In its role as the national capital of Australia, Canberra hosts diplomatic missions from around the world, all with an official representative of that country in residence. These missions are called High Commissions, if the country is part of the British Commonwealth, or Embassies if they are not. There are 110 countries represented in Canberra, with majority of buildings located in three diplomatic estates – Yarralumla, West Deakin and O’Malley – and Red Hill. This drive explores those that reflect a national building style or have specific architectural interest.
Canberra did not have a diplomatic corps until the 1930s but once the first representatives arrived, it grew rapidly, reflecting Australia’s expanding role in world affairs after World War II. A trend developed, initiated by the United States, to build diplomatic premises in an architectural style reminiscent of the country of origin.
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1. High Commission of Canada
150 Commonwealth Ave
Canadian timbers have been used throughout the building, including red cedar eaves, and two Canadian maples planted by the flagpole. The totem pole was carved by Haida artist Clarence Mills for the Canadian pavilion at the 1988 Expo in Brisbane. It represents members of his family.
2. New Zealand High Commission
140 Commonwealth Ave
Whilst not built in any national style, the interior has been fitted out with New Zealand products and New Zealand plantings feature in the gardens. The Kowai tree (Sophora tetraptera) on the northern side of the building may be the only example of this frost-tender species in this part of Australia.
3. British High Commission
130 Commonwealth Ave
Canberra’s diplomatic corps began in 1936 with the appointment of the first British High Commissioner. The chancery and residence were built at the same time and cost a quarter of a million pounds – an enormous sum in those days.
4. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
15 Coronation Dr
Immediately recognisable as a Chinese structure, the embassy grounds contain traditional gardens, including an ornamental lake, waterside pavilion, zigzag bridge and rockeries. The roof tiles were imported from Yixing and craftsmen came from Shanghai to build the roof, rockeries, gardens and internal decoration.
5. High Commission of Papua New Guinea
39 Forster Cres
The building is a Haus Tambaran or Spirit House from the Sepik River. These were meeting places for tribal elders and storehouses for sacred objects. The stylised painted images of clan ancestors and the carved totem poles were created by students from the National Art School in Port Moresby.
6. High Commission of Singapore
17 Forster Cres
The sweeping shape of the first floor and roof edges form an arc, suggesting the equatorial circle where Singapore is located. The adaptation of European building styles to Singapore’s climate is suggested in the lattice sunshades, overhanging roofs, double posts and veranda.
7. Embassy of Finland
12 Darwin Ave
The building is named ‘Ilmarinen’, after the armoured Finnish navy vessel sunk during World War II, itself named for the blacksmith hero of Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Offices sit like cabins lined up along the side of the building, connected by walkways overlooking the atrium spaces.
8. High Commission of Samoa
3 Darwin Ave
Based on a traditional ‘Fale’ or house this building reflects the openness of Samoan life. Houses are usually lashed together with ropes called ‘afa’ in intricate designs. This is represented in the design of the front gates and on motifs on the pillars inside.
9. Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
1 Darwin Ave
The eclectic design of the Egyptian embassy reflects the diversity of contemporary Egypt, rather than the monuments of the past. The exaggerated proportions of the public areas, including the large barrel vault which forms the entrance, allude to classic Egyptian architecture.
10. Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia
8 Darwin Ave
The embassy’s display pavilion, Wisma Wista Budaya, is built in the style of a traditional Javanese pendopo. The hand-carved Balinese statues beside the steps represent characters from two ancient Hindu epics - the ‘Ramayana’ and the ‘Mahabharata’ – that have been adopted by the Indonesian people.
11. Embassy of Mexico
14 Perth Ave
At the centre of the building there is a model of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire and site of the modern Mexico City. A massive image of the Mexican national emblem and an Aztec calendar by the main entrance gates on Perth Avenue are distinctive features of the embassy.
12. High Commission of Malaysia
7 Perth Ave
The chancery and reception hall feature huge sweeping ‘Minangkabau’ roofs, typical of the Malaysian state of Negri Sembilan, and traditional ‘bunga raya’ flower motifs on the walls. The port cochere entrance of the chancery leads to a marble-tiled foyer containing displays of Malaysian craft and Selangor pewter.
13. Embassies of Norway and Denmark
15-17 Hunter St
Although not of architectural significance, this site is interesting due to the dual occupancy. It is unusual for countries to do this but not unknown. Elsewhere in Canberra Cuba and Morocco share a single building and the government of Estonia is contactable through the Finnish Embassy.
14. Embassy of France
6 Perth Ave
The chancery design echoes forts of the French Foreign Legion. The War Memorial in the grounds is a token of gratitude to the Australian soldiers who fought and died in France. The pillar of a gilded bronze sculpture, ‘Winged Victory’, includes the names of battles involving Australian troops.
15. High Commission of Pakistan
4 Perth Ave
This building is a modern interpretation of the Mughal inspired building style typical of Pakistan, demonstrating the symmetry and balance of that architecture. A striking addition is the mural on the exterior wall by Shehzar Abro depicting two early leaders of Pakistan – Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Iqbal.
16. High Commission of South Africa
2 Perth Ave
This is representative of the Cape Dutch style, with traditional whitewashed walls and a roof gable inscribed with the date of construction. The small windows have teak shutters which can be closed against the heat of the sun. The gardens are extensive and include many plants native to South Africa.
17. Embassy of the Republic of Turkey
6 Moonah Pl
The elongated windows and pillars of the building recall the arrow shoots and turrets of Ottoman castles or ‘hisars’. The garden design drew its inspiration from traditional Ottoman garden design and combines 20 000 tulip bulbs with Australian indigenous plants and trees.
18. Embassy of the United States of America
The lease for this first purpose-built embassy was signed the day of the attack on Pearl Harbour. The residence and chancery are built in colonial Georgian style, inspired by Christopher Wren’s designs for Williamsburg, Virginia.
19. High Commission of India
3 Moonah Pl
This design was inspired by classical elements of Mughal and Hindu architecture. The mathematical symmetry of the building and the ornate decoration are typical as is the use of a moat. This moat is the culmination of a water feature which flows from the entrance on Moonah Place.
20. Embassy of the Union of Myanmar
22 Arkana St
Steel columns surrounding the building support distinctive steel lattice work, reminiscent of the woven construction of lattice screening of traditional houses in Myanmar. Extensive use of glass is also a feature of the building.
21. Royal Belgian Embassy
19 Arkana St
Inspired by traditional Flemish architecture, the residence features shutters like those used to protect farmhouses against the bitter cold in winter and the sun in summer. All the furniture in the main rooms was specially designed in Belgium, including the crystal and bronze chandeliers.
22. Embassy of Ireland
20 Arkana St
Although it might not be obvious at first, this group of buildings is evocative of a cluster of low-lying buildings on an Irish farm. The white-washed walls and steep, thatched roofs of traditional Irish farmhouses have here been updated with the use of brick and tile.
23. Embassy of Spain
15 Arkana St
The building incorporates these regional elements: two patios with svelte columns, typical in the south; a façade of glass-covered balconies, typical of the north; and a completely white exterior, like Andalusian buildings.
24. Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany
119 Empire Circ
The buildings reflect the functional style favoured in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. The colours of the brightly painted exterior are similar to those of the national flag and contrast sharply with the greenery of the garden setting.
25. Embassy of Greece
9 Turrana St
A contemporary mix of classical and Hellenistic Greek architecture, featuring columns of Pentelikon marble from the same quarries used by the ancient Athenians. The design also includes an atrium, traditionally a central garden open to the sun around which the various rooms of a house were built.
26. Embassy of the Republic of Poland
7 Turrana St
The embassy is built of concrete, with a brick building frame and terracotta roof tiles, giving it a solid appearance characteristic of brutalist architecture. Both it and the residence have timber-lined ceilings and timber accents (handrails, desks and doors).
27. Royal Thai Embassy
111 Empire Circ
Traditionally, the height of the steeply pitched rooves lets hot air escape to cool the house while the broad overhangs protect the interior from both sun and rain. The curved roof-ends are symbolic of ‘Naga’ that adorn Khmer temples. The Sala Thai pavilion, for public functions, was added in 1998.
28. Embassy of Japan
112 Empire Circ
The overall design echoes a traditional wooden residence. There is a tea garden, with a tea house, stream, pond, lanterns and pagodas; and a Kare-sansui (waterless stream) garden with white gravel surfaces representing a pool, stream or ocean, and rocks representing islands.
29. High Commission of Sri Lanka
61 Hampton Circ
The design of this building draws inspiration from a movement known as ‘Tropical Modernism’, where traditional elements are reimagined for modern life. The distinctive red tiled rooves are supported by decorated columns topped with abstract capitals, suggesting palm trees.
30. Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
38 Guilfoyle St
The design of the embassy is based on the Qasr Al Morabaa Palace (the Square Palace) which was built for King Abdul Aziz Bin Saud, the first monarch and founder of Saudi Arabia. The embassy also includes a central domed roof traditional throughout the Muslim world.
31. Embassy of Italy
12 Grey St
The design aims to reflect the ancient tradition of Italian architecture in the modern environment of Canberra. Whilst designing the building, the Italian architect fell in love with a city ‘untouched by ugliness and history’ and now lives in Canberra.
32. Solomon Islands High Commission
1 Beale Cres
A contemporary design echoing both the construction and decoration of traditional wooden buildings. This includes the exposed roof trusses used for strength against cyclones and heavy storms. The various structures surround a central courtyard to give a village-like atmosphere. Timber totems represent each of the nine provinces.
33. High Commission of Mauritius
2 Beale Cres
Traditional Mauritian building styles reflect a strong French influence, adapted for a tropical, humid climate. This building echoes that style in the deep, sheltering eaves. Being a single storey it also pays homage to family homes known as ‘Case Creole’ which are now rare in Mauritius.
34. Embassy of the Republic of Afghanistan
4 Beale Cres
The large, formal entrance suggests the city gates of Ninevah or Herat, including the brick decoration. This leads through to a central courtyard, the heart of an Afghani household. Not visible from the street, the rear of the building suggests a cluster of traditional mud homes, including a watchtower.
35. Embassy of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina
5 Beale Cres
At first glance this seems to be a suburban home but the raised tower represents watchtowers typical of unwalled villages and remote castles. The colouring and mix of building materials honours coastal housing whilst the regularly spaced, small windows across the front are a traditional Bosnian style.
36. Embassy of the Republic of Timor-Leste
7 Beale Cres
The construction is a simple design, to inspire affordable community housing in Timor Leste. The roof echoes the colours and patterns of traditional Tais cloth, an important, diverse part of Timorese heritage. Funds to build the embassy were raised by Australian organisations and several firms donated building products.
37. High Commission of Brunei Darussalam
10 Beale Cres
Built in the style of the traditional stilt houses of the Malay Peninsula, this recalls the origins of this island nation and their links to the ocean.
38. High Commission of Cyprus
30 Beale Cres
Cyprus is at a crossroads of cultures so buildings there have many influences. However, the pointed arch is a distinctive Cypriot initiative, dating from the Byzantine. The solarium and courtyards create shelter from the sun but allow breezes through, whilst shutters block the sun out of the building.
39. Embassy of Hungary
17 Beale Cres
With a complex history of invasion and change, Hungarian building styles are varied. This design incorporates the arches, balconies and planters common across several eras of dwellings. Traditional red roofing tiles and a broad pitched roof also suggest a Hungarian home, as does the entrance extending towards the visitor.
40. High Commission of Fiji
19 Beale Cres
The deeply pitched roof of this building is reminiscent of Fijian ‘bure’, or traditional wooden houses, usually thatched with pandanus leaves. The round timber posts supporting the portico further echo traditional houses, including the design on the upper and lower sections, suggesting typical tapa cloth coverings.
41. High Commission of Botswana
130 Denison St
Although not a traditionally inspired building, the vibrancy of the coloured tile pattern on the curved wall at the entrance is striking. The design recalls pattern making on traditional fabric, basketry and pottery.
42. Embassy of the Republic of Croatia
14 Jindalee Cres
The inclusion of a round tower - a modern interpretation of Croatian Renaissance castle buildings (such as the one at Varaždin) gives an indication of the history of the country. The vibrant roof tiles and soft colour of the walls recall buildings on the country’s Adriatic coast.