, from the Sydney firm Bunning and Madden, was convinced he was the man for the job. He embarked on an international tour of libraries to inform his design, and collaborated with library expert Tom O’Mahony to increase his chances.

Bunning summarised the different roles the building needed to play in a draft article, which is held in his papers at the Library:

While its principal function is to provide a smoothly operating library service for scholars and public, it is, at the same time designed to be a book storehouse on a vast scale and a handsome showcase for national treasures.

He was aware of the need to balance function and artistic expression in his design.

The Leicagraph Co. Pty. Ltd., Walter Bunning, 1960, Papers of Walter Bunning,

To achieve this, Bunning turned to Classical and European Modernist influences when designing the Library. While the proportions of his design did not adhere ‘to the detail of Greco-Roman architecture’, he explained, the building was nonetheless ‘clearly a contemporary derivation in the spirit of classical design’. He was responding to the wishes of then Prime Minister Robert Menzies and NCDC Commissioner John Overall who expressed a desire for a building with a Classical and American Modernist feeling respectively.

The building sits on a large podium, with its façade inspired by the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, which dates from the 5th century BCE. Columns clad in the finest Italian marble surround the building. The original design included the same number of columns as the iconic ancient temple (one column was removed from each side as a cost-cutting measure) and the main building was to be flanked by smaller buildings that were never realised. Modernist references are seen in the use of clean lines and spacious interiors—such as in the foyer. The building is constructed from the most durable materials, including granite, bronze, slate and copper, as Bunning wanted it to last through the ages.

Total Proposed Development Showing Additional Wings, c.1969,

Designed and built in the 1960s, the National Library of Australia expresses a growing Australian cultural confidence and desire to cement this on the world stage. Fifty years on, the building has stood the test of time—both as a grand public building and as a functional national library.

Dr Grace Blakeley-Carroll is a Curator in the Exhibitions team at the National Library of Australia.