Shine Dome, Australian Academy of Science

One of Australia’s earliest Structuralist designs, many Canberrans refer to it as the ‘Martian Embassy’. Completed in 1959 and reflecting some of the more adventurous architectural ideas of that time, the Shine Dome (previously known as Becker House) remains one of the most unusual buildings in Australia. The building was conceived before Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin existed, and was created in the visionary scientific era of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth when the Australian Academy of Science needed a home. Six architects were invited to submit plans, and in December 1956, after much discussion the most radical design, the now familiar dome, was chosen. The dome, completed at a total cost of $260,000 in 1959, is a representation of how flying saucers were perceived to look back in the 1950s.

Roy Grounds was the sole architect on the Academy’s building. It was his design that won the commission and the rest of the firm was brought in during the documentation process. The radically different building created radically different problems for the architects and engineers involved. Some doubted it could be built. Nobody knew how to calculate the stresses created by a 710 tonne concrete dome perched on 16 slender supports. This was vital, because if they got it wrong the whole dome might collapse when the building supports were taken away. In the end they grappled with the problem by building a one-fortieth scale model to see if it would work. Even then there were those who doubted that the real dome would behave like the model.

A major renovation carried out in 2000 was supported by a donation from Professor John Shine, FAA, and a grant from the National Council for the Centenary of Federation. The building is now named The Shine Dome. For many years the Dome was a symbol of the National Capital. It featured in news backdrops, on posters and even as a souvenir fridge magnet. Eclipsed now by more recent high-tech wonders (such as the Telstra Tower and New Parliament House), The Shine Dome continues to fascinate visitors to Canberra.

Architects: Grounds, Romberg and Boyd

1957-59 – The Shine Dome, Australian Academy of Science, Gordon Street, Canberra, ACT.