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Follies that might have been

What might have been!

Trust me (for I am a journalist) when I tease you with the rumoured news that the city's movers and shakers intend, soonish, to decorate the top of Mount Ainslie with some long-overdue memorial of recognition of Marion Mahony Griffin.

It will be discreet and unobtrusive. And so it will be not a bit like the big brute of a sculpture, a memorial to her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, that was almost put atop Mount Ainslie in the 1970s.

This columnist knew nothing of it until a few days ago when, jostling with other history geeks at the tables of the Lifeline autumn book fair, there emerged a slim volume: Walter Burley Griffin Memorial. Conditions For A Two-Stage Design Competition. National Capital Development Commission. July 1975.

This proved to be a portfolio of paperwork, including two tablecloth-sized (once unfolded) 1:500 scale diagrams of the Mount Ainslie summit, and declaration forms for everyone entering said competition. Conditions included that entrants must be either Australians or Americans, that the entry had to be in by October 17, 1975, that each of five finalists would win $500.00 and the winners would receive a not-very-breathtaking-even-in-those-days $2500. The total amount to be spent on erecting the winning design would be $75,000.

What became of this vision, since, we can see, no such memorial was ever erected?


Tony Powell, NCDC commissioner at the time, has been quick to enlighten us, supporting his own recollections with the NCDC annual report of 1976. A winning design by a Philadelphia firm of architects was chosen in January 1976 and the annual report reproduced drawings. It would have made a substantial difference to the looks of Ainslie's unimproved summit. Powell's recollection is that it was to be luridly illuminated at night.

The winning design took the form of a walk-through sculpture. People would have gambolled along a short avenue between two bulky blocks perhaps eight metres tall, towards that famous view to Capital Hill that Marion imagined so brilliantly (from her office in Chicago) in her ivory and golden painting.

Alas for Walter Burley Griffin worshippers (Powell is not one of them, and in his conversation with Gang-Gang was scathing about the impractical entry), it was never built. It was going to cost vastly more than the absurdly frugal projected $75,000. Powell remembers that it was going to cost many, many millions. The minister for the capital territory, Tony Staley, flinched and blanched at the cost and on March 16, 1976, announced the deferral of the memorial's erection.

It's Powell's recollection that, too, the winning design was unpopular with Canberrans because it was ''abstract''.

Did unsophisticated Canberrans want something figurative, perhaps a giant Walter Burley Griffin looking like the giant Jesus atop the mountain at Rio de Janeiro?

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While on the subject of things that might have been, here is an artist's impression of the Commencement Column whose base stones were laid at the ceremony 100 years ago.

The polished, gold-lettered stones remain almost where they were laid (on today's Federation Mall meadow in front of Parliament House). But, of course, the column has never been added. Soon after the ceremony the Great War was upon us, with higher funding priorities than an expensive obelisk on a desolate hill in the bush where only rabbits and sheep would see it.

What a shame. The folly would have been dear to our hearts by now. We would be using it as a meeting place (''See ya at the column''), young couples would marry there and the column would be used as a kind of merry maypole festooned with gay ribbons around which rosy-cheeked children would dance.

A description of what was envisaged says it ''will be 27 feet in height''.

''Six rough granite blocks, one from each of the original states of the Commonwealth, will be built as a base presenting six sides … Rising from that base will be a shaft, and laid thereon a single entablature signifying the Commonwealth of Australia. This stone in turn will become a support on which will be erected, with granite obtained from Great Britain and Ireland, an obelisk with four sides, faced north, south, east and west, emblematical of Empire. The buttressing stone surrounding the one representing the Commonwealth will be brought from six corners of the Empire, including India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and New Foundland.''

This Lady of the Lake had no need for King Arthur

A recent centenary event - under the stars in the Senate rose garden - was the showing of the National Film and Sound Archive's snippets of film of Canberra's past.

One of the highlights, and some of us are still talking about it, was footage of a 1973 beauty contest in which a well-endowed damsel was crowned as Canberra's ''Lady Of The Lake''. The winner's bikini was astonishingly, blush-makingly slight, as were those of the other competitors.

It looked like a plucky Canberran attempt to pretend that Canberra's beige, algae-riddled lake with its gritty little imitation ''beaches'' had some Bondi-esque beach bathing qualities.

Gang-Gang has to know and report more about this lost ritual! Readers, is there an ex Lady of the Lake among you? Is there anyone who ever attended the occasion who can reminisce about it and/or who knows the history of the event? When did it end? Why (he wrote, knowing the answer to his own question) is there no Lady of the Lake tournament as part of this year's centenary festivities?

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