Abolish the shoddy mediocrity
The National gallery and the High Court in Canberra.
CANBERRA'S best birthday present to itself, and to the people of Australia, and Australia's best present to Canberra for its 100th birthday could be a vow that the city is going to become a centre of excellence again, a model city with no place for the cheap, the tawdry, second best or second rate.
No more crap architecture, at least of a public kind. No more temporary, quick-fix, nasty solutions to long-term problems. No more new suburbs and public infrastructure that shame the established city and our place as the national city of all Australians.
No more land-development systems propping up high land prices to service short-term recurrent spending needs by selling off our primary capital asset. No more race to the bottom in the building of neighbourhood slums. No more down-at-heel, shabby and unmaintained basic services or public landscapes.
No more public goods and services - particularly in law and order, health, welfare and education, arts, cultural and community facilities, or services for the aged, the young, the disabled and the mentally ill - that are, at best, only average, more often well below the standards seen elsewhere, and, as often as not, provided elsewhere more efficiently and effectively.
Instead a city of which we really can be proud. Not only as well designed and organised for the common good, but serving as a standard and a beacon of what can be achieved by good planning, good administration, by care and attention to the environment. A proof, to Australians and the world, that sound planning and management can produce higher amenity, social harmony and a community that values and invests in its past, present and future.
As things stand, this seems an impossible aspiration, if only because it would seem certain to cost too much - certainly more than taxpayers are prepared to pay.
Some services do cost more than equivalent services elsewhere because of economies of scale, being in the bush, or because we are the national capital.
But the disadvantages are exaggerated. We could retrieve any extra cost simply from the extra utility achieved by going, for a change, for quality rather than quick, for durability rather than instant depreciation, for aesthetic pleasure rather than the involuntary wince whenever one sees new facilities and the newest suburbs, and the flashy ideas that would look cheap and embarrassing even in Los Vegas or the Gold Coast.
Consider, for example, that the Canberra of 100 years from now will almost certainly still have Old Parliament House, the new Parliament House, the War Memorial, and, most likely, the various Treasury and administration buildings of the national triangle, the latter, most likely, nestled among neighbours of a size, proportion and look that is not greatly dissimilar. There may even still be a National Library, just in case anyone remembers books.
But the present High Court won't be there. Nor the present National Gallery, nor the Science Centre. Nor one of the current buildings around Civic.
Thank God, for they are all epically ghastly, monuments to a long period of dreary and undistinguished world and Australian architecture which could not inspire, did not look good, and which did not well or economically serve the purposes set.
These buildings will not disappear because they are awful, although that ought to be reason enough. They will fall down because of concrete cancer, because they were built (without our being told) for obsolescence, because modern building and engineering uses second-rate materials and shoddy techniques, and because they soon reach a point where the cost of maintenance exceeds the cost of tearing them down and building anew.
The modern Canberra, as the actual centre of national public administration, is, on average, less than 50 years old, but the greater proportion of the 1960s buildings outside the National Triangle in which departments were housed have already had at least one major refurbishment and next time will be demolished. Likewise, in territorial Canberra, most of the schools built in the 1960s seriously look their age and also are seriously out of date in terms of the way they are configured to their communities.
Yet older schools, such as Ainslie and Telopea, even the old Canberra High School that is now the School of Art, still look fresh and inspiring, and will be around 50 years from now. No one will die to stop bulldozers demolishing a Campbell High, a Narrabundah College, or a Charnwood Primary, but they will to stop demolition, or further official vandalism, of working 1930s buildings.
The old Woden Valley Hospital, built only in the late 1960s and early 1970s, would have fallen down by now had it not been for the rebuilding required when it had to expand to cope with the closure of the Royal Canberra at Acton. Yet a high proportion of Canberra houses built 40 years before that still stand - often, indeed, more solidly than their 1970s equivalents.
Politicians have always known that the hospital, even the relatively recent additions and refurbishments, will probably be unserviceable, out of date or actually dangerous 15 years from now. If we carry on in our present short-term way, we will fix it up piecemeal, making the hospital campus even more of a hodge-podge of buildings that do not integrate with each other, look pleasant or attractive, make use of its setting, be environmentally friendly, or work as a place to heal the sick, or be sick.
We do not have to pull the hospital down. All we have to do is to recognise now that the people of Canberra will, by 2030, need a new hospital - one capable of serving 700,000 people (including the NSW hinterland), providing a first-rate medical education system, an array of medical services, half of which have not yet even been imagined, and having, preferably, nearby accommodation, specialist services and outpatient arrangements, as well as provision either for parking or for public transport for its workforce and visitors.
All we have to do is to decide now that we are not only going to build a hospital that heals the sick, but a hospital campus that pleases the eye - and that we mean to build it to last at least 100 years. (There is no impediment from incapacity to deal with as-yet-unimaginable technological cabling, or whatever; somehow better and more efficient and far more attractive hospitals seem to manage at this in Britain and the United States even when 100 years old.)
The planning - the broad design, a popular consultation and general discussion, an ordered program - should be starting now.
Most Canberra schools will have to be pulled down within 20 years. Their replacements - there will probably be fewer - need a completely new concept of linkage between home, suburbs, other education establishments and community. Instead of standing separate and isolated, they should probably be closely linked with other facilities.
One can see the same sort of second-rate thinking with vast areas of public space. A good deal of the so-called town-gown precinct around Childers, Kingsley and Hutton streets, which was supposed to have prompted an active street life, has been compromised by the need for car parks.
Likewise, one can see that combination of developer greed, a bureaucratic lack of imagination, political timidity and silly priorities compounding the ruination of Civic with the destruction of perhaps the last chance to revive it - a first rate plan for the ABC flats area.
Even that could only start an improvement: only when the Canberra Centre falls down - and Ainslie Avenue is reclaimed - is there much to hope for.
Hell, I'd even be prepared to pay higher rates and taxes to achieve it - if it was achieving it, rather than being poured into the shoddy monuments of modern political and architectural mediocrity we pay so much for today. Indeed, I remain to be convinced that one cannot create a nice building which is durable for a price no greater than the concrete, steel and glass towers of Babel of today.