ACT News


Charles Landry: white knight for a thinking city

'Why is Canberra so white?'' Charles Landry wondered aloud in quiet conversation at Monday's Masters of Canberra occasion at the Canberra Business Event Centre at Regatta Point.

Looking past him and out at the panorama of lake and Parliamentary Triangle this columnist noticed that, yes, there was the all-white Questacon (the National Science and Technology Centre) and the predominantly white National Library of Australia. Just beyond the trees there was the Omo-white Old Parliament House. Landry, the famous and absurdly well-travelled purveyor of ideas about cities (an admirer, I like to think of him as an ideas monger) is right about Canberra's whiteness.

Landry is not a fan of graffiti but on a visit to the troubled city of Athens he saw some beauties, including this big bright eye, that had ''a special resonance'' for him.

Canberra's whiteness has been so noticeable to him over the 10 years he has been coming here that on Monday he thought it remarkable (and welcome) that there are at last some buildings (he saw them out in the airport precinct where the Snow family has been able to defy Amish fogeyism in architecture and design) that sport some actual colours.

It's not, Landry added hurriedly, that there's anything wrong with Canberra being so white (as an Englishman travelling the world talking to locals about their cities he's always walking on the brink of being thought a blow-in and a smart-arse). It's just that the city's whiteness is so interesting.

And there are, he pointed out in conversation and points out in his book The Sensory Landscape of Cities, other cities that are predominantly one colour. Marrakesh is pink, Jodhpur is blue, Bologna is red and Izamal in Yucatan is yellow.


But a city's colour, especially if it has a predominant one, is for him very important to how the city's locals and visitors feel about the city. If there really were such a thing as a wholly black city then ''the darkness would provoke Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) well-known in Nordic countries where winter light is scarce''.

Yes, when this not-nearly-so-well-travelled-as-Landry columnist was in Saint Petersburg (a city of the far north with interminable dark winters) our guide explained to us that the reason why so many of the great buildings along the jet-black Neva River were painted such fetching colours was that this helped citizens resist the black misery of long, dark winters.

''Basically what I'm saying,'' he told this columnist in a lull at Monday's ideasfest, ''is that the urban experience is passed to us through our senses.

''This means that we can feel 'yes' or 'no' feelings about a city. We have a whole range of feelings about a city communicated through every fibre of its being. So I'm just trying [in conversation and in The Sensory Landscape Of Cities] to highlight the way a city looks, the way it sounds, the way it smells. All the senses that we have make up this composite thing [our judgment of a city] and determine whether we find the city satisfactory or not.''

With more time we would have said to him that the fact that Canberra has no distinctive smell (unless you count the faint aroma of snow when the breeze is coming in from the snow-upholstered mountains or the heady aroma of burned rubber coming from Summernats) makes it just that little bit more difficult to love. We would find a lover, a baby, a dog, a house with no distinctive smell at all eerie and disappointing and those of us who have lived in cities that have a harmless perfume (this columnist went to school in a little English city that smelled of chocolate and leather because of the chocolate and shoe-making industries there and our corner of the Sydney of my youth smelled of the beer being made at the Resch's factory) find Canberra's lack of urban odour depressingly hygienic.

Monday's event seemed set to consider almost as many ideas for cities as there are tulips at Floriade (that important aspect of Canberra's sensory landscape) when this reporter had, alas, to wrench himself away from it.

One of the participating ''Masters of design'', Annabelle Pegrum, had a catalogue of things she would do/get rolling if she was made Master of Canberra for a day.

She would build a new Prime Minister's Lodge at Attunga Point and retain the old one as digs for the leader of the opposition. She would establish Canberra's Silicon Valley equivalent at the old Totalcare laundry site at Mitchell. She would allow a long-overdue ''exciting skyline'' (we hope Shanghai's amazing Pudong is her model) in Civic and at the Town Centres. She would build a national theatre complex, similar to Washington's Kennedy Centre on the lake in the Parliamentary Zone below Questacon (would she, perhaps, paint the hitherto tediously plain white Questacon with blue and crimson stripes?) with public areas bridging Parkes Place West across to and below the library fronting Pearce Park.

The sooner the passionate Pegrum is swept to power the better, we say. And yet, we would keep the old Lodge not for a leader of the opposition (who is bound to be a philistine on whom the dear building would be a pearl cast before a swine) but for a visiting Thinker-In-Residence, like Landry, (Adelaide and Perth have each had a Thinker), to prod and poke our city into thinking about itself.