Thursday, 27 June 2013

Canberra – Checks and Balances

I recently found myself in Canberra, with a few hours free at the tail-end of a quick trip. I had not visited the national capital for some years, certainly not since the Telecom Tower became the Telstra Tower (and subsequently the generic "Black Mountain Tower"), and not since I had discovered the camera to be more than a familial annoyance.

And what better time to visit Canberra, during the city's centenary year. As the creative director of the celebrations, Robyn Archer, acknowledged last year, "Canberra" has become a byword for politics and politicians. Our contempt and mistrust of the political class has been sadly and inextricably linked with the city they do much of their work in. But Canberra is much more than a bland, planned city. It is a striking city that houses many of the democratic and civic institutions we hold dear. But more than that, it is an expression of Australian confidence and of independence from the sometimes corrupting establishments of Sydney and Melbourne.

For the duration of my time in Canberra, I stayed almost at the foot of Mt. Ainslie at the former Hotel Ainslie, now a Mercure hotel. The hotel has been a Canberra landmark for decades, the original building dating from 1926–27. It is an architectural example of the Arts and Crafts movement, an anti-industrial movement popularised in Britain. The hotel provides an informative book in each room detailing the history of the hotel, detailing the key role it played in developing a social world on the fringes of the nascent national capital. It also provided accommodation for many of the public servants who found themselves employed by the Commonwealth.
1911 contour survey for the new federal capital, competition submission by entrant No. 29, Walter Burley Griffin. Original held by National Archives of Australia
Canberra Federal Capital of Australia preliminary plan, Walter Burley Griffin (1914) – National Library of Australia
The entire city is full of architectural gems. Although Walter Burley Griffin (ably supported by his wife, Marion, one of world's first licensed female architects) won the design competition for the new Australian capital, an unsupportive bureaucracy undermined Griffin at every turn, resulting in the architect being removed as director of Canberra's construction. Griffin subsequently severed all ties to the authority overseeing the capital's construction. The only fully realised Griffin design in Canberra is the grave of General Sir William Bridges at Duntroon. This would not be the last time in Australian history that architectural visions would be compromised by political meddling.

Although the extant civic buildings and cultural edifices are not what Walter and Marion originally envisioned, their fundamental design is remains in the axes and geometric precision of Canberra's layout. Oh, and there's a giant puddle in the middle of the city bearing the name "Lake Burley Griffin".   How Ceasar-like it was for Prime Minister Menzies to reject the naming of Canberra's lake in his own honour when he oversaw its construction...
Lake Menzies Burley Griffin and Kings Avenue bridge under construction – Wikimedia Commons
For an architectural photographer, Canberra represents a rare opportunity in Australia. Unlike the former colonial capital cities of Melbourne and Sydney, the civic buildings of Canberra are given their own space. Rarely do they jut up one against another. Furthermore, though a greater number of Walter Burley Griffin's finished architectural works in Melbourne, they have been subsumed by surrounding development, the Capitol Theatre on Swanston Street a prime example. 

The Stripped Classicism of the National Library of Australia is able to exist in its own context, without being overshadowed by adjacent skyscrapers or apartment blocks. Contrast this with the Victorian Classicism of Joseph Reed's State Library of Victoria, where the questionable apartment towers on the former Queen Victoria Hospital site has left the SLV an architectural shrinking violet on its own street frontage. Although the SLV remains a striking building internally – its famous dome the centrepiece – the library façade struggles to compete on its own merits. 
The Stripped Classicism of the National Library of Australia © 2013 – Fujifilm X100 & Adobe Lightroom
The National Library of Australia, however, recalls the classical buildings of antiquity ably standing in its own architectural space. It is a vital cultural building, housing, by law, every book published in Australia. 

Canberra's buildings feature a surprisingly wide-variety of architectural styles. From the post-war art deco to brutalist to whatever style you call Parliament House. The late modern Brutalism of the High Court of Australia building is a personal favourite. It rises from the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in its own architectural idiom. Like the institution it contains, the building is not to be dominated by those that surround it. It is impartial and impressive. 
The High Court of Australia (Edwards Madigan Torzillo and Briggs), 1980 © 2013 – iPhone 5 & VSCOcam
After a brief visit to Questacon (a gift from Japan for Australia's bicentenary) and its requisite giftshop, I was somewhat disturbed to find the walk down to the shores of Lake Burley Griffin consisted almost entirely of car park. Interesting use of lake frontage. In the mid-1950s, much of this area was earmarked to be the centre of government in plans drawn up by British urban planner William Holford, instead the national capital got a large thing nestled into the top of Capital Hill. I'll leave discussion of Parliament House for another time.
Reconciliation Place on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin © 2013 – Fujifilm X100 & Adobe Lightroom
The city's generally lo-rise civic and commercial buildings reminded me greatly of another capital city, the Icelandic capital Reykjavík. The two cities share an extensive road network as well as a reliance on buses for public transit. Fairly large distances separate buildings and sights, making the city almost unwalkable. My 5km walk from the city centre, down Commonwealth Avenue to buildings along the lake's shore is not be recommended with a family in tow.

I would like to leave it not as long until my next visit to Canberra. The galleries and museums (and their respective giftshops) await my visitation. I'll drive next time and pack a sturdy tripod and some slow-speed, low-grain black and white film. Until then...

Entrant No.29 – Walter Burley Griffin (NAA)
Walter Burley Griffin's submission, digitised (Cornell University Library)
Utzon Lecture Series – “100th Anniversary of Walter Burley Griffin: Griffin and Canberra”
Canberra House: Mid-century modernist architecture
Canberra100 – Maps and Markers (PDF)
Canberra100 – The Design Brief (PDF)
National Library of Australia and Flynn Drive © 2013 – Fujifilm X100 & Adobe Lightroom
Commonwealth Avenue Bridge © 2013 – Fujifilm X100 & Adobe Lightroom
Commonwealth Avenue, with Black Mountain and its tower in the background © 2013 – Fujifilm X100 & Adobe Lightroom
The new Canberra Airport terminal is befitting the national capital (with reasonable beer prices, too) © 2013 – iPhone 5 & VSCOcam
Forecourt of the High Court of Australia. An exemplar of late Brutalism © 2013 – iPhone 5 & VSCOcam
National Portrait Gallery © 2013 – iPhone 5 & VSCOcam

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