February 2013


Growing pains

By Mark McKenna
Canberra, ca. 1915. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia
Canberra, ca. 1915. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia
The nation’s capital turns 100

From the air, it looks more like a vast constellation of discrete suburbs than a capital city. Arterial roads cut through sparsely treed hills and bare paddocks burnt straw-brown by harsh sunlight. Beyond, spreading in clusters, civilisation claws its way across the surface of the land below. Bushland envelops the city, as if threatening to swallow it up at any moment.

Like the nation it was built to represent and govern, Canberra is at once ancient and new. Its strangeness is as overwhelming as its crisp, manicured beauty. There is no escaping the diffuse, invented nature of the place. Arriving on the aptly named ‘CountryLink Xplorer’ train (a three-carriage plodder that takes four and a half hours to travel the 250 kilometres from Sydney), passengers could be forgiven for thinking Australia’s capital city might be elsewhere. Canberra Station in Kingston is not so much a rail hub as the end of the line. Approaching by car, especially from the south, similar feelings of disorientation arise. Driving along Mugga Way, you pass from parched scrubland to the well-heeled suburbs of Red Hill and Manuka in less than a few hundred metres. There is no time for the eye to adjust; deserted bushland one minute, urban elegance the next. As novelist Roger McDonald remarked in 1982, “This persisting sense of unreality is perhaps Canberra’s greatest triumph.”

In March 1913, London-born Governor-General Lord Denman, Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and home affairs minister King O’Malley (a maverick who championed Canberra and succeeded in banning alcohol in the ACT until 1928) laid the city’s three foundation stones on Capital Hill. Denman arrived in full vice-regal attire, sword at the ready, his plumed hat like a cockatoo’s crest. His wife, Lady Denman, no fan of vice-regal life in Australia, not only officially christened the city (derived from a Ngunnawal word meaning “meeting place”), she provided the locals with elocutionary instruction: “I name the capital of Australia Canberra, with the accent on the can.” As a few dogs scampered between the legs of the assembled guests, raising dust off the ground, Australia’s capital was born.

The city’s centenary this year has provided the occasion for commemorative celebrations and a spate of publications, so far none finer than Paul Daley’s wide-ranging and affectionate portrait, Canberra. But the positive spin of the centenary and Daley’s undeniable enthusiasm for the capital won’t be enough to counter the ambivalence and indifference so many feel towards Canberra.

No other city in Australia attracts such opprobrium. The familiar clichés – “soulless”, “sterile”, “dull” – are usually trotted out by Sydneysiders on day trips to the National Gallery, or by prominent international visitors: Bill Bryson, after having stayed a handful of days and wandering around on foot, dismissed the city as “a scattering of government buildings [and monuments] in a man-made wilderness”. If such views were not enough to contend with, Canberra also stands as a synonym for the House of ill repute on Capital Hill. Many Australians see no need to distinguish the city’s residents from its federal politicians. In the vernacular, “Canberra” is the byword for Australia’s collective disenchantment with politics. No matter how deep that malaise, Canberra is the one place created to give expression to our national aspirations. If Australia is to continue to succeed as a nation, then Canberra must succeed. While it is possible to live in Hobart and dismiss Brisbane, or reside in Perth and disregard Sydney, none of us, no matter where we live in Australia, can entirely ignore Canberra. The ideal of Federation demands that we have a relationship with the national capital, regardless of whether we have visited it. There, like nowhere else, Australian identity is given shape and form – planned, named, constructed, monumentalised, legislated and brought to life in myriad acts of political speech. Canberra, for better or worse, is where the official, institutional narrative of who we are is spun.

Born of a decade-long process of political brokering that ultimately overcame the competing demands of the existing states (Section 125 of the Constitution says that the capital “shall be in the State of New South Wales, and be distant not less than one hundred miles from Sydney”), Canberra’s very existence reminds us that compromise is the basis of our Commonwealth’s survival. Less extravagant than comparable planned capitals such as New Delhi (1911) or Otto Niemeyer’s modernist fantasy, Brasilia (1960), and yet with a politics just as intense, incestuous and potentially internecine as the city that most influenced its design, Washington DC (1790), Canberra has nonetheless managed to stake out its distinctive character. Exactly how the capital’s spirit of place shapes our political culture and the lives of its residents remains something of a mystery.

Looking back on his High Court years, former justice Michael Kirby told me:


I loved Canberra. Most of the High Court justices did not. I have always attributed this to the fact that the architect of the High Court building designed the chambers on level nine so that they were facing the airport. This puts subliminal messages in the minds of the justices about where they might be: anywhere else than Canberra. From my perspective, one of the best things about living in Canberra was being able to walk to and from work. I did this every morning and every night. At night, the stars in Canberra are truly magnificent. The sky is so clear and one is reminded of the utter insignificance of our worldly pursuits, battles and differences. I cannot say that everything about my years in the High Court was wonderful. But the physical environment, the intellectual institutions, the natural beauty and the shared time with my partner were special features we will never forget.


Kirby’s praise captures much of the city’s appeal. Canberrans often refer to the ‘ease’ of living in the capital, the absence of the traffic chaos, crowds and pollution that all too often mar cities such as Sydney, that den of iniquity to which locals flee for their regular fast-lane ‘fix’. Canberra’s unique social environment can be exciting and stimulating. Aside from the frisson of ‘insider’ political gossip, extraordinary people abound; CEOs, Nobel laureates, academic experts and national architects of one kind or another are never far way. Everyday patterns of speech, slightly more formal than in other Australian cities, betray the hierarchical, status-conscious nature of a government city, while acronyms and managerial jargon float around dinner-table conversations as if meetings were still in session.

Then there is wealth. Even by Australian standards, the city’s affluence is startling. With a population projected to reach 400,000 by 2022, Canberra has the largest average house size in Australia (213 square metres, the largest in the developed world) and the highest household incomes. Gas and electricity consumption and car dependence exceed the national average. A tenth as densely settled as Sydney or Melbourne, the city’s ‘ecological footprint’ per capita is 13% above the Australian average and “nearly 3.5 times the global average”. Its geographical area spans around 40 kilometres from north to south and 25 kilometres from east to west, a spread comparable to that of Greater London. For one of the city’s finest journalists and most insightful observers, Jack Waterford, the good life in Canberra approaches nirvana: “You won’t find a whole, settled, essentially stable community that is so strong, so bourgeois, so comfortable, so well educated … This may be fucking paradise.”

Notwithstanding the self-satisfaction of some residents, the criticisms of outsiders also provoke what Daley describes as a “tetchy defensiveness bordering on paranoia”. Canberrans recognise that there is an element of truth to the slights of visitors. In the periods I have lived in Canberra, I never lost the feeling I was in the middle of a not quite complete project. Despite the city’s extensive cycling paths and the singular beauty of its bush setting, it felt unfinished, still waiting to be ‘filled in’ on a more human scale. Canberra is both there and not there. Perhaps, in a country that has long craved embedded, closely settled permanence and tradition, Canberra’s conspicuous youth unnerves – it reminds us just how recent our presence is in this country.




To say that Canberra is one large suburb says nothing at all. For Canberra’s suburbs are unlike any others in Australia; they are planned, and far more sedate and neatly obedient than those of Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. There is not a corner shop in sight. The streets are themed, with pockets named after explorers, politicians or cultural heroes of one type or another, lined with identical plantings of deciduous exotics or eucalypts and pervaded by a stillness that takes on an eerie quality in the furnace of a Canberra summer, when the city empties out ‘down the coast’ and even the dogs stop barking.

Today, it is commonplace to hear locals say that Canberra’s virtues are hidden. If this is true, then they are hidden not by the built environment but by the space that forms vast chasms between buildings of national significance and separates one part of the city from another. Whereas in most cities residents retreat from city to parkland, in Canberra they retreat from parkland to urban space. And the means of their retreat, as Daley freely admits, is abundantly clear: “Canberra belongs to the car”. In a mere century, the construction of the capital has obliterated traditional ways of understanding country. Lost to all but the Ngunnawal is their feminine conception of the land, which Daley describes approvingly at the outset of Canberra: “The two mountains to the north were her breasts, the basin – with its marsupials and moths, its birds and fish – was her fertile womb, and the wide expanse of snow-capped ranges to the south, her hips.” What was long imagined as intimately connected is now segmented and disconnected, not only from within but also from the wider nation.

In his memoir, Speechless, James Button describes catching the 10.14 pm bus from his office at Parliament House to his home in Red Hill as akin to riding “an illuminated ghost ship pushing through an ocean of darkness”. Button “found Canberra too cut off from the rest of Australia, too short of voices between the press release and the opinion mill.” As he and many other commentators have noted, Canberra’s political class is increasingly accused of being “out of touch” (witness the press gallery’s initial response to Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech last October), a state that mirrors the distance and isolation that many who work in Parliament House themselves feel. The architecture of the people’s House curiously reproduces the boundless spaces that divide much of the city it crowns.

“Walking down Parliament House’s cavernous corridor between Aussies Cafe and the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office),” Button remembered “Keating’s lament about walking these floors and ‘not feeling like you were part of anything’”. For Barry Jones, who spent one decade in Old Parliament House and another in its successor, the distances in the new building “inhibit personal interactions”. They also go some way to explaining how the Prime Minister’s Office, which Button depicts as a bunker at the rear end of the building “in which 50 people worked, sometimes two or three to a tiny office, with almost no natural light”, could become so removed from other arms of government. As Jones explains in his autobiography, A Thinking Reed:


New Parliament House … maximises the separation between the Executive and the backbench, between the Representatives and the Senators, between the individual Members and the centres for collective activity. The corridors, which [in Old Parliament House] used to be full of activity, are now deserted … The building is enormous. The ground floor covers an area larger than Homer’s Troy.


The geographical remoteness of Canberra from so much of the country that its parliament and bureaucracy govern heightens the impression of a political culture disconnected from the electorate. And as the centre of the nation’s media agenda shifts from the press gallery to a more dispersed and unpredictable social media of no fixed address, Canberra’s isolation only seems more pronounced. Traditional political commentary all too often fails to engage at length with substantive policy issues in Australia’s scripted, tightly managed and highly personalised politics. The architecture of governance in Parliament House plays its role too, isolating power and severing those who govern from both those who watch them and from those who elect them. On Capital Hill, there is little of the civic engagement that characterised Walter Burley Griffin’s original vision for the city.

In May 1912, when Griffin’s plan was announced as the winning entry in the international competition for the new national capital, the 36-year-old Chicago architect, a former associate of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, was inspired. Married only a year earlier to Marion Mahony, a gifted draughtswoman whose drawings beautifully realised Griffin’s ideas for Canberra, he wasted little time in coming to Australia. By October 1913, he was appointed Director of Design and Construction of the new federal capital. From Chicago, he had naively seen Australia as a utopia, “a vast potentially productive underdeveloped insular continent … with a people cherishing the highest standards of human rights, with no dire poverty or political corruption”. He and Marion dreamt of a mythical city unlike any other in the world. In Griffin’s words, Canberra presented “the greatest opportunity the world has afforded for the expression of the great civic ideal”.

In 1921, after World War One had intervened to slow construction and several changes of government resulted in no fewer than ten different ministers overseeing the capital’s construction, and with his plans mauled by a succession of bureaucrats, a disillusioned Griffin resigned as director. As Daley concludes: “Canberra was supposed to symbolise the new Australian democracy. But politics compromised it from inception.” Reflecting on his experience, Griffin explained in 1928 how the Australian ideal of mediocrity, as his wife put it, had emerged victorious:


The administering authorities from the beginning have violated the aesthetic, social and economic principles in almost every set [of] structural details for roads, bridges, locks, weirs, railways, sewerage, water supply, electric power and gas services.


Contrary to popular belief, the city that emerged was not Griffin’s; neither was the man-made lake that took his name all that he’d hoped. Opened by Robert Menzies in 1964, Lake Burley Griffin had become a pastiche of various ideas that bore little resemblance to Griffin’s more elaborate, distinctive and expensive geometric design. The bulk of his design had either been adapted against his wishes or abandoned. Gone was the central railway station Griffin had placed in the civic sector to the city’s north, as was his casino, envisioned as an “open-air pleasure garden”. Perhaps most importantly, Griffin’s idea of more densely populated inner-city areas linked by trams that ran along “wide boulevard-style avenues” was discarded. Instead, the ever-spreading bungalow and the car would conquer all. Canberra would become more suburb than city.

As Canberra lost much of Griffin’s original plan, it also lost the idealism that went with it. Practicalities, as they almost always do in Australia, won out. One hundred years after Griffin dreamt of a city that would reflect the “bold … characteristic big vision” of Australian democracy, it appears that the heart of the federal capital and the nation is not Parliament House but the Australian War Memorial. The two buildings, which face one another at opposing ends of Canberra’s axis, occupy polar positions in the Australian imagination: one mighty and revered, the other fallen and reviled. (Some of the soldiers who returned from the Great War, many of them victims of shellshock, lived in primitive conditions in labourers’ camps as they helped to construct Canberra.) The challenge for both Canberra and Australia is to ask how we can restore respect to the crucible of our democracy, and find ways to revive our parliament to something that approximates Griffin’s vision of a symbolic, ceremonial building atop Kurrajong Hill [the original name for Capital Hill]: “the sentimental and spiritual head, if not the actual working mechanism of the federation.”

All too often, those who condemn Canberra forget that the city is a work in progress. Look closely at photographs of Canberra’s inner suburbs taken little more than 50 years ago and marvel at the development that has occurred. Canberra is still being filled in, still very much in the process of creation. Its natural beauty and the constant intrusion of the levelling bush are its greatest assets, and ones that will hopefully save our future republic from the tendency to hubris and bombast that afflicts many other national capitals.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is a professor of history at the University of Sydney. His books include An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark.

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