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Lake Burley Griffin a national rarity

What makes Canberra's main lake a standout?

Keep the hard-edged clutter away from Lake Burley Griffin and respect this designed urban lake as a national rarity.

These are the aims of Juliet Ramsay, who has nominated the lake for the National Heritage List.

Serene scene: Lake Burley Griffin provides a haven for many species of bird.
Serene scene: Lake Burley Griffin provides a haven for many species of bird. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

"There is no other city lake in Australia that has such a central designed lake and landmark feature," says Ms Ramsay, who has a background in landscape architecture and heritage, and specialises in cultural landscapes.

Ms Ramsay's nomination is on behalf of Australian members of the International Scientific Committee on Cultural Landscapes, of which she is a member. The committee is a non-government organisation for cultural heritage professionals.

The nomination captures the outstanding planning, engineering and landscaping that create Canberra's magnificent centrepiece.

The proposed heritage listing notes Walter Burley Griffin's knowledge of natural geography and appreciation of space in design. The Molonglo flood plain's natural terrain needed only a little help from the designer to transform it into outstanding ornamental waters, and change the gentle slopes of the foreshores into parklands.

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Inspired by the great US landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Mr Griffin loved geography and botany.

"He gave to Australia a unique landscape vision to make a city where landscape features, low-level buildings and an abundance of spaces are the most significant features," Ms Ramsay writes.

Although English urban planner Sir William Holford made major planning additions in 1955 that reduced the lake from the original Griffin delineation, the Holford plan respected the open landscape space for the Rond Terraces and Griffin's planned purpose for the terraces to be a gathering place for recreation and entertainment.

The lake includes three formal water basins, Central, West and East basins, the vast lake area, islands, Scrivener Dam, Commonwealth Avenue and Kings Avenue bridges and parklands.

Commonwealth Avenue bridge arch is higher than Kings Avenue bridge, allowing for yachts to sail beneath. The end pylons give added importance to the bridge as the main route to Parliament House.

In ecological terms, the lake has created valuable wetlands habitat, with 77 species of waterbird within the nature reserve, which represents most of the waterbird species found in south-eastern Australia. Sixteen of these species use the area to breed.

Platypus, eastern snake-necked tortoises and eastern water rats have also been recorded in the area.

The lake unifies the central precincts and expresses the water axis – a major component of Griffin's design concept.

"The lake is a most admired component of the Canberra plan, providing a reflective setting for public buildings, a tranquil nucleus for Canberra city," says Ms Ramsay. "It provides extensive ephemeral and, at certain times, ethereal aesthetic qualities. It is a major feature of Canberra's viewpoints at Black Mountain, Mount Ainslie and Red Hill."

Mr Griffin described the central Canberra area as a theatre with the lake as the orchestra pit, separating the Government Group on the triangular stage from the audience on the lower slopes of Mount Ainslie. The front row was for a recreation group of buildings for the people.

The heritage listing submission says when Mr Griffin arrived in Australia, the Molonglo River flats contained eucalypts, grasslands, exotic trees and pasture grasses, with the slopes extensively cleared.

Mr Griffin's ideas for landscape design were in broad concepts. More detail came when parks superintendent Charles Weston chose trees and began lake-edge planting about 1922 along the shores of the future lake. Lindsay Pryor and David Shoebridge later continued the plantings.

The central area's design was a formal composition in which the lake basins, ridges, avenues and buildings were to be framed and embellished by a strong pattern of planting.

The character of natural landscape was to be maintained, with brown-grey colour  predominating. Light fresh green was to be used around the lake margins, darker conifers for boundaries and backgrounds, and autumn colours fully exploited.

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