Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Thinking outside the paddock
Elizabeth Farrelly * Elizabeth Farrelly is an urban consultant and writer.
Canberra seemed like a good idea at the time, but it’s been downhill from there,
writes Elizabeth Farrelly, who puts the new national museum on the slippery slide
City of Dreams screens on the ABC at 9.30pm on Thursday.
Riddle: what kind of place constructs a vast, expensive empty paddock as its symbolic national city? Don’t get me wrong. I like Canberra. I like its leafiness, its crisp, sweet air, its lawny monumentality. I like its absurdities, its vast, illegible, lunatic symbolism. I even like its emptiness, the sense of having stumbled upon the greened-over ruin of some ancient city which the gnomes still devotedly maintain despite having clean forgotten why it exists.
Canberra is interesting because it’s about something. Paradoxically, though, and despite some hard-to-miss clues (like Parliament House with its vestigial punk fasces not-quite-terminating the great Anzac axis), you’d be hard put to divine just what it’s about from the ground. It’s unusual, in fact, to find underlying idea and experiential fact quite as dramatically opposed as they are in Canberra; miasmic verdure on the one hand, intensely centralist symbolic geometry, on the other.
Most of our cities most cities anywhere while lacking the formal idea, are easier to read in the flesh.
Take Sydney. Sydney declares itself. Without shame or hesitation this glittering waterside babel spruiks its message from every corner of every congested street with all the amplitude it can muster: “Money is fun, fun is money is there anything else?”
Melbourne, too, more discreetly of course, shows its cultivated hand. But Canberra is limitlessly bewildering. “The presence of absence,” a phrase fatuously self-applied to the new National Museum (vide its official brochure), acquires meaning in relation to the city as a whole, imbued as it is with a sense of being not quite there.
And yet, at the outset, Australia’s Federal city was to be “the finest in the world”. In May 1912, announcing fellow American Walter Burley Griffin as winner of the international design competition, home affairs minister King O’Malley declared: “What we wanted was the best the world can give us, and we have got it.” Well, he would say that. Especially in view of the fact that the architectural institutes of both Australia and Britain had boycotted the competition, due in part to O’Malley’s insistence on reserving final judgment to himself.
As John Sulman noted sniffily: “The minister has been lucky to obtain one plan at any rate, by a competent designer none of the well-known town-planners have entered.”
Griffin himself, while describing his design as “first and last an expression of functions”, had lofty ideas of what the functions of a democratic capital were, arranging them with intricate symbolism and frequently drawing analogies with Washington, DC. Drawing on a range of current town-planning and architectural thinking, from the Beaux Arts to Garden City to assorted, only slightly dotty spiritualist ideas, Griffin articulated a series of principles. These included a progressive notion of direct responsiveness to place and climate, which, he said, “must result in an architecture proportionately greater than any on Earth heretofore”.
So how did Canberra, conceived in optimism, set in beauty, blessed with boundless opportunity and fed with both inspiration and aspiration, become, in Bill Bryson’s recent words, “just a scattering of government buildings in a man-made wilderness”?
And where can it possibly go from here?
The base story, as retold in Film Australia’s forthcoming documentary City of Dreams, is familiar. In 1912 Walter Burley Griffin won a competition which he had anticipated for years and whose outcome would change his life. In so doing he beat several more experienced and famous architects, including runner-up and fellow American Eliel Saarinen. (His son Eero would later pluck Joern Utzon’s winning Opera House design from the rubbish bin and persuade his fellow jurors to look again. Or so fable has it.)
Griffin’s design was distinguished above all by its response to topography, using Mount Ainslie, Black Mountain and the sluggish Molonglo River to locate the new city’s primary axes, and by its extensive use of native flora. Even now, few who saw the scheme would guess that neither Griffin nor his gifted illustrator and partner, Marion Mahony, had then set foot on Australian soil, having worked solely from detailed drawings and site models.
Griffin expected to be invited to Australia forthwith to start work. To his dismay, however, the Australian Government did not see Griffin’s win as constituting any sort of commitment on its part, and professed itself free to take “a park from one [design], a boulevard from another and a public square from another”.
There followed some disgraceful argy-bargy, during which the powerful departmental board proceeded to do precisely this, generating international consternation when the new plagiarised, bowdlerised and cobbled-together substitute was adopted, briefly, as the official capital plan. Intellectual property ain’t what it used to be.
Eventually, in 1913, Griffin received his invitation. With Mahony, he abandoned his flourishing Chicago practice and set sail to become Australia’s Federal capital director of design and construction. Even then, however, it slowly became clear that the competition Griffin thought he had won was, as far as his client was concerned, still under way.
Time and again, over subsequent years, Griffin was forced to divert his energies from the job of turning Canberra-the-dream into fact, in order to demonstrate and re-demonstrate to various ministers, on various pretexts and laboriously at various scales the superiority of his scheme over others.
The board was disbanded early on, but its members remained, losing no opportunity to white-ant Griffin’s standing with the minister. Accusations flew, royal commissions were held and relationships deteriorated, with Griffin’s increasing querulousness more than matched by his masters’ bloody obstructionism.
In 1920 Griffin and the Feds called it quits: his work on Canberra was taken over by a committee chaired by John Sulman, a Garden City man from way back, whose first move was to replace terrace housing with freestanding suburbia. Griffin, after some further years of practice in Sydney the Castlecrag years moved to India where, in 1937, he died of peritonitis at the age of 60.
It’s a sad story, make only sicklier by the sepia-toned reverence with which City of Dreams transforms the Griffins into unsung geniuses, prefiguring Utzon in their David-esque battles against pencil-lipped provincial bureaucrats. Both Griffin and Mahony had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. Indeed, the great man’s office is where they met. But to portray them, and Griffin in particular, as the leading creative and intellectual lights of Wright’s practice is far-fetched indeed. Even a fleeting comparison of Wright’s Oak Park houses or Unity Temple in Chicago with Griffin’s strange little offerings at Castlecrag shows where real genius lay.
So, how much of the Canberra we know and love is down to Griffin? Not more than 20 per cent or so, probably. The basic diagram is his. This included two crossed axes, known as the land axis and water axis, overlaid by and bisecting an equilateral triangle. The land axis now links Parliament with the War Memorial (across the lake), while the water axis runs from Black Mountain along the dammed Molonglo, now Lake Burley Griffin. The triangle is defined by Capital Hill (Parliament), City Hill and Russell. From each of these, and from other, lesser nodes, a “starburst” pattern of streets radiates, forming the city’s basic pattern.
Much of this thinking was traditional. The starburst device, for instance, had long been part of traditional Beaux Arts town planning, drawn from Louis XIV’s fabulous garden at Versailles and developed through London, Paris and Washington, DC. The central triangle idea had also been tried, in L’Enfant’s elegant 1791 plan for Washington.
Layered onto this comparatively unexceptional framework, though, was Griffin’s own, romantic response to topography terminating crucial vistas on mountains instead of buildings, for instance and such a wealth of symbolic detail relating to functional layout that the plan has been described as a “solid mandala, an intelligible, three-dimensional diagram packed full of significance and purpose”.
Of this mandala virtually nothing remains. The only function in its intended place is the university. Griffin’s plan had distinguished carefully between federal and local, terracing the federal functions hierarchically down from Capital Hill (Kurrajong) to the lake. At the top of the hill he placed the Capitol, a ceremonial people’s space, representing the “sentimental and spiritual head” of the new Commonwealth, above government. Across the water, stretched along the triangle’s base, was the linear mercantile city proper. Running between the market centre (Russell) and the municipal centre (City Hill), this city was backboned by a very urban high street, complete with tram line. Now, by contrast, these functions are hopelessly intermixed.
Other things changed, too, as Canberra, like a babe in the womb, was washed by waves of design fashion and political expedience. Modernism, pragmatism, suburbanism, capitulation, urban design, down-sizing and so on, rhythmically over the decades. Through this process Griffin’s formal, near-symmetrical lake de-morphed into an irregular pseudo-natural job; Russell was commandeered by the military; the railway, intended as a continuous lifeline through the town, was halted at Kingston; and the new Parliament House sneaked uphill, grabbing the top spot for itself. In this context Parliament’s grassed-over roof reads as a defensive gesture of denial. Self-abasement, even.
Canberra’s single most obvious characteristic, though, the thing that overwhelms all other impressions, is its vast, verdant openness. Canberra boasts about 300 times the parkland area of London’s enormous Hyde Park for something like a 60th of the population. This generates a sheep-station mentality. So distant is the nearest solid object (not counting trees and blades of grass) that you can’t actually walk anywhere: Canberra’s per-head petrol consumption sits therefore at the head of the Australian table. At the same time, though, and for the same reason said petrol consumers being so thin on the ground Canberra’s air remains undeservedly sweet and clean. You can see why they like living there.
But a city? It’s like doing business in a paddock, high-heeling and briefcasing it through calf-high chewings fescue. Not unpleasant exactly, just unusual. Especially in a federal capital where, above all, you expect intensity, intrigue, excitement conflict, even on every street corner. That’s if there were any street corners. Or streets to have corners, for that matter.
It’s a question that has greatly exercised the minds of Australia’s fledgling urban design community over recent years: how much of Canberra’s back-paddock quality is due to Griffin’s plan, and how much has been added or taken away since?
The answer is mixed. Certainly Griffin intended much denser development of the parliamentary triangle, and along the primary boulevards and tram lines. The vast tracts of sacred grassland that now moat each institution, for example, would have been built upon, providing continuous definition of streets and vistas. Urbanity, or something like it.
At the same time, however, it sometimes seems that while Griffin easily intuited the form of the landscape, he entirely misapprehended its size, accidentally drawing the town at three or four times normal scale. In part this up-scaling was deliberate, allowing for growth such as had already “overstepped the plan” in Washington, and in part it was driven by the congestion bogey that coloured the dawn of modern town planning throughout the Western world. Canberra’s main streets, for example, were designed at a width of 200 feet more than three times that of Sydney’s main thoroughfares.
The overscaling of Griffin’s plan was noted at the time. J.D. Fitzgerald, for instance, journalist, politician, barrister and a founding advocate of town planning in Australia, noted in the Herald on July 27, 1912, that “the first impression given by [Griffin’s] plan is that it is too scattered. The capital would, even more than Washington or Paris, be a city of ‘magnificent distances’ … compactness is sacrificed to preserve the contours …”
So it’s not as if we weren’t warned, then or since. Repeatedly, however, over the intervening years, opportunities to redress Canberra’s solid-to-void imbalance have been wasted as fast as they’ve arisen. The new National Museum of Australia is a case in point.
The first mistake was strategic. There were are half a dozen potential museum sites within the parliamentary triangle. Lakeside between the High Court and the Science Centre, for instance, or stepping down the hill in front of Old Parliament House. It could even be underground, if we absolutely must preserve the sacred turf and the, ahem, National Rose Gardens (yes, we do have them, a fine matching pair).
On such a site the NMA could have started a new trend, away from the prevailing campus-and-car park mentality and towards a more urban and collegiate approach. Like Washington’s Smithsonian it could have grown from small beginnings, added new wings or whole new buildings, and still had room to startle the architectural fraternity every decade or so. It could have linked five currently marooned institutions, the National Gallery, High Court, National Portrait Gallery, Science Centre and National Library. Its crowds could have wandered happily from one to the other, as in London or Frankfurt, instead of driving between surface car parks. Plus, Canberra would start to feel like a city. Small point.
And then there’s the building itself, a look-at-me collection of sheds designed by the Melbourne firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall with the intention of thumbing a lift on the building-as-tourist-attraction tradition established by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin.
The NMA, as has been noted, is a semiologist’s delight: a postmodern novel with do-it-yourself plot and variable endings; a random collage of images and motifs grainily scanned from other buildings; a virtual-reality theme park where interactivity replaces intellect as the primary purpose; a limitlessly branching Web site consciously designed to preclude big-picture understanding in favour of immediate non-rational engagement. Play, in a word.
But the NMA’s mistake, as a piece of architecture, is Canberra’s mistake in microcosm. It’s the same old thing. There’s the idea, and there’s the fact. If the idea isn’t legible in the fact, and if the fact isn’t up to scratch as an experience, forget it. The idea itself doesn’t even figure, except to readers of fine print.
In other words, if you have to spell out the building’s story the narrative, in postmodern argot you’ve lost it.
The new museum spends a lot of time spelling its story out, having published a “history” of itself even before the paint’s dry. One recurrent narrative strand, evidencing grooviness, is the e-metaphor. “The NMA’s architectural triumph is that it is the 20th century’s last word in demonstrating what computers can do for design,” goes the authorised version. Avoiding the obvious retort, which would run fervently along thank-God-that’s-over-then lines, the suggestion that sophisticated e-quipment automatically produces sophisticated architecture begs examination.
Again, it comes down to the inescapably visceral nature of architecture. In the end, architecture is about being there, and thank God for it. And if being there is all bare baked concrete and anodised aluminium and blindfold spaces with a pretence of interactivity but no connection to water or land; if it’s just another cheap air-conditioned box with colours and textures on the outside; if
the spaces themselves, the detailing and use of material communicate no skill or delight but only braggadocio, then the resultant whole is about as endearing as boys farting in class. Excruciatingly clever to the protagonists; not necessarily so enchanting for the rest.
Call it arrogant, call it patronising. Call it downright rude. I can’t help feeling if I see another Hill’s Hoist as a symbol of Australian everyman, I’ll be sick. Do we really still think we’re a nation of Crocodile Dundees? Do our museums have to be designed as glorified play equipment? Is this what it takes to be popular? Excuse me?
So, what kind of nation does enshrine a big empty paddock at its symbolic heart? The kind that focuses that un-city on an expressly I’m-outta-here building as its main constitutional icon. The kind that chooses a scattered, out-of-town collection of tricked-up sheds to house and represent its pile of national treasures. Is this really some virtual, next-century reality? Or are we just saying terra nullius is come of age and making its presence-of-absence felt?
TWO ILLUS: Planning ahead …
Walter Burley Griffin’s competition entry for the Australian capital, above left, and Griffin with his wife, Marion Mahony, at Castlecrag in 1930.
Illustration: Lionel Porter