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Thoughts on a labyrinth

Date

Ian Warden

The H C Coombs building at the Australian National University. Click for more photos

The Coombs at ANU

Photographs of the Coombs building at the Australian National University, described as ‘‘an innovative trio-hexagonal labyrinth of six hundred rooms on nineteen different levels’’ Photo: Graham Tidy

We're in the mood to celebrate Canberra's uniqueness and so we bet that Canberra is the only place in Australia, perhaps on earth, to have a building that's ''an innovative trio-hexagonal labyrinth of six hundred rooms on nineteen different levels''. Do you know which building it is and where it is?

The answer in a few suspenseful moments. But while you rack your brains we remind that in a recent column we offered, with Canberra and our tightly-corseted feelings for our city in mind, this dangerous idea from Canadian writer Adam Gopnik.

''In the course of a lifetime we get to live in a lot of places, if we're lucky, that we can't forget. I've lived in some big-name places, like Paris and New York. But in a lifetime we only ever live in one place that we can't get over [because, there] the rejections have been just too hard, the pains too deep to get over, the pleasures too intense. And Montreal is the place I can never get over. I walk the streets and I remember the intensity of the experiences there.''

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Gang-Gang posed the challenge ''Are there Canberrans for whom Canberra is the city they can't get over?'' and wondered if there are Canberra places that Canberrans associate with these sorts of intense Gopnikesque memories.

Reg Naulty writes that ''For me one such place is the Coombs Building, which houses what used to be called The Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU. I did my PhD there, and used to come back for study leaves … Attached is a poem about it.''

Yes, as background, the Coombs building (named after the great H.C. ''Nugget'' Coombs) of which this columnist too has fond memories, is in one heritage description, ''an innovative trio-hexagonal labyrinth of six hundred rooms on nineteen different levels''. It sounds, and it is, the strangest place. It is an only-in-Canberra building. The architect surely had a sense of humour. It is indescribable really but inside is like a very complex system of wombat burrows arranged to give the wombats stimulating intellectual challenges in finding their way about. Its wombats/scholars, Naulty's ''walking encyclopaedias'', are most of the time sequestered in their rooms, but do emerge, but only until 11.10am, for morning tea.

Ross Umbers and his son Glen inspect a Lanz Bulldog tractor.

Ross Umbers and his son Glen inspect a Lanz Bulldog tractor.

The Coombs

Iridiscent mosaics flash Knowledge's occasional lustre

around the spiral staircases of the Coombs;

scholars, hunched over dormant ideas, advance

to the tea room; in the queue they open into smiles:

the conversations of the Coombs

brighten. When walking encyclopaedias meet

they don't neglect truth, they enlighten. Some, even,

with beneficent intent, find the person

in abstract argument. Until eleven ten

adventurous minds contend and diffident ones suspend

judgment, when scholars return to their rooms

down the angled corridors of the Coombs.

And while we're issuing Canberra-centric challenges and requests for you for this year in which we are all thinking about our city, here's another.

John Berger says that ''Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and, in this, hasn't changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his 20s in love with an older woman.''

If Berger is right about this (and of course he is) then who is Canberra? Is Canberra male or female?

Perhaps Canberra is a teenage boy, still not quite sure of his sexuality, but for the moment with a secret crush on his father's female, 30ish, aromatherapist?

Please, please tell Gang-Gang who you think Canberra is.

Old, tough - then there's the tractor

It's a well-known, scientifically proven fact that people can come to resemble their dogs. Is it possible, perhaps, that a vintage tractor enthusiast can begin to look like his favourite tractor? Surely, if you look closely at tractor owner Ross Umbers posed with his old Lanz Bulldog tractor (Ross is the older of the two men in the photograph and the other is his son Glen), there's an eerie similarity in their physiques and body language?

The Umbers men and their burly Teutonic tractor are taking part in the Fifth Great Snowy River Tractor Stampede, discussed in Tuesday's column. The Stampede (of 20 vintage tractors stampeding along at about 20km/h) is under way and this column has a correspondent, Susan Stephenson, travelling with it.

She took this picture just before the Bulldog (and all the others) got under way from Candelo early on Wednesday. The cavalcade will eventually, on Saturday afternoon, chug its way into Dalgety and spend the night there. In Tuesday's column we recommended that, since every Canberran must visit Dalgety in our Centenary year (Canberra and Dalgety galloped towards the finishing post as a federal capital city site was chosen in 1908), this weekend would find the old hamlet attractively tractor-enriched.

The Lanz Bulldog (they're German, were built from 1921 and grew to have a 10.3-litre engine generating 55 horsepower) is a great bulldog brute of a contraption, and our woman with the Stampede reports that moments after the photograph was taken the Umbers men ''needed a blowtorch to heat the [hot bulb] engine and then had to crank-start it''.

 

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