Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Democracy takes toll on a capital idea
Canberra’s creator thought he was designing the Democratic City. But if he’d understood cities or democracy a little better he’d have copied Sydney, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
I dunno, maybe it’s just some lingering misconception of classical Athens that makes us think design and democracy are compatible. When, of course, Athens was about as far from majority rule as the plebs from the Parthenon, reserving both democracy and architecture for the gods, broadly speaking. These days, by contrast, it’s hard to find a household object that hasn’t been done over by some smooth-tongued global Starcke or other. And yet still our cities look as if they fell off the back of a dumpster. Why?
From Lewis Mumford to Lloyd Rees to Lord Richard Rogers, the Great Men of architectural myth-making have fondly proffered the city as the greatest of all artworks. But two new books on Australian cities demonstrate, perhaps unwittingly, how deeply hostile democracy can be to city design, and to the extended, sustained, collaborative discipline it entails.
Canberra Following Griffin: A Design History of Australia’s National Capital, by the late Professor Paul Reid, and City Spaces: Art and Design, edited by Elizabeth Mossop and Paul Walton, remind us, too, of the profound physical differences, masking equally profound cultural similarities, of the nation’s most proximate capitals.
Of the two, the Canberra book is by far the more interesting, capturing as it does the tragic unravelling of a heroic idea; the relentless triumph, as Reid sees it, of small minds over great ones. The Griffins for Reid recognises Marion Mahoney’s centrality to Walter’s success are painted as idealistic Gullivers on the empty Australian culture-scape, outwitted, enmeshed and finally defeated by the unceasing efforts of a thousand pygmy pragmatists.
And to some extent this is a reasonable interpretation. The Canberra story from the initial site-haggling to the stacking of jurors and the determined white-anting by arch Iago-crat David Miller, Canberra’s first resident administrator is sad and remarkable. As much as anything it demonstrates that capital city intrigue can predate both capital and city, feeding epiphytically on thin air, malice and pure, out-of-the-bag testosterone.
The contrast, for example, between the paeans of professional and scholarly applause which greeted Griffin’s win in his native Chicago and the thin-lipped humiliation to which he was treated here is stark, vividly prefiguring the Utzon-Davis Hughes story in Sydney and many a design competition since. Why are Australians so determined to embarrass themselves, faced with a chance of real significance?
In Canberra’s case it was about territory, insecurity and an abject lack of imagination. Even before the competition was won, Canberra bureaucrats were busy laying out the future city, seeing no contradiction, as Reid notes, “in taking major decisions on designing and siting buildings while preparing for a competition for the city layout”, and jockeying venomously, as only bureaucrats can, for power spots in the forthcoming process.
Of the four possible city sites on the competition base map, the officers had selected a site at Mugga Mugga , wholly south of the Molonglo River; the competition conditions, however, not only failed to communicate this preference but implied that the Canberra site, straddling the river, was equally suitable.
After virtually all the competitors, including the top three, chose the river-centred Canberra site, Miller and his henchmen spent years forcing Griffin, by a combination of insinuation, intimidation and expert attrition, to sow the seeds of his own undoing by establishing a temporary city on the southern site (the Manuka-Kingston of today). This, the earliest blurring of Griffin’s “crisp geometry”, was the first in a long series of moves directing energy out of instead of into the city centre.
Reid is an unabashed Griffin devotee and his admiration for “the inherent perfection of the [Griffin] design itself” is in large part the motive for the book. It’s a good story, and although it has been told before most notably in Karl Fischer’s Canberra; Myths and Models (1984) Reid, with resolutely undecorated prose, gives us the characters: Griffin soft, charming, analytical; Mahoney fiery, spectacular, the design genius of the pair. He captures the euphoria of their win, with loving descriptions of those six mad weeks in the design loft and of the frantic midwinter rush “to catch the last train for the last boat to Australia”.
And he sets out, for the first time in detail, every drawing, map and diagram you need to trace not only the Griffin ideals but the successive waves of counteractive planning theory that undid them.
In this way Griffin’s ideal Canberra, a strongly ordered city of trams and terrace houses minutely partnered to its landscape setting, was diluted and perverted, before even hitting the ground, into the loose pastoral caricature that is fast becoming
Sydney’s westernmost suburb.
Beneath that story, though, lies another classic design tale, which Reid fingers but does not explicate. It is a cautionary tale about architects, small print and democracy, which should be required reading for the profession.
The arrangements for the competition were so shonky it had already been boycotted by both the British and Australian architects’ institutes. Knowing this, intending competitors could have been expected to read the small print; if they had, two conditions 18 and 23 would have been warning enough. These read: “the … designs shall become the property of the Government for its unrestricted use, either in whole or in part” and “the Government by its own officers will give effect to the adopted design”.
Caveat competitor. Enter at your own risk.
Probably Griffin had not read conditions 18 and 23 when he arrived bushy-tailed on Australian shores to build us the City of Democracy. Already, while he’d waited more than a year after winning to be invited out, Miller’s boys had, as threatened, eviscerated his winning scheme to flesh out their own, which was then adopted by the Government. But worse was to come when, unsupported by the valiant Mahoney, Griffin proved no match for the viciousness of the game.
And so, all that remains of Griffin now, on the ground in the fateful Molonglo Valley, is the lake (minus the crucial rail-causeway which would have sustained his commercial city) and the big triangle (Civic-Russell-Capital Hill). The rest, with its carefully wrought detail transport patterns, densities, hierarchies of use has vanished irrevocably, its absence preserved in the vengeful permafrost of heritage open space.
And on the hill, perfectly symbolising this inverted dominance from atop Mount Kurrajong, sits Parliament House, abstract and self-effacing to a fault, while kids in sneakers roll down the grass over its head.
All this after the prolonged and dedicated attentions of some of the best planning brains on the planet. In Sydney, meanwhile, described by Rollin Schlicht in City Spaces as “the wildly unplanned real capital of Australia”, ferality proceeds apace; which seems to worry no-one, including the planners.
City Spaces is about design in Sydney, not of it, which would be a slim volume indeed. Even so, as a collection of essays by various architects and public-space artists it promises well but has difficulty cohering, much less delivering.
Elizabeth Mossop seems to believe with Griffin that public space in our cities can symbolise and strengthen democracy, and vice versa. “Historically,” she says, “public space has referred to those locations that provide a setting for political participation.” This, of course, is fanciful at best. Ancient Rome, Napoleon’s Paris and Georgian London were none of them strong on participation from the streets, but could hardly be accused of lacking public space.
Like it or not, public space historically has budded from commerce.
Now, no less than in Griffin’s time, designers’ reluctance to accept the realities of life as we know it is a constant impediment to design effectiveness in the contemporary city. The general presumption of the book is that things would be better, more democratic, if only designers were given more space and power. The truth is, though, as Griffin’s story so amply illustrates, that the machines of democracy sap and compromise design more than enhance it. Where democracy is about process, design is about product.
Canberra Following Griffin: A Design History of Australia’s National Capital, by Paul Reid, is published by National Archives of Australia.
City Spaces: Art & Design, edited by Elizabeth Mossop and Paul Walton, is published by Craftsman House, Sydney.
ILLUS: ”Idealistic Gullivers” Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney, left, and how Griffin imagined Canberra, above.