ACT News


Musings on the complete capital

Quiet (as the tomb) and empty (the few joggers vastly outnumbered by gulls), Canberra has never looked and felt less like a real metropolis than it did down at Commonwealth Place on Monday.

Down at the water's edge in this purpose-built federal capital city Professor David Gordon was openly pining for another purpose-built federal capital city, his Ottawa, capital of Canada. He was telling Pedro Vilela Junqueira from Brazil's purpose-built capital Brasilia, and this columnist, that because back home it was Canada Day, right now in Ottawa, ''There'll be a crowd of 200,000, there'll be concerts and all sorts of fun stuff.''

No wonder the professor, director of the school of urban and regional planning at Queen's University and in town for Tuesday's Capitals Alliance - Symbolic Capital Cities seminar, was finding Canberra too inaction-packed. Even this columnist was finding Canberra tiresome. On the man-made lake not a man-made thing stirred.

The Capitals Alliance was formed in 2001, with scholarly people of the purpose-built capital cities Brasilia, Canberra, Ottawa and Washington collaborating to hold the occasional forum.

On Monday, Professor Gordon and Mr Junqueira, the latter buoyed by his nation's victory that morning in the final of the Confederations Cup (''We beat Spain 3-0,'' he rejoiced) were doing some sightseeing.

At Tuesday's forum, Professor Gordon says, ''I'll be talking about Ottawa as a capital that is perhaps half-finished after 100 years; Washington as a capital which is perhaps complete, and Canberra which is somewhere between one-third and one-half finished.


''It takes a long time to complete the cultural institutions and national devices that make a good capital city. If you've been at it for hundreds of years like they have in Paris or Washington, then you have the complete set of things you would see around the Mall in Washington. Canberra has some very interesting institutions here, but they're not all there yet. Australia is a growing country and Canberra will grow as well.''

We wondered if other federal cities have relationships like Canberra's sometimes fraught and derisory one with Australia at large.

''Yes, in every federal country around the world the national capital is not much loved. People feel a stronger affinity to their state capitals, but that's the purpose of a national capital, to help build patriotism and national unity. So, the good things about Ottawa [the great buildings] and the wonderful landscape are things that are good too about Canberra. I understand how right now in Australia at the moment people are a bit astonished at their politicians (''How true,'' this columnist murmured), but they may well love their Parliament House [and the city's setting].'' Did he, we wondered, find anything Ottawaesque about Canberra?

''I guess it [Canberra] is a bit quiet compared to a normal city. It reminds me a lot of Ottawa in the 1970s. There were a lot of people who said in the 1970s, 'Ottawa's a bit dull. Why would anyone leave Montreal to go there?'''

Pedro Junqueira's Brasilia is far younger than Canberra (planning for Brasilia began in 1956) and with 2.5 million souls, vastly larger.

Junqueira, Head of Strategic Planning in the Brazilian Federal District government, will talk to the forum about Brasilia as symbolism, ''the symbolism of a new nation determined to develop the interior of the country''.

And of Brasilia's relationship with the wider Brazil? ''I shouldn't be saying this [smiling broadly, probably still buoyed by his nation's football triumph] but some Brazilians associate Brasilia with corruption. Others just associate Brasilia with the political class, the bureaucracy; and as you may have seen in the past weeks, we have many riots in Brazil because people think the government [based in Brasilia] is spending too much money on [next year's] World Cup while people don't see any investment in infrastructure.''

He's sure all Brazilians get ''a good sensation'' from the city's sometimes fabulous contemporary public buildings. It's just that [smiling again] ''they have a problem with the people who are working in those buildings''.

''I really like to live in Brasilia because it has a lot of green spaces. For a big city in Brazil that's very rare. But on the other side Brasilia has an artificial feeling - it is a little bit boring because the city is [all about] the government, so everybody you meet in the street are government people.''

The Capitals Alliance forum Symbolic Capital Cities is today (Tuesday) from 2pm, at the Ann Harding Conference Centre, building 24, University of Canberra. All welcome.

Offering up classic sounds

The Musical Offering project is one of the great quiet achievers of the centenary year with - as of the end of June - 293 musical performances by various Canberra musicians to different audiences in miscellaneous venues.

Monday morning's Harmonia Monday concert by the U3A Choral Studies Group rattled, melodiously, the stained-glass windows of the elegant All Saints' Anglican Church in Ainslie with some Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff and Haydn. Go to the Musical Offering website to find music coming soon to a place not far from you.