Jane & Ric Van Hagen ;

Andrew Woodward ;


New South Wales Parliament House is accessed from Macquarie Street, both Old Parliament House and New Parliament House, through a common vestibule between the two buildings. The vestibule encloses a two storey courtyard open to the sky.

Sheltered from street traffic noise, this space between the old and the new is blessed with an air of tranquility. A still pond fills the central space.

What a setting for a dainty sparkling gem! The fairy like form of silver appears to float above the centre of the pool. Thousands of silken stainless steel wands hang umbrella-like to catch the daylight from above.

Secure behind a glass wall and lit from above by the open sky, the delicate wands gently spring upwards when water drops are released from their hanging tips. This slight movement brings the sculpture to life with gentle oscillation. Visitors and parliamentarians in the surrounding lobby see the falling droplets disturb the mirror smooth water surface with a white ring of ripples.

In this sculpture of steel, water and light were designed concurrently. Full scale prototypes of a segment of the sculpture were fabricated and refabricated as the design developed. The first prototype was a rough study made of fencing wire, hose and a light fitting in a bucket of water. Gradual refinement culminated in a finely crafted equivalent of the finished work.

The convex outer curves of the wands reflect the broad area of natural light from the sky above and the concave inner curves reflect the concentrated artificial light from below; yin and yang forces which balance at twilight. Very small drops of water cling along the curves of the wands and slowly slide down to grow into large drops hanging from each tip. More active are droplets which fall freely through the sculpture. The clinging and falling beads of water sparkle like a multitude of diamonds.

No brainwave was required to create a great new concept; nor was there any need to search the archives of existing art. The sculpture is a response to the requirements of people and site.

The mixed media sculpture of metal and water has light as an extra medium. Natural and artificial light are so closely integrated with the other media that they contributed to the development of the sculptural form. It was not a matter of ‘the sculpture is done — now light it’.

Light was studied in sketches as geometric applications of its properties of reflection, refraction, diffusion and absorption; and studied again in the prototypes by observing aesthetic effects. Some imagination was required to perceive the finished work while looking at a 1/32 full scale slice of the whole.

The light fittings are the simplest functional form for the purpose. They are located underwater for cooling and concealment; they are clustered in a tight circle with wide flood lamps to avoid spotty concentrations of light.

Baffle rings project above the water surface to prevent illumination of the surrounding facades and to screen direct vision of the disturbed water surface within the rings. A very high intensity of illumination above the lamps would have been distracting. The baffles also prevent light spreading into the water in the pool, so that only the sculpture is illuminated. Space between baffles and bodies of the fittings allows free flow of water to cool the lenses.

Standard light fittings did not satisfy the design criteria. They also go out of fashion making lenses and seals impossible to replace. Custom fittings were therefore made. They were fabricated from grade 316 stainless steel for strength and long life, standard pipe sections being chosen for economy and precision. The replacement components; lamps, ‘O’ rings and lenses made from flat glass; can be easily obtained.

The lamps are 120 volt, 500 watt, PAR 56, quartz, wide flood lamps which have a rated life of 4000 hours. The choice of low voltage has the advantage of smaller conductors, less voltage drop, smaller transformers and subsequently less heat in the plantroom than there would be with extra low voltage (less than 32 volts). Provision was made for possible later change to extra low voltage by installing oversize conduits. The conduits are out of sight below the pool bottom.

The conduits slope away from the pool so that any leakage will show when water emerges from open ends in the plant room. The open ends also ventilate the airspaces in the light fittings and thus prevent pressure differentials which could cause water ingress.

One light fitting was manufactured and approved by the electrical supply authority before final production proceeded. Reference was made to the SAA wiring rules on requirements for underwater luminaires and professional guidance was also used during early design stages.

Buildings, spaces, landscape elements and vegetation are easily defined with graphics and therefore can be designed and documented on the drawing board; not so with light. Only physical work with the medium itself enables the designer to find the desired effect.

3 NSW Parliament House photos: Max Dupain, Photographer, Dupain & Associates, Pty Ltd


Because all works in the Darling Harbour complex were administered by a managing contractor I could not be commissioned by John Andrews. I refused to be contracted to the managing contractor and insisted on a direct contract with my client, the Darling Harbour Authority. This gave me access to my client and some autonomy and design freedom. However, I had no authority in construction or cost management. Changes were made to my plantroom design, but fortunately the visible works were not altered.

The site consists of a broad waterfront concourse; an open, brick-paved expanse flowing past a series of unrelated buildings and dominant spaghetti of overhead freeways; a space devoid of containment or spatial intimacy. The environment is a flat open thoroughfare for festive people moving between various showplace and entertainment activities, sometimes busy, sometimes idle.

The concept was to give each visiting child and adult the chance to take away a lasting memory of their Darling Harbour outing; a memory of some detail, event or joyous moment.

The concept was not to construct a monument for a distant audience but an unobtrusive waterplay to be discovered close up; a patch of water that would enchant passing people and tempt them to pause and stray from their course. The concept was to let water predominate and be merely supported and enriched by accompanying forms and materials.

The project is a spiral water feature in front of the Convention Centre; an unassuming saucer-shaped depression in the bare harbourside concourse; a shape cleanly cut, as if by an auger, into the pavement; ten spiralling paths for water and two for people; a mesmerising flow of shallow rippling water.

Hydraulic Principles
Water flows from the header at the top of each of the ten spirals as smooth, accelerating supercritical flow. When maximum velocity for the 1 in 16 gradient and roughness coefficient has been reached, the flow becomes constant and is therefore critical, a condition of least possible stability (Froude number = 1.0). In this unstable condition water is easily sculpted by minor external forces. The weir configuration and drag disturbance from the sides of the spiral create waves which travel downstream. The waves move across the spiral at an angle and reflect from the opposite side; crisscross interference patterns result. The wavelength is constant and sympathetic group wave action develops and continues down the spiral. This wave action is an original creation which probably does not occur in nature.

The 360 square metres of crisscross wave action over 3000 identical weir stones is created by the energy from a mere 5 litres per second total flow, the same as from a domestic swimming pool filter.

An important part of design procedure was the use of full scale wooden mock-ups. Many mock-ups were needed to develop the sculptural water forms, to determine the slope and width of the spirals and the size and shape of the weirs and to find the correct flow.


The El Alamein Fountain is a War Memorial. However it is not the usual sombre structure of granite headstones with bronze plaques and inscribed tablets. It is a lively burst of water depicting the Ninth Division of the Australian Imperial Forces breaking the deadlock of World War II.

Front line war correspondent Chester Wilmot´s broadcast of September 1941 explains how it was.
In the first eighteen months of this war Hitler´s armoured columns and aircraft carried the swastika from Warsaw to Narvik; from Amsterdam to Athens; from Paris to Benghazi. In this time no land force, no fortress withstood their assaults... Then came Tobruk...
and El Alamein.

After Australian and British troops took Tobruk in January 1941 Rommel determined to take it back, fighting desperately to retain his foothold in North Africa. Attacks and counter-attacks ended with the Ninth Division´s victory in November 1942 at El Alamein. This might sound like a sudden event, but it wasn´t all that immediate.That was nearly two years of struggle which turned the tide of the war.

The fountain design was the winning entry in a competition organised by the Sydney Fountains Committee in 1959. It was to commemorate the deeds of the Ninth Division of the A.I.F. during World War II.

The design is an example of Modernism. It follows the principles of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto for whom I worked in 1953–54.

Aalto had taken Scandinavian Modernism to a culmination of the aims of Gropius´s Bauhaus School; to unite art and industry, to unite art and daily life. He did not follow the rectilinear minimalist functionalism of others such as Mies van der Rohe.

Aalto believed that everything in architecture relates to biology and that biology teaches the principles of cellular structures, flexible combinations and standardisation.

Cellular structures are spatial. They are the multitude of spaces which combine to make up the architectural whole.

Flexible combinations are the various ways that elements combine as one finds in a natural organism such as a leaf with its many like forms of cells and veins.

Standardisation refers to repetition of both spatial and material elements and creates unity and economy.

The cellular structures, flexible combinations and standardisation are the underlying foundation of design. Aalto would not consciously work with these as design tools, but together with information from a thorough analysis of the economic, technical and human aspects of the problem they would become imbued in his subconscious mind. The requirements of a design problem are so numerous, complex and conflicting that they form a confusion which can not be clarified through some step by step design process. He would wade into a design problem with an open mind, making free flowing sketches, sometimes of abstract shapes and sometimes shapes built on the general form of site contours.

Out of those sketches an idea would emerge and a form would develop. This was not the triumphal end of the road; there was much work still to be done to follow the ideas and forms to resolve the architectural composition. A correct form had the flexibility and freedom to accommodate all problems. Aalto´s designs were complete organisms; single whole systems. The fountain is a complete whole system, a living organism. It is born, lives and dies. It bursts into life as the primary commemorative statement, bright and clear on its pedestal; flows languidly over descending ruff edged terraces, then sinks silently into glory holes.

Max Dupain's photograph shows the fountain at night, for it is of Kings Cross and Kings Cross is of the night. The only lighting is a cluster at the centre of the lively ball of water.

Water is the sculpture. It forms the transition of the organism through various stages until activity ceases.

Can there be a greater medium than water? The precious element to express any feeling of power, joy, tranquility. Flow can be in torrents, ripples or smooth.

The site falls away to one side creating contour terraces which diminish in length step by step and so soften the terminations.

The highest terrace gathers the falling water, and so the surface is disturbed. Subsequent levels have smooth undisturbed surfaces ― yet hundreds of water jets stab the level below. This creates a gentle sound. The six hundred similar sounds reflect from the hard face of the bronze plates behind.

Water's sounds have variety of volume and pitch, sharpness, softness, rhythm and most importantly, harmony.

The pitch and character of each sound depends on the shape and mass of the falling water, its velocity and the nature of the landing surface. Much modelling at full scale determined the dentils and therefore water shapes. The finely designed jets do not disturb the tranquility of the receiving surface. The glory hole outlets, three ― two and four ― silently say amen!

200 mm wide bronze edges to terraces present battlemented entry for water. The restriction nullifies surface roughness. Water flows slowly in the long (relatively) and narrow channels, hugs the channel sides, slips off the open ends in spoon shapes which surface tension draws into round cross section at the 300 mm drop level.

In two fruitful years my Finnish experience led to a breakthrough in my design philosophy. I realised there was no mysticism, the basis of good design is obvious; it is thought, uncluttered thought, build simply and naturally, refrain from the stilted, showy or superfluous.

Robert Woodward, AM, FRAIA, AAILA

ROBERT WOODWARD (1923 - 2010), is best known in Australia for his 1959-61 El Alamein fountain at Kings Cross, Sydney.  This sculpture was a landmark in it’s time, as it broke from the tradition of fountains being mostly figurative sculptures with a water feature.  The El Alamein fountain was unique in Australia as it made the shape of the water become the sculpture.

Edmund Capon, the Director of the Art Gallery of NSW,  listed this sculpture fountain amongst the ‘Best in the World’: his top five public sculptures, as reviewed in the Fin. Review of September 3rd/4th 2005,  the El Alamein sculpture fountain came hard on the heels of a work by Henry Moore. 

Robert Woodward AM 1923 - 2010

Contact Details

Email: Jane & Ric Van Hagen