A Short and Moderately Personal History of Australia’s Capital
That first day, we drove into the capital of Australia along a boulevard lined with shedding eucalypts and squat apartment blocks that had seen better days. Then came a jumble of low-rise office buildings the color of limestone—buildings so bland they might have been designed by an architect from Stalinist Russia.
“What do you think of Canberra?” asked my new husband.
“Where is it?” I replied.
On he drove, past a block-long, colonnaded building of faux Spanish design, away from the “heart” of the city, and onto a bridge that spanned a man-made lake. A garland of trees lined the shores on one side of the bridge; the shores on the other side were graced with national institutions—the National Library, the High Court, the National Science and Technology Center, the National Gallery—and a sweep of parkland. Ahead of us loomed a grassy knoll crowned by a huge, somewhat phallic, steel construction where the Australian flag hung limp in the windless sky—the new Parliament House.
We circled the seat of government and drove back across the bridge, heading towards my husband’s house. With windows down to invite in the orange-vanilla smell of wattle in bloom, we passed along the shores of the expansive lake and into bushland, curving around forested hills and sparsely treed plains where sheep, thick with winter wool, grazed. What looked like tree stumps scattered across the hillsides began to move—kangaroos. We stopped to look. They squatted on their enormous haunches, balancing with their tails, and used their mutant-looking forearms to pull themselves forward as they foraged. They arched their backs and vigorously scratched their bellies. With doe eyes they watched and chewed, ears swivelling 360 degrees, scanning for danger.
His house sat on a corner block in a suburb developed during the 1970s—wide, tree-lined streets, ordinary brick houses with tile roofs. Every window framed views and streamed an unfamiliar chorus of tweets, chirrups, coos, whistles, and screeches from birds feeding in the bush garden. We walked out the front door and across the road to a riding school. Sheep paddocks sloped to a river corridor. We followed a trail several kilometers along the paddocks to a farm-cum-art-gallery, disturbing Eastern rosellas, galahs, and grass parrots as they scavenged for seeds in the long stalks. I was on the lookout for kangaroos and echidnas. Under a dome of airy blue, long vistas that opened to a low range of mountains triggered happy memories of my childhood in a valley flanked by foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The place felt open and ample; all that space for my soul to expand into.
At the time I met my husband I was living in Seattle, an elegant small city of tall buildings, an historic center, shimmering lakes and bays dressed in shades of green—the Emerald City. A city of jazz, edgy art, literary events, quaint neighborhoods and old established neighborhoods among the trees, warehouse lofts, outlying islands, fresh seafood, street culture, crazy traffic, and basketball. Shortly before I left, in 1990, I chanced on an Australian man selling t-shirts at Pike Place Market. I told him I was about to move to his homeland, to Canberra. He made a face. What? I asked. It’s just too, too… well, too perfect. Too planned. Boring. The place has no soul.
It was to be “the finest Capital City in the World—the Pride of Time,” proclaimed King O’Malley, the Federal Minister for Home Affairs, in 1910. The continental nation of Australia—newly federated—was then a country of fewer than 4.5 million people, spread over of 7.7 million square kilometers. Having long struggled with its identity as nothing more than a British colony in the antipodes, the former dumping ground for Great Britain’s convicts, Australia was driven by a sacred ideal of nation hood. It would build a capital city that would rival London and Paris. A planned city, purpose-built from the ground up.
These things were agreed about the site for the new capital city of Australia: it would be located in the state of New South Wales, at least 100 miles from both Sydney and Melbourne—to minimize the sway of either of these jealous rivals and to provide safety from attack on the seat of government by sea. The location would reflect the bush character of the Australian people. It would sit in a landscape of remarkable features, offer expansive views, and provide access to a water source.
But, it took a progression of Commonwealth governments, Royal Commissions, Commonwealth Ministers for Home Affairs, lapsed bills, and acts of Parliament before a site was finally selected—a limestone plain 175 miles southwest of Sydney.
It was a landscape of tenuous beauty. Treeless plains and denuded grasslands, tawny under a vast sky; sheltered valleys and rocky ridges; some of its many hills cleared for grazing. A shallow water course that formed a series of ponds and reedy swamps and was subject to flooding. Scattered homesteads, productive pastoral and agriculture holdings, a pestilence of rabbits, and a district population of 1,700 people. All this set against a backdrop of eucalypt-forested mountains.
“Moses, thousands of years ago, as he gazed down on the promised land, saw no more panoramic view,” declared O’Malley. The Bulletin—the leading cultural and political magazine of Australia at the time—described the site as “a handful of hovels in a howling wilderness.”
The village that was to become a grand capital city needed a commanding name. The place had variously been known as Canbery (thought to originate from an aboriginal word, though the people who would know the derivation of the word were long gone), the Limestone Plains, and Canberra. The general population, less enamored with the idea of a federal capital than the politicians, suggested Gonebroke, Swindleville, Boomerang City, Marsupiala, and The Holy City. Among the other submissions were Caucus City, Wheatwoolgold, Australburg, Shakespeare, Hopetown, and—a combination of the names of all the capital cities—Sydmelperadbrisho.
The Federal Parliament voted to retain the name Canberra.
There was an international competition for the design of “the finest city that the world can show.” The winning design was to represent the latest thinking in architecture and urban planning for a city of 25,000 inhabitants, but with room to grow.
Wooden boxes containing competition guidelines, various contour surveys and maps, topographical maps, cycloramic drawings, and reports on the climate and geography were dispatched around the world in April 1911.
The prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects, as well as some of their Australian counterparts, scoffed at the paltry prize of £1,750, and they disagreed with the decision-making process—the Minister for Home Affairs, who was not an architect, would have the deciding vote. They also objected to the emphasis on current trends and shunned the competition. Nonetheless, 137 submissions arrived from Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, several European countries, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and India, mostly from relative unknowns. Architects and planners, willing to overlook the insubstantial prize for the potential notoriety associated with designing a great city.
The winning entry came from a Chicago man—Walter Burley Griffin—a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. His wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, also an architect, rendered her husband’s design in exquisite drawings on linen and silk as part of the submission. It was judged to be “aesthetically outstanding” with gardens and trees featuring in a city of distances and vistas and integrated with the natural landscape. It was a design underpinned by principle; according to Australian historian Manning Clark, Griffin subscribed to the Frank Lloyd Wright school of thought that “every architect was necessarily a poet, an artist who imposed a pattern of beauty on the chaos of a society wallowing in individualism.” He saw modern cities as “cancerous growths on the landscape.” He aspired to build a city “unblemished by suburban ugliness and dreariness.”
His plan incorporated the idealism of two prevailing movements of the time: City Beautiful, which emphasized an ordered and geometric layout of radiating avenues as well as urban aesthetics, and Garden City, which also emphasized a symmetry radiating from a central core, along with publicly owned land, a garden setting, and plenty of open space—an environment that would foster social reform.
These movements were consistent with Griffin’s democratic values, his love of nature, and his desire to reflect the patterns of nature in his designs. Designs that would influence the social behaviour and health of citizens through order and form and function.
Griffin’s plan was considered to be a natural overlay on the landscape of the Limestone Plains. Its geometric system of axes took account of water, the natural amphitheatre, and long vistas to the mountains. The city would extend north and south on each side of an ornamental lake that had basins to the east and west. Avenues would radiate from a central point towards two hills, each a terminal point of the geometric design. According to Griffin’s wife, Marion, “two essential factors were considered simultaneously and solved perfectly: the alignment of roads and houses, which require right angles or obtuse angles; and the radial alignment of thoroughfares, which assist distribution.” The business of government and its buildings would concentrate on the south side of the lake in a park-like setting; the “market center” would be built across the lake on the north.
“The landscape setting, the city form, and the lake present a unified picture to create an imposing work of art,” stated Walter Burley Griffin.
He emphasised urban concentration rather than dispersed housing. Neighborhood communities of 2,000 people living in medium density housing. They would have gardens, trees, and open spaces; schools and sports fields; and all necessary amenities available in their own neighborhood.
Griffin believed the natural landscape would make it easier to cope with the commercial and governmental business that would occupy both its citizens and visitors.
“I have planned a city that is not like any other, a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future,” claimed Griffin.
That the city had been designed by one of my countrymen intrigued me. This, as well as the similarity of the landscape to the arid high-mountain desert where I grew up, and of course, being madly in love with my husband, helped me establish an early connection with my new home. Yet from the beginning there was something about the place that didn’t sit comfortably. At first, I thought it was homesickness and unfamiliarity. But, over time, it was clear I had an abiding ambivalence about Canberra. In the summer of 2003, a time when I was in a state of intense dislike with the city, bushfires broke through containment lines and invaded Canberra. The residents in our suburb were advised to prepare to evacuate. I loaded journals, photos, computers, jewelry, and clothing into our cars and filled tubs and sinks with water, while my husband cleared the gutters and hosed down the roof and the bush fences. I’m ashamed to admit that I half-wished the fires would take our house so we could start over someplace else. As the man at Pike Place Market had told me, it was too planned, but it was far from perfect.
It is the built environment I struggle with most. A physical history of the past 100 years scatters across the city: a settlement of cheap workers’ cottages; dilapidated apartment blocks thrown up to house public servants; inner suburbs with brick and stucco bungalows of Spanish and Mediterranean architecture on enormous blocks; repetitious outer suburbs of monotonous brick houses, in close proximity to parks (many empty) and local shops (many struggling or failed); urban infill; a spread of town centers (half in need of renewal); nondescript administrative office blocks; relics of the brutalism period; and a city center (Civic) that needs resuscitation.
Recently, on an early winter morning, I walked from my work studio—in a heritage building that was originally built to house single male public servants, now surrounded by derelict public housing—the two blocks to the city, the area referred to as the market center in Griffin’s designs. Civic cloisters from the surrounding landscape inside a fortress of medium-rise carparks. A multi-level indoor shopping mall dominates the commercial part of the city. Light floods into the mall from the skylight roof and ricochets off polished internal walkways that are lined with glass-fronted chain stores. I feel like I’m in an airport or one of the capsule cities on Mars I read about as a child: temperature controlled, vented air and piped music, always sunny, always sparkling, always sterile. Totally contrived. Nothing alive. Ironically, it is the most financially successful mall of its type in Australia.
Outside the mall, buildings (half of which are empty) look onto an outdoor plaza that extends over several city blocks: a desert of dark grey paving bricks dotted with steel benches, a caged merry-go-round (closed more often than open), and one or two water features. A peculiar assortment of sculptures decorates the expanse—one of people with human bodies, wings for arms, and bird heads; another of a ram reclining in a chair with its feet in the air; a pack of running dogs; and a chrome pillow-couch. Bare trees anchor in small patches of dirt, each surrounded by pavers. At the opposite end there are four pincushions of grass and a large Kewpie doll-like figure frolicking with her two dogs. There are no flowers.
It is a place without meaning or event. It lacks charm; it lacks drama, rhythm, and movement. Even the ellipses of green are contained by concrete, bordered, and edged. It feels cold regardless of the season and looks grungy and neglected despite years of planning, development, and revitalising. I almost expect to see dust devils swirling across the grey plain, hear a loose door banging a ghostly rhythm, and find the bird people chasing me like hungry vultures.
I have never been drawn to sit on the benches or linger near the fountains. I rush through the center of Canberra, as I did recently, to get from one end to the other. Past the grungy and neglected souls who loiter night and day because they have no place else to go.
You have to wonder how Griffin’s ideal city came to this.
It’s not difficult to imagine the competing interests and political machinations that would have surrounded and shaped a project of such historic significance. Griffin, the man with the vision, positioned himself to oversee the building of his ideal city. A succession of politicians—few with any farsightedness, many irresolute in their commitment to Griffin’s plan—passed the baton. A run of authorities and advisory bodies wielded considerable power and were not averse to making amendments to Griffins plan to suit circumstances. Bureaucrats—concerned with efficiency, expediency, and expenditure, many serving on advisory bodies—controlled the public purse. An assortment of architects and city planners with varying degrees of vision inherited phases of the project.
Beyond Canberra sat an ambivalent national populace, suspicious of all government spending and, in fact, not all convinced they needed to be federated, let alone, have a capital city: “a good sheep station ruined,” said some.
From the beginning, the bureaucrats thought Griffin’s plan was overly elaborate and expensive and even submitted their own plan cobbled together from the designs of the finalists. Griffin ultimately prevailed. But, he was the interloper. A hierarchy of bureaucrats closed ranks against him: they opposed his ideas, ignored his advice, withheld information, limited his sphere of responsibility, laid false charges of default against him, impeded progress, and essentially drove him out of town after seven years.
As well, World War I broke out the year after Griffin moved to Australia to oversee the project. Funds had to be diverted to the war effort, and all major architectural and engineering work stalled. A competition for the design of Parliament House was abandoned. Canberra became the site for an internment camp to house 3,000 enemy civilians—30 acres of weatherboard buildings. Workers’ camps also blotted the plain—unsightly clusters of canvas tents and huts made from packing cases and galvanised iron. The transfer of government functions from Melbourne was put on indefinite hold.
Australia lost 60,000 troops in the war—a huge loss given the small population—and incurred massive debt. Interest in an ideal capital city project withered. There was no real forward planning, let alone coordinated policy. Bureaucrats were at the helm. With the imprimatur of parliament—still sitting in Melbourne—they committed to building a parliament and administrative buildings that were temporary, economical, and utilitarian.
Things may have revived eventually had the Great Depression not followed, and then World War II. But, each forced further fiscal constraint, and at the end of World War II there was also a serious shortage of skilled labor.
Forty-two years after the project began, this was the picture of the city that was to rival London and Paris. There were no monumental buildings and not a single permanent government building; the bulk of public servants remained in Melbourne, resistant to the move to Canberra. There was no unity of design. There was no lake; the river still subject to flooding. Houses scattered among the sheep paddocks—prefabricated houses for workmen, temporary buildings to house public servants.
A senate review in 1955 was scathing: “After 40 years of city development, the important planned areas stand out, not as monumental regions symbolising the character of a national capital, but more as graveyards where departed spirits await resurrection of national pride.”
Yet, some of the central principles of Griffin’s plan had been inscribed irrevocably on the landscape: the geometric design that conformed to the topography of the Limestone Plains with a network of radiating avenues and roads; the beginnings of a commercial area separated by a river from land set aside for government institutions; public ownership of all land and early development of housing and the afforestation of the surrounding plains and hills—this, the work of a man named Charles Weston.
Weston, an English immigrant, horticulturist, and officer-in-charge of afforestation for the federal capital project had an eye for both the aesthetic and function and provided the vision, philosophy, and planting policies that ultimately created the garden landscape. Despite the early political wrangling and amendments to the Griffin plan, Weston got on with the job. He developed a nursery. He raised plant stock suitable for the climate and soil. He commenced conservation and reafforestation of the hills. He blasted the plains with gelignite and planted the landscape—1.2 million trees between 1913 and 1926.
A continuity had been achieved between the cultivated landscape and the natural landscape that lay beyond it. The wholeness to Griffin’s design, however, had been lost due to the desultory development over the decades: the plan’s balance had been disregarded; key features had been eliminated; the potential for the aesthetic to shape the social design of a community seemed totally forgotten. As the senate committee concluded: “early was the vision of a great city obscured by the desire for cheapness and quick results.”
A number of circumstances coincided in the mid 1950s to reshape the languishing project. There was more economic stability than there had been in decades. The Prime Minister (Menzies) decried the city’s architecture—“the prevalence of the squat flat-topped building which needs only a few bales of hay and a goat on the roof to be painfully reminiscent of Suez or Port Said”—and became the new champion of the capital city project. A senate review committee recognized the value of the aesthetic that underpinned the Griffin plan. A single authority, the National Capital Development Commission, had a detailed plan for moving forward and was answerable to Parliament.
Between 1958 and 1965 Canberra was a place of constant activity. “Squandermania” headlined one newspaper. Over 1,000 projects were completed: cultural institutions, administrative buildings, courts, banks, Defense buildings, a hospital, dams, bridges, diplomatic missions, a city center, restaurants, a university campus, traffic lights. The city grew across suburbs well beyond the margins of the Griffin plan. And, 1964 was the Year of the Lake—Lake Burley Griffin.
By the late 1980s, the federal government was all out of love for the capital city, the city that was not the finest capital city in the world, nor the pride of time. The Efficiency Scrutiny Unit concluded that the city needed to be in charge of financing and managing its own affairs. It needed its own government. To force the separation Parliament passed the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act in 1988.
The following year—the year before I arrived—a wild miscellany of 117 candidates entered the race to become a member of the first Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly, representing such parties as The Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato Party; No Self-Government Party; Home Rule Ok; Surprise Party; Party! Party! Party!; Abolish Self-Government Coalition; Residents Rally, and Disabled and Redeployed Workers Party, as well as the more traditional parties. The ballot paper measured over three feet wide.
From that point to the present, Canberra has been cash-strapped. It is a city whose primary industry is government (not one, but two), a city whose wealth is in open spaces, a city whose revenue source is development of those open spaces, a city designed for 75,000 that now has a population in excess of 350,000 and is rapidly growing towards half a million.
Today, a few blocks from the sad market center sits the precinct called Braddon, once an industrial area of the inner city, now a magnet for people. A former car repair workshop has converted to a trendy burger joint—Grease Monkey; next door, Autolyse, a baker of artisan bread that sadly shuttered its doors in January; next to that, Repco, an auto supply store. On the other side of the street, a car wash. Across from that, a graffiti-tagged vacant lot now crammed with popups. A jumble of cars park on the streets. The area breathes. It pulses with a tempo of alternative and contemporary. The smells from vegan, paleo, spit roast, specialty coffee roasters, a microbrewery, and greasy donuts mingle. There are op shops, outdoor clothing stores, a dentist, a tiny post office, and a news agent. Year round the lycra crowd, hipsters, girlfriends, students, oldies, children, and dogs pack the tables scattered along the sidewalks. But, a new development on one side of the street presages the future: a chic, sleek, three-story block offers retail space and luxury inner-city living.
Across the lake—the jewel of Canberra—rise the monoliths of culture and government in the peace of their park-like setting, what Griffin had labeled the “government center.” It is beautiful. Serene. Albeit, different from his original plan. At the same time it feels like one of those model homes where you’re not supposed to sit on the furniture.
Embassies and high commissions, each of an architectural style that represents its country, fan out beyond the Parliamentary Triangle. On the former sheep paddocks across the road from Old Parliament House sits a plywood shack painted in the colors of the Aboriginal flag—black, red, and yellow. The heritage-listed Aboriginal Embassy, established in 1972. Letters, each a metre high, rise from the lawn, spelling S-O-V-E-R-E-I-G-N-T-Y. A campfire burns; a fire for peace and justice that has burned since 1998. Shabby tent sites and humpies spread beyond a fountain across the now manicured lawns. Some call it an eyesore.
If you stand facing the letters, your eyes will travel back across the lake, up a wide ceremonial boulevard lined with memorials to each of the wars fought by Australian troops, and to the domed War Memorial. There is no memorial to the Aboriginal Australians who fought and are still fighting to retain their native rights and lands.
Finally, your eye will rest on Mt. Ainslie, a heavily forested hill, one of the terminal points of the Griffin plan. These arresting long vistas are everywhere in Canberra.
I still love the drive from the city to our house. The thoroughfare passes along the lake and into undulating open landscape. On winter mornings fog rises from the river corridor and shrouds the valleys. Light plays across the hills and paddocks. In the distance, the Brindabella Ranges fold and overlap under the ever-changing drama of the wide-open sky. No houses are visible from the road; it feels like being in the country. I often see kangaroos.
We still walk from our house, across the road to the sheep paddocks and to the farm-cum-art-gallery. Now, we can also watch pruning, ripening, and harvesting across over 600 acres of vineyards that have replaced some of the empty plains along the trail. Until recently, we could loop back from the farm along a horse trail that divided grazing lands where kangaroos often hang out, climb through a barbed wire fence to a dirt road that borders a golf course, walk through a pine forest at the edge of the back nine holes, and end up at the vineyards. But, the area is being razed for a new housing development.
If the development follows the current pattern in Canberra, the houses will be variations on a theme, built of identical materials, face in on one another on lots that are nothing more than a narrow perimeter around the dwelling, and disregard the views to the mountains and the corridor of the Murrumbidgee River. Planners and developers will spare little thought for the lives to be lived here. Like Civic, housing developments during the past 25 years of city expansion have no harmony with the setting—not in design, not in materials, and not in aspect—and instead, are imposed on it. They simply occupy the space. As Frank Lloyd Wright once noted, these undifferentiated housing developments belong nowhere.
If we walk out our front door in the opposite direction, we track along more paddocks, past another farmhouse and a pioneer family cemetery, through an underpass to horse paddocks, past more costly houses, most of which have turned their backs on the splendid views to the Brindabellas. Eventually we come to a forested nature reserve—The Pinnacle. Trails lead through grasslands and open forest to a rise where we have long views to the city, now looking picturesque, festooned with trees and the ornamental lake. There are at least 30 such reserves scattered throughout urban Canberra—sclerophyll forest and woodlands—home to kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, possums, quolls, red-bellied black snakes, a palette of wild parrots. In fact, 75 percent of the Australian Capital Territory remains preserved bushland.
There is a certain ease to living in this man-made city. The beauty of the landscape, the cloud-laced sky, and the open spaces create the restful effect Griffin imagined. From any of the surrounding hills the city is visually rich. Four universities and world-class medical and science facilities provide intellectual stimulation, and along with the business of government, provide a relatively stable job market. Residents are well-educated and well-paid. The national institutions add culture. The presence of embassies and a multicultural population have stimulated a restaurant industry of world cuisine. There are over 100 kilometers of off-road bicycle paths. You can kayak or canoe on the lake, exploring its wetlands to see mating black swans, rufous herons, dusky moorhens, and Eurasian coots. It’s safe, a good place to raise a family.
And, progress abounds. The carbuncle of worn-out apartments along the boulevard into the city are being demolished; scrappy, aged trees chopped down to make way for a light rail train to deal with the traffic of the expanding city. A drive through the campus of the Australian National University as well as the arts and cultural precincts that have popped up around the city provides evidence of what is possible architecturally and aesthetically. A stunning arboretum with 94 forests of rare, endangered, and symbolic trees has replaced the commercial pine plantations that were destroyed in the 2003 bushfire.
In 2014, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development named Canberra the best place to live in the world, based on eight criteria: access to broadband, education, income, jobs, environment, health, safety, housing, and civil engagement (Australia has compulsory voting).
Yet, I can’t help thinking of the trenchant irony in the words of conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold: “We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness.”
And therein lies much of my problem.
This engineered city reflects, in a fragmented way, the philosophy that shaped it—it is democratic, middle-class, regulated, and politically correct in the extreme. A place that takes itself way too seriously. The planning, development, and management of the city, as well as its purpose—the business of government and the apolitical commitment to service—have greatly diminished the aesthetic and the organic tensions that provide character to a city; the tensions that give rise to creativity and innovation; the tensions that create a rhythm, a music. Tensions like the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and the Braddon precinct. As with the creation of a pearl, it is the grit, the rub, the irritant that stimulates, rounds, and polishes the nacre.
Perhaps there would have been a different result, had the planners adhered to the aesthetic of Griffin’s ideal. Perhaps not. As it is, the city flatlines with comfort, conformity, and mediocrity. Little ignites. Little excites. It’s like a daily diet of McDonald’s.
I want more from the place I live than the post-WWII values identified by Leopold. I feel constrained by so much order, safety, and predictability. By mundaneness. I want to unleash those pincushions of green in the center of Civic, bulldoze the dull grey pavers and replace them with wildflowers, insert a bit of grit into the bivalve layout of the city. I want to be roused. I want to be astonished.
My husband reminds me that Canberra is only 100 years old; London and Paris are centuries old. And, true, the city is now evolving more organically.
Still, I fear the planners, the developers, and the bureaucrats.
Read Catherine Mauk’s award-winning essay “Geography of the Self,” also appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo — Parliament House of Australia in Canberra — by JJ Harrison, courtesy Wikipedia.