Canberra has always been a city of transformation. Of course, all cities experience constant change but
in Canberra, as a designed capital, this process is both unusually conscious and unusually apparent.
Right now, Canberra is changing dramatically - from the ultimate in low-rise, low-density non-city to
high-rise and relatively high density. For us, as Australians, this poses a question. Is this the change we
would choose for our Federal capital? And if not, what?
Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for Canberra. This is partly the Sydneysider’s classic idea of
Canberra - so easy to move around and so blessed with fine institutions - is a good place for a fun
weekend. It’s partly a lifetime city—lover’s fascination with one of the world’s few planned cities, right
here on our doorstep. And it’s partly that Canberra is, in many ways, almost the direct inverse of
Where Sydney is cramped and crooked, Canberra is open and ordered. Where Sydney is lumpy, coastal
and sub-tropical, Canberra is flat, dry, continental and breezy. Where Sydney’s DNA descends directly
from old London, Canberra is wholly modern. Where Sydney’s origins were punitive and fearful,
Canberra’s were boldly optimistic.
To remodel a swathe of bush and farmland into a created city was audacious; even more daring was to
conceive of that city as a bush capital. For all these reasons, Canberra is an exemplar and an object of
fascination. It is also subject to relentless transformation.
Even before construction began in the 50s, when the site held little more than a sweet stone church and
some dry paddocks, Canberra had undergone at least one transformation. The highly textured City
Beautiful imagined by the Griffins in 1913 had already morphed into the more macho and speedobsessed
dreaming of the mid-century traffic-engineer.
These days, many people yearn to transform Canberra again, turning that 1950s Pleasantville into an
edgy and bustling 21 st century capital. These are transformations are abstract, conceptually led.
Meanwhile, though, on the ground - and regardless of whatever dreams we might have - real-life
Canberra is being moulded by real-life pressures of money and politics into a city of towers.
Out of all this, questions arise. What kind of city are we making, here? Does this take us nearer – either
to the Griffins’ original intentions or to our dream of a bustling, truly urban Canberra – or further
away? To paraphrase Tom Waits, we all wanna know how’s it going to end.
It is now broadly accepted that Canberra as-built in the mid-century differed almost diametrically from
the Griffins’ 1913 design; in attitude, ideology, form and texture.
Where the Griffins proposed low-rise but continuous urban form, reality delivered separate bungalows
and pavilions. Where the Griffins prioritised public transport and a sense of urban community, midcentury
Canberra focused exclusively on the car, turning villages into suburbs, suburbs into far-flung
satellites, streets into malls and roads into highways. This change, driven by two appalling world wars,
transformed the crocheted texture of the Griffin plan - a classic Arts and Crafts texture like so many
hand-worked doilies stitched together - into a coarser, cruder pattern of motorway-linked suburban
centres. This shift was due in part to the militarism of a world traumatised by war and, not unrelated
the mix of masculinism, scientism and instrumentalism that became known as modernity.
Already, after WWI, these influences were evident. As Berlin-based Professor of Planning History Karl
Fischer notes in his seminal history of Canberra 1 , the increased civic importance attached to military
rank became quickly apparent. In a sorry tale that seems now like a harbinger of the Sydney Opera
House tale, ex-WWI officers would consistently mock Griffin and disparage his ideas. The Sulman
Committee, emboldened by this philosophical shift, then set about reducing the Griffins’ plan. With
ruthless efficiency they cut the City Beautiful town centre down to a more modest practicality and
transformed its residential hinterland from a low-rise but urban concept to a conventional garden
Twenty years later, when construction recommenced after WWII, the influence of both militarism and
instrumentalism (in the form of cost-cutting and traffic engineering) became even more pronounced.
Streets that had been envisioned as dense but low-rise local high streets, busy with pedestrian life and
public transit, were transformed into four and six-lane vehicular highways. The surrounding residential
areas became even more dispersed, forming a suburban diaspora of far-flung satellite towns islanded by
remnant “bush” and linked by high-speed roads.
Proposals to make public service positions and land releases exclusive to ex-servicemen increased the
military’s influence throughout the Federal capital. Not surprisingly, this militarism has continued, over
ensuing decades, to shape the plan in tangible ways. The site at the bottom of Mt Ainslie that the
Griffins had designated “casino” – meaning a lively Tivoli-esque pleasure garden - became the War
Memorial. Leading to it, the Griffins’ great green boulevard became a red marching-ground aligning the
War Memorial with the parliament itself. And the third, eastern point of the Federal triangle – which
the Griffins designed “market centre” – became instead the military base of Duntroon.
Clearly, then, the Canberra we have is not the Canberra the Griffins intended, but rather the Canberra
preferred by a cut-and-paste committee-based administration dominated by traffic engineers and military
men. But the question remains. What should happen next? What city form will best deliver the desired
urban intensity without destroying what is good about Canberra? Will the ACT government’s current
headlong push for high-rise development help that transformation or hinder it?
Already much has changed. At first, some fifteen years ago, this seemed welcome. When New Acton
appeared, with its signature combination of funky high-rise and narrow coffee-lanes, it seemed just what
the doctor ordered. Suddenly, thanks to Melbourne architects Fender Katsalidas, Canberra had
moments of explorability. It had narrow walkable lanes and Melbourne-type cafes, nooks and crannies,
streets to be in, not just rampage through. Next off the rank, Kingston Foreshore also brought welcome
change. Large but low-rise, it brought walkable streets and paths, interesting cafes and bars, a new
relationship with the water.
These two neighbourhoods seemed to continue what Civic and Manuka had begun, decades earlier.
Braddon, with its busy brunch strip, started to do something similar at heights somewhat between
NewActon’s 17 storeys and Kingston’s 2-4. Of course, you still had to drive on motorways between these
pockets of civilisation but, pockets there were. This push to urban density, somewhat along Griffin
lines, was further reinforced by the construction of the North Canberra light rail from Gungahlin to
Civic (and now funded for Stage 2, across the lake to Woden).
In parallel, though, a number of less enchanting developments occurred, including the appalling mallsprawl
at Majura Park. This vast big-box shopping centre – which claims to be “conveniently located at
the airport” but still entails a significant drive from the shops to plane and even, in fact, between the
K.F. Fischer, Canberra: Myths and Models; forces at work in the formation of the Australian capital (Institute
of Asian Affairs, Hamburg) 1984
shops (the Bunnings to the Woollies is half a kilometre) – entrenches automobile dependence and
directly contradicts all moves towards densification.
The militarism, too, continues apace – with the post 9/11 repositioning of the immense ASIO building
on Parkes Drive, the strewing of Anzac Parade with ever more war-sculptures (Tobruk, Korea, Vietnam)
and the half-billion-dollar knockdown-rebuild of the Denton Corker Marshall War Memorial museum,
A small but significant detail, also noted by Prof Fischer, is the extraordinary exercise in what can only
be called official fraud 2 that saw the NCA commission and hang a foyer tapestry that, although
designed by architect Daryl Jackson, purports to be the Griffin plan. And so it is, identical – excepting
one key alteration. The eastern point of the Federal triangle has been changed from “market”, as the
Griffins had it, to “military.” There is no acknowledgement of this amendment and the lettering is
carefully selected to seem original.
A further factor was the 1988 withdrawal by the Federal government from funding responsibility for
much of the ACT. This has meant that the light rail is funded by “value capture” from selling off public
land – in particular the sites of often well-designed but badly maintained public housing - on
Northbourne Avenue and elsewhere. Two ill effects have resulted. First, public tenants have been exiled
to the back of beyond, far beyond the reach of services or decent public transport. And second,
Northbourne Avenue, the city’s primary approach road, with a new crop of high-rise buildings that are
neither blocks nor towers, but something in between like bungalows grown tall.
You might wonder what is wrong with this. If sprawl is the problem, surely density is the answer? Well
no. Density alone is not enough.
Of all the core urban qualities that Canberra lacks – surprise, spatial drama, mystery – the key is the
capacity to delight and seduce the pedestrian. Pedestrians engage with cities in a slow and intimate
manner that enhances curiosity and engagement and in turn encourages in the city’s fabric a textured
quality I have called pokability. This is a word that does not exist, but should, because it is the key
quality of cities – Rome, Venice, London – that we love to walk around, just for the sake of it.
This is all about scale and shape at ground level – the bumps and crevices, innies and outies, that offer
glimpses and enticement to the pedestrian without every quite satisfying the curiosity. It involves streets
that are sufficiently narrow and comfortable, but also interesting and enriching, to make the pedestrian
want to dwell, to explore, to poke about. It requires comfort. A little sunshine, not too much wind, a
deal of intimacy and visual and spatial stimulus. Shops, laneways, cafes, galleries – small things that
reward the spirit of exploration.
True, New Acton, Braddon and Kingston Foreshore have a little of this. Civic has the odd underground
bar. But there’s almost nowhere else. Kingston is low rise and largely pedestrianised. Acton is high rise,
but the streets are carefully crooked and narrow; rooms as much as thoroughfares. What is happening
elsewhere has none of these qualities. No effort is made to enrich pedestrian experience or choreograph
it in interesting ways. Almost everything is evident and predictable. Streets have little definition and
therefore no sense of containment, no drama, no surprise. Much of Canberra’s fine mid-century
architecture is being destroyed for an urban fabric that still offers no real sense of city.
What can be done?
The will to transform Canberra offers a huge opportunity not only for developer and government profit
but also to enrich the city experientially. Public transport is key. In particular, the light rail should be
expanded as a matter of urgency to form a genuine network. Government needs to take hold of the
process, conceptualising Canberra as a series of villages centred on each stop, and encouraging medium
density, medium-rise development that creates lovable urban space.
There are many charming models from which to choose. From two-storeyed terrace and town houses
like Sydney’s inner precincts, to six and eight storeyed garden-centred apartment buildings on the
pattern, say, of London’s Cadogan Square or the ten storey apartment buildings of early 20 th century
Kings Cross. All these define and furnish good civic streets.
It’s not difficult, but it requires government to step up. Developers make buildings but have no interest
in the spaces so defined. Yet these spaces shape our civic lives. Governments must reclaim the
development process. They must recognise the pedestrian experience as primary and require buildings
to shape themselves in order to enhance it.
Then, and only then, might Canberra become a leader, not a laggard, in the epoch-defining challenge to
create global cities that we can inhabit as if they’re localised, twenty-minute walking villages. This is the
good city’s ultimate transformation: to engender in the small human biped that transformative magic
we call love.
© Elizabeth Farrelly 2021