Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News Review
A hole in the heart
With its centenary approaching, Canberra must cast off the plump country town aura and realise its prize-winning vision.
The people in white coats and gloves operating the pliers, snipping ligatures with agonising unhaste in the revolving pod atop Black Mountain Tower, are not surgeons, though for a moment the tension seems comparable. They’re archivists, and the narrow wooden crate at the centre of their attention holds our equivalent of sacred drawings.
The da Vinci moment, jokes a dignitary – US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich, as it happens – and we titter, seeing the irony. (Are we so mystery-deprived that even bureaucratic boxes seem sacred?) Yet we crane forward as one to see the fine crate dismantled and the long roll removed. For this is the last unopened box of base-drawings from the Canberra design competition, a hundred years ago.
They’re lovely things, these turn-of-the-century Coulter watercolours; cycloramas a couple of metres long and a couple of handspans high, breathtaking in their sweet simplicity.
I imagine the Griffins in their 1911 Chicago studio, feel their excitement as, even before the images of this strange and far-flung place can be digested, ideas for its future city start to form in their minds.
And this, just what was in the combined Griffin mind, has become something of an issue. But it’s not the only issue facing Canberra.
It may not yet have impinged on your consciousness, but it will. Our capital is turning 100. It’s a gradual birthday. The competition took almost two years to fruit, so in 2013 Canberra can expect its telegram from the Queen.
It is therefore timely to ask, what does our national capital mean to us? And what does it say about us?
Ross Garnaut’s recent climate change address to the National Press Club was one of the most compelling political speeches this country has produced. Yet knowing that it came direct from one of the most car-dependent cities on Earth added a level of surrealism that goes some way to undermining any commitment to, in Garnaut’s term, “do our fair share” for the planet.
For although Canberra is far more dispersed than even Griffin intended, the suburban ideal – aka sprawl – was always its core promise. Canberra, with its bush-burbs and satellite towns, is sprawl squared. Yet it’s also, inescapably, our symbol: how do we reconcile this with a clean, green Australian future?
A recent flurry of Canberra-type activity has signposted the gradual build-up – the foothills, if you will, to the official Canberra centenary. Simultaneous with last month’s box-opening was the launch by creative director Robyn Archer of Capithetical, an ideas competition for a contemporary capital.
A few days later, Alasdair McGregor’s biography Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin won the National Biography Prize. That was followed, a few days later, by the discovery of a lost Griffin drawing – part of the original competition entry – rolled up in the back seat of the car of Canberra historian Dr Dave Headon. What does it all signify, if anything?
Admittedly, Canberra can hardly be considered complete. In the life of a city, a hundred years is barely gestatory. But still, a hundred years is a hundred years; time, surely, for some meaning to accumulate.
Admittedly, people who live there love it. But for the rest of us, Canberra can feel a lot like an airy outer suburb or plump country town. All grass and trees and lakeside bike paths, it’s not much more than a nice place to tootle round for the occasional weekend.
But when you consider it as our national capital – when you attend an important government meeting, say, and sink up to your stilettos in mud on the way there because there’s no footpath across the paddock, or when you enter Parliament House to find the reek of chlorine suggests you should have your goggles and flippers, or when you exit face to face with the dilapidated “tent embassy”, or attempt to navigate your way round the circular roads that all look the same, or try to find anything that might pass for a city centre at the heart of all this sprawl – it’s hard not to feel that Canberra is under-designed, under-formed and under-occupied. It feels, in short, empty.
We ridicule the Kiwis for making a flightless bird their mascot but what kind of nation takes an absent presence for its symbolic city?
Emptiness, Griffinologists are reliably quick to point out, is not what they intended. But Canberra is the built form of the gap – nay, the yawning chasm – between word and deed. And in both these aspects, the hole in the donut might seem an apt symbol for Australian politics, just as it seems an apt symbol for our big empty continent.
If Burley Griffin had intended such satire, secreting such subversive symbolism in his design for Canberra the way Leonardo is said to have secreted heresies within his Last Supper, I’d love him more. But as it is, I cannot escape the feeling that Griffin simply mistook the scale by a factor of 10.
Grand Obsessions may be the book title, but there’s an irony here, because the outsize grandeur of Griffin’s concept meant that, on the ground, Canberra is un-grand in the extreme.
Canberra scholars – and it can be something of a surprise to realise that there is among urbanists a global Canberra conversation – argue over the real meaning of the Griffin plan. There is even an entire school of esoterica, well worthy of Dan Brown, devoted to reading vesica piscis and other anthroposophic symbolism into the plan.
But much of the conversation is more practical. To what extent, ask planners, does (or could, or should) Canberra the city resemble that plan? It is generally agreed that Griffin’s idea was of a more dense and urban centre, with building- and tram-lined streets, than what was built. But as to the future, and whether Canberra can ever be made to resemble a proper city, views divide. And the minute a blade of grass is threatened, politics steps in.
I was a student when I first gave Canberra any thought. Romaldo Giurgola’s new Parliament House, then under construction, was an object of reverence and pilgrimage. It was somehow thrilling that Australia should build something so vast and still so shamelessly symbolic, bespeaking (we thought) a reverence for design that students share, but for which, on graduating, quickly learn not to hope.
With the Parliament’s completion, though, the thrill vanished, leaving a building with too much pomp and too little dignity; too much careful handicraft inside – it struck us as the official equivalent of the Country Women’s Association crochet stall – and sheep on the roof.
For me, the main Canberra question is always this: does the same disappointment, the sense of unfulfilled promise, pertain to the city as a whole?
I’ve always had a soft spot for Canberra the idea; for its triangular geometry (Civic, Russell and Capitol Hill) drawn via the City Beautiful Movement from L’Enfant’s Washington and Le Notre’s Versailles.
I like the dramatic potential inherent in a city whose centre is of public and international significance, while its skirts are personal and habitable in nature.
I’m even sympathetic with Griffin’s attempts to soften and modernise this old classical stiffness, replacing the God-fearing, bilateral symmetries of French classicism with a looser, more democratic weave; a move from lacework, if you will, to crochet.
The sad truth is that, although the idea is definitely interesting, Canberra the city is much less charming, partly because the intellectual content has been strained out of it by successive amendments, like flavour out of an old teabag. And partly because the idea itself was inherently weak.
Robyn Archer, in launching Capithetical, was at pains to insist that “Canberra has a fascinating subculture”. But I say how can it have a subculture, when there’s no evidence even of a culture? Archer says: “Canberra is a shy city, like Kyoto, with a fan in front of its face.” I say, shy? Fiddlesticks.
It’s downright private. For anyone outside the cabals – the pollies, the bureaucrats, the legions of gravytrainers – Canberra is a F*** Off city. There’s just no other way to say it, or see it. And this FO-ness is built into the very geometry of the place.
Every indistinguishable circle or parkway, every indistinguishable turn-off, every outscale landscape gesture and unwalkable museum; it’s all designed for private knowledge, private access and private transport.
The fact that you can be stranded for an hour within the parliamentary triangle and miss your flight because there are no cabs and no other means of transport is a disgrace, and it’s not about the transport provision, but about the city plan that makes it, simply, impossible.
This privateness is unforgivable in any city, since cities are, in their essence, public creatures, but it is especially unforgivable in a capital city.
And although Burley Griffin may not have intended this quality, it was always inherent in his geometries.
Comparing Versailles, Washington and Canberra makes it clear. Not only are the similarities immediately apparent, but also the differences. For where Versailles and Washington are essentially rectilinear grids with the radial geometry overlaid (giving the diagonal avenues and etoiles so favoured by Beaux Arts designers), Canberra reversed this.
Griffin achieved his “democratisation” by switching the geometric priorities; making the radial geometry dominant, and relegating the grid to secondary infill. This allowed the limitless panoramic expansion – or sprawl – that seemed so “democratic”, but also ensured that Canberra became the shapeless, dull, unnavigable and profligate city we see today.
What’s to be done, and who’s going to do it?
Not the Capithetical competition, for a start. Capithetical shows every sign of having been set up by Canberra bureaucrats, devoted to keeping Canberra as is.
The competition brief precludes any response to the existing city, requiring instead a completely hypothetical take on a new capital – including a strong hint that cities will be virtual henceforth – along with a two-page report that shows you understand Canberra’s history.
If you think that sounds more like a school project than an international design competition, you’d be right – only it won’t be done by schools because you have to register before you even get the brief. There’s that privacy thing again. They do like to keep it in the family.
Capithetical is carefully designed to look creative while leaving the Canberra status quo unthreatened, which sounds just perfect as a government strategy. But what Canberra desperately needs, and what it should have before Garnaut delivers his next Climate Change bromide from there, is the dramatic densification that would achieve three things at once: congruence with Griffin’s vision, a genuine urban grandeur, and sustainability. Now there’s a triangular plan for you.