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Critics put tower under a cloud

Date
Black Mountain Tower.

Black Mountain Tower. Photo: Gary Schafer

The death last month of former Whitlam minister Lionel Bowen may have reminded some history-conscious Canberrans of his important part in imposing on this city the ''concrete and steel monster'' of the Black Mountain Tower.

Most of today's Canberrans have never known Black Mountain without its gigantic appendage, but it did without it for millions of years before the tower was started in 1973 and opened in 1980.

Some Canberrans fought the idea of it from the moment they heard of it (The Canberra Times, as probing and investigative then as now, broke the story of this brainchild of the Post Office on November 3, 1970) until after a miscellany of legal challenges and protests, all hope finally petered out in 1974. It was the historian W. K Hancock, one leader of the fight, who called the tower a ''concrete and steel monster''.

Hancock is no longer with us, but some of the anti-tower warriors of the time still are and this columnist has just had a talk with one of the most important of them, the historian Bruce Kent. He is now a Visiting Fellow at the ANU's Research School of Humanities and the Arts.

We will come to him in a moment, however. I should first explain to those of you (most Canberrans) who have only ever known Canberra with the tower and who don't have any strong feelings about the 195-metre behemoth why the thought of it seemed a nightmare to some and so politicised so many souls.

There were many kinds of objections to the tower, although underlying them all was, methinks, a kind of noble NIMBYism (not all NIMBYism is noble) of Canberrans who passionately loved the bush cityscape the way it was and who didn't want it transformed by such an unCanberran structure dreamed up by vulgar non-Canberrans who had no aesthetic feel for the vistas of the place. ''It [the whole project and then the tower] was stuck up Canberra,'' Kent thinks, by powerful non-Canberrans who didn't care what Canberrans thought and felt. Then, to support the innate noble NIMBYism, a range of objections was arrayed by the Committee of Citizens to Save Black Mountain. It argued the technology embodied in the tower was already obsolete, so that Canberra was going to be stuck for ever with a mammoth eyesore that was useless.

It argued with the help of botanists, zoologists, entomologists and ''ists'' of all kinds that the tower and the rampaging tourists it would bring would destroy Black Mountain as the irreplaceable habitat of umpteen species. Weeds and pathogens would move in.

It argued (to contradict the Post Office's argument that the tower and its communications facilities were essential to the nation's defence) that, in Hancock's words, ''no competent strategical planner would put so many of the nation's eggs into a basket so conspicuous and vulnerable to attack by aircraft or by inter-continental ballistic missiles''.

It argued that the tower was going to be a terrible fire risk to the lives of the 600 tourists expected to be in it at any one time, and that it was going to be fabulously expensive to build but then was going to be useless.

It argued that the tower would be an architectural and city-planning horror, a vista-ruining brute. In one of the many court hearings, pro-tower forces brought in the great portrait painter Sir William Dargie to testify the proposed tower appealed to him ''as a great piece of sculpture'' arranged on the ''most impressive podium'' of Black Mountain. One of the committee's principal anti-tower aesthetes was the poet Judith Wright. She wrote a poem imagining Black Mountain and the other terrified inner-city monadnocks, earmarked by the philistines as podiums, warning all the region's hills to keep away.

At night the near hills

flash to the far ones

Danger Danger.

Don't come down here.

Danger. Danger.

Stay up there or

they'll kill you.

Of course, the cause was lost. The woebegone Hancock had once loved to look up at the mountain but now couldn't bear to. He wrote that: ''Now I have to learn how not to lift my eyes. My technique is to develop further the academic stoop which hitherto I have tried to keep in check. [Instead] I peer at the parrots in my back garden.''

I wondered if Kent, once the young Galahad in the crusade against the tower and still a Canberran, found the tower too ghastly to look at. But in fact he's now quite good-humoured about it. He laughs that it can be a useful landmark for anyone ''drunk and lost at night''. He recalls too that since his major objections to the tower were that it was technologically obsolete even before it was put up that he rather likes the idea of it, now always in our faces, as: ''A permanent symbol of bureaucratic wastefulness. It should remain. A white elephant.''

Bowen was postmaster-general in the Whitlam cabinet that shocked the committee by pressing ahead with the tower (first approved by the forces of evil of the McMahon government) and Kent remembers the tower as ''just his [Bowen's] cup of tea''. In one of his novels, Evelyn Waugh has the bulk of a very ugly London building ''insulting the autumnal sky'' and perhaps that's what the tower is doing this May.

Kent and this columnist both had a good chortle over the the idea that perhaps ironically the best place to go to see Canberra is the tower, based on the famous story about William Morris. Morris used to spend a lot of his Paris time eating and writing in the restaurant at the Eiffel Tower. One day a friend remarked that he must be very impressed with the structure to be spending so much time there. ''Impressed!?'' Morris stormed. ''I remain here because it's the only place in Paris where I can avoid seeing the damn thing!''

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