About the Pavilion
As many who come to the Parklands may know, the Federation Pavilion sits on one of the most important historical locations in Australia – the birthplace of our nation!
What visitors may not know however, is that the Pavilion contains many clues to the site’s glorious past that can help you understand the history behind the building.
A little bit of history…
It was early afternoon on New Years Day, 1901 and more than 60,000 people had gathered in Centennial Parklands, dressed in their Sunday best, to witness the proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia.
The Great Inaugural Procession had already made its way through the streets of Sydney and dignitaries, politicians and community leaders were taking their places for the most significant event this young country had witnessed so far.
As the hour approached for the signing of the documents, all eyes fixed on the temporary pavilion in the centre of the valley, constructed especially for the occasion. The Pavilion – a 14 metre high, octagonal, domed structure made of plaster of Paris – was richly decorated with bas-relief castings of native flora and the imperial coat of arms (the original design can be seen on the Australian $5 notes). Inside the structure sat a stone obelisk – the ‘Federation Stone’ – created to symbolise the coming together of the states and territories.
And so, as history informs us, at 1.00 pm, 1 January 1901, the Queen’s Proclamation was read, the Governor-General and Federal Ministers were sworn in and a 21-gun salute declared the people from Australia’s six separate colonies united in a Federal Commonwealth of Australia.
After its auspicious beginnings, the site of the original pavilion fell into a state of decline as the plaster of Paris quickly degraded, until in 1903 it was removed altogether.
The Federation Stone which had been housed within the pavilion was later placed on a sandstone pedestal and surrounded by an iron picket fence in 1904. It remained there until the new Federation Pavilion was opened in 1988 as part of the Bicentennial Celebrations.
A new Federation Pavilion…
A new Pavilion was designed by Sydney architect Alexander Tzannes as a Bicentennial refurbishment after he won a competition to design a permanent monument to Federation in Centennial Parklands.
The design of the building incorporated the entire landscape of Federation Valley and was based on a circle – the symbol of unity – to reflect the significance of the site.
“I wanted to make an intriguing or slightly mysterious object,” Tzannes says. “What I wanted the viewer to do was to engage in the concept of history and time, and I tried to make it relevant to that moment in history.”
Inside the building, the symmetrically designed, marble laid interior provides a solemn and serene setting for the original Federation Stone.
It now features a marble hexagon stone cap on the original sandstone obelisk and each side is engraved with a state and the date of its founding.
The artwork which lines the underside of the dome of the Pavilion is a montage of 1,440 vitreous enamelled steel panels by artist lmants Tillers, the mosiac was recreated by Greg Lipman in 2000. Light is reflected onto the work from both the central overhead oculus and from water in the stainless steel trough concealed behind the inscribed sandstone frieze. The focal point of the mural occupies only a small portion of the dome, the remainder being left white to depict the vast emptiness of the Australian inland.
The main artwork has a mix of European and Aboriginal elements. The dominant figure suggests many ideas in the one image – convict origins, heroic rural settler clearing the land, and many others. It is taken from the work of German painter George Baselitz, hence the initials ‘GB’ at the base of the figure.
Beside the figure is a contrasting image taken from the mural designed for the forecourt of Parliament House by Aboriginal artist Michael Tjakamarra. The colours reflect those of the Australian outback and the symbols are commonly used in Aboriginal art. The target-like circular patterns represents a shield, ‘dE’ represents animals, the ‘E’ people and the wavy lines represent the movement of people and places from one place to another. Tjakamarra’s design is repeated beside the dominant artwork but is very faint and merges into the adjoining white pan.
The inscription on the sandstone frieze of the Pavilion, just below the dome, ‘Mammon or Millennial Eden’, may perhaps seem a little perplexing to first-time visitors.
The words are a paraphrase of questions posed in the poem Australia by Bernard O’Dowd, written in 1901:
A new demesne for Mammon to infest? Or lurks millennial Eden ‘neath your face?
The paraphrase was suggested by Professor Manning Clark who believed that the poem reflected the principal obsession of the intellectual community at the time – will Australia become a country of corrupt, ‘ill-gotten’ wealth or will we create a paradise that will last for 1,000 years?
Tzannes says the words add significantly to understanding the history behind the building.
“Using the poem on the building forces you to rove through time and to understand what really was the feeling at the time,” he says.
Indeed, the intention behind the design of the building was to carry the observer through various perspectives of time.
“It is very much a building which tells a story,” Tzannes says. “The exterior . . . conveys the history of the place and the history of the moment. It gives a sense of that past and is Federation Pavilion as it stands now, static in composition. But the interior of the building is dynamic in composition and in a sense it is indicative of the significant events in Australia’s future and the present.”
Staring up at the imposing sandstone columns, it’s not hard to imagine that this was down through the ages, we can only hope that Eden continues to stay beneath our feet.