Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Canberra: death by neglect
E.M. FARRELLY E. M. Farrelly is on extended leave of absence. This will be her last fortnightly column.
“IT SEEMED to me that Moses . . . as he gazed down upon the promised land, saw no more panoramic view than I did,” breathed King O’Malley, then the Minister for Home Affairs, after inspecting the proposed site for the Australian Federal capital in 1910.
Two years earlier, his predecessor, Hugh Mahon, had sent district surveyor Scrivener out to map the site for this intended “beautiful city . . . not only for the present, but for all time . . .”
O’Malley himself, having railed long and loud against the unnecessary extravagance of a new capital, would soon become presiding tyrant at its difficult birth, by then envisaging Canberra as “the finest Capital City in the world! The pride of time!”
Now, less than a century later and on the eve, gods willing, of Republic Oz, this “pride of time” is looking seriously unwell. Described in its own daily newspaper as “a business showing an annual loss of $155 million, in high-maintenance premises and with regular visits assured from a lot of non-paying overseas guests with expensive tastes”, Canberra suffers a dramatically aging population, huge unfunded superannuation liabilities, a youth unemployment rate almost twice the national average, and increasing governmental anxiety about the gap between maintenance costs and income. The Great Australian Public Sector, once Canberra’s life-giving elite, has been relentlessly savaged by success ive governments. Even the Prime Minister can’t bring himself to live there. Whassa story?
For some, the demise of Canberra would seem no great loss. There’s an element of envy in this: for much of living memory Canberra has been comfortably populated by fat public servants with their smooth, empty roads and over-funded health and education systems, courtesy of the rest of us.
There’s also an element of fashion. The Garden City ideal, over-pasted by John Sulman (of medal fame) onto Walter Burley Griffin’s original plan for Canberra, has become, simply, suburban at a time when urbanness is all the rage. Suddenly, all Canberra’s green lakesides and singing parkways can’t hold a candle to the grunge and grime and complex cultural energy of a crummy old CBD such as Sydney’s. Seen through these eyes, the pastoral ideal, parcelled out in quarter-acres, just seems boring.
OK. Say we accept all that for the tangle of fact and prejudice that it is. Even so, the imminence of a republic (or whatever) and the fact that, 10 years into self-government, Canberra seems genuinely in danger of sliding back into the swamp, insist that we consider the physical (as opposed to cultural) ramifications of 2001. Is death by neglect really what we want for this brave, unfinished experiment?
The story of Canberra is one that should be enshrined and handed down in Australian legend: how Sydney and Melbourne struggled for supremacy; how King O’Malley demanded and kept final control over the select ion process; how the architects’ institutes in both Australia and Britain boycotted the 1912 competition (but rallied around Griffin in his subsequent tussle with O’Malley’s technocrats); how the judges warred and prepared dissenting reports; and how Griffin won but was eve
ntually sent packing, just like Macquarie before him and Utzon after.
The controversy over the nature of Canberra, then and now, makes the also-rans interesting. A fascinating new book by the American scholar John Reps collects what is known of the other 136 Canberras-that-might-have-been, including the highly ordered modern classical approach of second placegetter Eliel Saarinen (Finland) and the socially conscious third prize-winner by French urbanist Hubert Agache.
Griffin’s plan, as has often been pointed out, was much more urban than the Canberra we know and love, its streets being continuously lined by two- and three-storeyed buildings, and was in fact widely criticised at the time, in Britain as well as Germany, for being insufficiently naturalistic. In 1920, after years of frustration by threadbare wartime budgets and deliberate bureaucratic obstruction, and with the dream of a Canberra seat of government still unrealised, Griffin was effectively sacked.
He was replaced by a six-man advisory committee, chaired by Sulman, garden city advocate and designer of Daceyville, inter alia. Sulman’s first act was to replace Griffin’s terrace housing model with single-storey bungalows, dramatically decreasing densities. He then banned all development from the lake’s northern shores, replaced “ribbon development” (shopping high streets) with suburban shopping centres, and planted more than a million trees.
This, to a large extent, determines the nature of Canberra today. Griffin’s plan does exist, from a God’s-eye point of view, but Canberra-as-experienced – green, confusing, incredibly spread out – is predominantly Sulman’s. In recent years urbanists have begun to talk of recapturing Griffin’s intended urbanness: building up, densifying, enriching the existing structure.
But it’s hard. Green stuff is sacred, and people grow exceeding fond of the drive- everywhere mentality. The division of planning powers between Federal and local government makes it harder still to implement such change. Politic ally, it’s an issue without legs.
A huge increase in development pressure may change this, but right now development pressure in Canberra seems to be of the negative variety. So much so that the Feds are starting to demolish their own property, as a mother under stress may devour her young.
Last November John Fahey, the Minister for Finance and Administration, announced that, as one of five “key initiatives” designed to “rejuvenate the ACT’s commercial office property market”, the Government intended to demolish the Cameron office block
in Belconnen, home to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. A generous move. The strategy, devised jointly with the Property Council of Australia and other interested parties, proposes to move the ABS into “new or refurbished” accommodation in Belconnen, thus providing employment and income support for the nice property men.
Trouble is, the Cameron office block, designed by John Andrews between 1968 and 1976, is one of the most internationally feted modern buildings in Australia. Jaq Robertson, still one of New York’s most renowned urban designers, wrote of Cameron at length in 1980 as the spiritual inheritor of Griffin’s mantle. For Robertson, Cameron is the ideal building for what he regarded as “one of the world’s most sensitively, ambitiously and superbly planned cities”.
Call it overstatement. But the threat to Cameron mirrors in microcosm the Canberra problem. In each case a celebrated modern work – Robertson regarded Canberra as “surely Australia’s most important cultural artefact” – having fallen out of favour, is threatened with abuse, disuse, abandonment.
Like Canberra, Cameron has an inspiring story. Springing out of the tail end of heroic, hubristic Corbusian modernism, which saw itself as leading human and social change, it reinvented office life, landscape design, structure and material use around its own internal logic.
Required to provide office space for 4,000 public servants, Cameron was the huge commission that tempted Andrews back to Australia at the height of the world fame he had achieved with the design of Scarborough College (1964-72) near Toronto.
The brief required 90,000 square metres of office space in five 15-storey towers. Reluctant to build so conspicuously, and seeking to imbue office life with an intimate landscape relationship that exploited Canberra’s virtues, Andrews persuaded the Government to lay the towers down. He thus produced five three-storey buildings interspersed with landscaped courtyards and linked by a spinal three-storeyed pedestrian “mall” building. The courtyards were “themed”, in current jargon, representing a gradient of typical Australian landscapes from mountain stream to red desert.
An ingenious structural system put all the columns outside the building, helping define the courtyards and leaving the interiors column-free, available for the “gardens-office” treatment in vogue at the time. The layers of building were staggered to provide self- sunshading and stepped to hug the ground contours; the composition abstract and asymmetrical, as things were then.
The idea was fanciful – office building as mini-city – but in theory it was all about people: “people moving, standing, talking, loving, with their aspirations, frustrations, living and dying, needing – nothing else endures”, said Andrews.
History records no deaths in the building, but seems set to prove anyway that architecture, for one, is less enduring than may seem. Mainly because the people, ever fickle, did not share their architect’s idealism.
The planned connections to the local shopping centre never eventuated, and, according to Andrews, government expenditure on day-to-day maintenance was negligible.
Latterly, in the controversy over the proposed demolition, a stream of letters to The Canberra Times has produced enough bile and vituperation to dissolve the building where it stands. Descriptions such as “a concrete monstrosity which should never have been built” and “interlocking concrete nightmare” proliferate. The Institute of Architects has defended the building valiantly, arguing (probably rightly) for Cameron as one of the most important buildings of its time. But what can you do with an important building that no-one is prepared to inhabit? Can such buildings be preserved, regardless? If so, who pays – not just for the refurbishment, but for upkeep and maintenance?
Jaq Robertson argued in 1980 that the Cameron offices were in the wrong place, that their Griffinesque sympathy with the landscape should have placed them in Canberra’s “magnificently conceived central area”. In that case, and perhaps anyway, the Government could do a lot worse than refit the building for the National Museum.
It’s low-rise, good-looking and ready-supplied with handsome courtyards. Why build anew? The Government’s newly stated policy is to “show a preference in the ACT for existing or refurbished buildings”. There is no reason to demolish Cameron: the National Museum offers a perfect opportunity for the Government to act according to policy. Go on, surprise me.
TWO ILLUS: Modernist masterpiece now a museum piece .
one of the four themed Australian landscape courtyards in John Andrews’s Cameron office block, which the Federal Government proposes to demolish.
Photograph by DAVID MOORE
Capital idea .
Eliel Saarinen’s modern classical runner-up in the 1912 Canberra design contest.