ACT News


Lake's history water under bridge

Looking into the history of Lake Burley Griffin's swan population earlier this week prompted me to take a closer look at the history of the garden city's distinctive water feature.

I like, most people under 50, had been under the impression the lake named after the city's designer, while a man-made affair, had been here since the very earliest days of capitalhood.

It came as quite a surprise to learn the attraction - which varies considerably from Griffin's original conception which was much more geometric in shape - was not completed until September 1963 and did not reach its full capacity until April the following year because of a drought.

Causes for the 50-year delay were many and varied and included the impact of world wars and the Great Depression.

Also in play was the antipathy that existed between Griffin, a former protege of Frank Lloyd Wright's, and the bureaucrats who were charged with turning his dream into a physical reality.

Griffin arrived in Canberra to accept the role of Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction in August 1913. Little was achieved due to a lack of funds during the war years and in 1920 the architect returned to the United States.


The issue of the lake's design was revisited and revised numerous times over the ensuing decades but, time and time again, work was deferred due to commitments elsewhere - including the economic crisis of the 1930s and the heavy imposts imposed on the national exchequer during and immediately after World War II.

Sources suggest there was also a reluctance in some quarters for the work to proceed as much of the low-lying land earmarked for the western lake site included the Royal Canberra Golf Club's course.

Whatever the real reason, the fact remains the plan for a West Lake was dropped in 1953 and was not reinstated until after a Senate inquiry.

Robert Menzies, the prime minister of the day, had long been sceptical about the grand conception for the national capital but, over time, morphed into an active supporter. And, to his credit, when it finally came time to name the lake, he forwent the honour of having it named after him.

It remains, instead, one of the few permanent memorials in the ACT to the man who gave us one of the most distinctive capital cities in the world and whose work was to influence Australian architecture and urban design in many subtle but significant ways.

While the name Lake Burley Griffin rolls of the tongue quite nicely, it is a case of overkill. ''Burley'' was Griffin's second name, not the first barrel of his surname.

Grolier's Australian encyclopedia, one of my favourite reference works which was published in 1963, provides an interesting snapshot of Canberra's status at the start of the 1960s and makes specific reference to the lake. It also quotes Griffin at length on his approach to planning the city:

''Taken altogether, the site may be considered an amphitheatre with Mount Ainslie at the north-east, flanked on either side by Black Mountain and Mount Pleasant, all forming the top galleries; with slopes to the water, the auditorium; with the waterway and flood basin, the arena; with the southern slopes reflected in the basin, the terraced stage and setting of monumental government structures sharply defined rising tier on tier to the culminating highest internal forest hill of the capital and with Mugga Mugga, Red Hill and the blue distant mountain ranges, sun reflecting, forming the back scene to the theatrical whole.'' Pretty simple really.

The encyclopedists noted that the National Capital Development Commission, formed in 1958, had ''modified the Griffin plan in some respects, but has not substantially altered the concept''. I will leave it to you, the reader, to comment on whether you feel this remains (or ever was) the case.

It was reported that while Griffin had proposed the construction of ''the permanent Parliament House'' on ''the lower slopes of Capital Hill'', the site had been changed to the Lake Burley Griffin foreshore''.

And, on the subject of Lake Burley Griffin, ''Griffin's proposal for a chain of ornamental lake basins in the centre of the city has been reaffirmed and work on it is well advanced''.