Representation of Architectural Designs by Semiotic Symbols

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Architecture is an art through which people’s needs and desires can be expressed to amplify values and culture. A good case example is the current Parliament House Canberra, Australia which was erected to showcase the heritage and the culture of the Australian people. Semiotic symbols are social arts that are manifested through structures in the form of non-verbal communication which bring out a meaning. The building of the Parliament House which became operational in 1988, was a structure that symbolized the prestige, identity and architectural prowess of the Australian national accede. It is a concept that proved the maturity of Australian politics. Through this project, architecture is able to bring out the blend of politics, culture and nationality. That the three can compromise to bring out a product that is the building that serves the interest of all the Nationals.

      This paper focuses on the representation of architectural designs of buildings by semiotic symbols. We take a case study of the Parliament House in Canberra Australia. Architecture is modified depending on the culture of the people that inhabit a given place (Indyk, 243-246). In a society, buildings are designed to accommodate the people’s beliefs and values. The architect when designing has to consider semiotic signs and symbols of a structure and the exact message it wants to communicate to anyone that sets their eyes on it.

Buildings have semiotic symbols to pass different signals, for example, the architecture functions to pass the people’s culture using the building since this building will exist through different generations (Oboh, 413-416). Other semiotic symbols may only be used in buildings for commercial purposes to advertise the products that the company which occupies the building produces.

     The forecourt to the entrance of the Parliament House Canberra, Australia building was designed to attract people into the house to witness the democratic process (Munro, Laswel 434-446). It consists of ample open space with outward stretching walls as if to send a message of welcome to whoever cares to visit. The forecourt pavement is a creation of stone and red gravel which not only act as a heritage galore but also an acoustic show of design. A granite mosaic at the center of the pool made by Michael Jagamara symbolizes the continent of Australia. At the same time, the hard surface and natural colors at the forecourt depict the ancient land whereas the mosaic represents the indigenousness of the Australian natives. The forecourt space also describes a time in history before the settlement of the Europeans in Australia.

     The great veranda of the building consists of a meshed wall having 22 columns. The roof of this veranda is a see-through glass which is supported by slabs made of marble Carrara which is of Italian origin. The origin of veranda concept stems from the traditional architecture of Australian homes where verandas provided shelter against rain and sun. It also served as a platform to welcome as well as bid farewell to visitors. The white marble pays tribute to the old parliament house. From the north view, the building appears like the old parliament building.

The most conspicuous symbol of the parliament building is the flag which flies on top of the house 24 hours of the day all week. It also acts as a landmark given its position right at the center of the building. The flag is as massive as a double-decker bus. It is placed on a flag mast that is 81 meters weighing close to 220 tones. The flag stays up between four to six weeks before it is rotated with thirteen other flags so that they can wear out evenly. Three people at any given time are tasked with raising the flag.

Walter Burley Griffin, the young American architect who won a competition to design the new Australian capital city, Canberra, in 1912, was at one time quoted saying his plan for the city was a unique and distinct like no other place in the world. He held that no obstacle would stop his quest to put his idea of the building in place. His plan for the city was so ideal; it would meet future demands and secure the culture of the Australian people through it. Almost close to a decade, an idealist Griffin and a cohort friend, Marion Mahony was determined to convince the bureaucrats and politicians that their vision was the best option the city had. They wanted to see their vision become a reality. Griffin later opted to resign in 1920, without ever getting a chance to actualize his vision (Godwel, 591). Not much of his plan was used except for the lake and a few roads . To date, Griffin and Mahony’s work has a blueprint for the most prestigious building in Australia, Parliament House Canberra 70 years after conception of the idea. Romaldo Giurgola is credited with its design.

Their design ingeniously outlined a geometric plan of critical buildings and main avenues on to the existing topography of mountains, hills and the river. Although the Australian government officially hired Griffin as federal capital director of design and construction, he readily acknowledged Mahony as responsible for most of the building plan. Griffin’s push to convince the bureaucrats was met with frequent opposition. Moreover, the changes in government also did not help. At the same time, the nation was distracted by the First World War. One of the revolving doors of ministers, William Archibald, accused Griffin of “grand theorizing, moonshine, and dreaming,” and eventually Griffin quit in despair. A temporary Parliament House was built by the Commonwealth Department of Works and Housing – though not at the location Griffin had planned. Nevertheless, Mahony and Griffin’s idea became known in architectural circles.

Among those who admired it was a young Italian, Romaldo Giurgola, who saw the illustration of the Parliament House Canberra plan on a classroom wall in Rome. Fast-forward several decades, and the nation decided it was time to build the Parliament House Canberra to mark the anniversary of European inhabitance in the year 1988, with Giurgola’s firm Mitchell-Giurgola Architects being awarded the design for winning the design competition.

Giurgola agreed with Griffin and Mahony’s report that stated that the buildings had to be in harmony with the natural environment. He too saw Canberra as a symbolic place with a landscape that could provide space to exploit through architectural design (Samuel, 323-329). Giurgola’s vision to integrate the New Parliament House on the hill was not meant to impose a monument like structure on the people, strategically; people were posed to be above parliament which signified that power remained with the people.

The construction is packed with overt symbols of national identity. An example of its monumental character as a both source of power and leadership role bestowed upon its wall design and structure. The huge fore-court mosaic – Possum and Wallaby Dreaming was designed by Papunya artist Michael Nelson Jagamara, and the building’s 23-hectare landscape includes an indigenous garden. Inside the building: there over 5,000 works by leading Australian artists and technicians. These works are not mere additions to the building, but forms an integral part of the building. Identification with its craftsmanship with the local design furthermore gives the structure a sense of ownership and originality.

Nevertheless, Canberra presently has an incoherent feel, with buildings scattered far apart in seemingly random places, lacking the unity that was initially concieved. On a higher mundane level, the typical cliché is that Canberra City is ”boring,” with its endless quiet low-rise sub urban streets, and its empty city thoroughfares. On the other hand, Canberrans speak fondly of how easy it is to get through and around, unlike the deadlock of Sydney and Melbourne. Movement systems and accessibility thus was the main factor which influenced the role played by their design.

. ”It seemed as a utopia of all sorts,” Eve, a friend who grew up in Canberra, tells me. ”I lived in public housing and had the chance to go to the state school together with the children of casual workers and the children of diplomats. Everything felt accessible, not like the class system you get in the city of Sydney and Melbourne (, 1). My mother was able to go to university and graduate as an economist while she was taking care of me by herself. I used to rides to school every day from the young age of 10; there were no congestions and traffic which made travelling in the city easy. But an outsider doesn’t see any among these, and they are often blind to the communal orientation and ghetto-breeding in their cities.”

     Eve remembers the Parliament House Canberra as a place where together with her friends, after nights out as teenagers; they would roll down the grassy slopes. There aren’t too many parliament buildings in the world in which you can just roll on the roof, and seen to be the kind of pursuit of which the building’s designer would certainly approve.

     The semiotic attachments used in architectural design of the building were pure relics of creativity and innovation. Just like in the concept of peeling of banana trunk, the acoustic view of the master plan is seen senseless till an in-depth analysis of the concept is made. The idea was coiled up to come up with a building that servers a dear purpose to the people of Australia. It is from the semiotics that a symbol of unity, commitment towards the course of democratic pursuit and diversity is brought to play in one trade mark building, Parliament House Canberra (William, 163-165).  

In conclusion, this paper presents a thoughtful discussion on semiotic symbols in the architectural design of buildings. It proposes different ways through which the architecture of the Canberra Parliament House signifies meaning to the Australian community about their culture. The function of the Australian Parliament was more than just political. It was meant to signify the commitment of the government and its citizens towards a democratic process. It was a symbol of nationhood and national unity. The idea was upon its completion; every Australian would be proud of their national heritage. Nations aspirations are also depicted through the architectural design. It was significant to the people of Australia to build something of a monument that would be an educational picture material for generations to come. This was a complete work of art through which the architects were so keen to create something with their overall vision, perfectfor all the details.

Work cited

ABC News. (2018). The objects that helped shape Parliament House. (online) Available at: [Accessed 29 Mar. 2018]. (2018). Discover the architecture – Parliament of Australia. (online) Available at: (Accessed 29 Mar. 2018)

Indyk, Ivor. ”The Semiotics of the New Parliament House.” Parliament House Canberra: A Building for the Nation, ed. H. Beck (Sydney: Collins, 1988) (1988): 44.

Oboh, Samuel O. ”Edifice that edifies: Understanding the expressive communication attributes of the architecture of legislature buildings-a case study of Alberta Legislature Building.” (2010).Nelson, L. (1988). Architectural Character Identifying the Visual Aspects of Historic Buildings as an

Aid to Preserving Their Character. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Retrieved November 29, 2009 from

Laswel,Munro. Architecture, power and national identity. Routledge, 2014.

Whyte, William. ”How do buildings mean? Some issues of interpretation in the history of architecture.” History and Theory 45.2 (2006): 153-177.

August 01, 2023




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