The National Capital Authority's recently publicised intention to sell Anzac Park East and Anzac Park West – the Portal Buildings – into private ownership is an unforgiveable betrayal of the national capital and the Australian nation.
What nation would put its most highly venerated and historic national vista at risk by allowing this site to pass out of national hands? Imagine, if you can, the British nation agreeing to the sale of part of Whitehall or the United States, the home of capitalism and small government, selling part of the Washington Mall.
Consider Washington DC, a planned city, a little over 100 years older than Canberra. Washington DC's urban design is its defining characteristic, and the National Capital Planning Commission, as the federal government's planning agency for the capital and the surrounding region, continues a 200-year legacy of planning with the Washington Framework Plan.
The organisation and funding of the National Capital Planning Commission is enviably well structured and fully transparent; the regular commission meetings are open to the public. The central national ceremonial area is sacrosanct, public realm.
Our Australian federal government representatives should organise its emulation here. Americans have produced a publication about Washington entitled Worthy of the Nation. Our flagship, our national capital must be worthy of our nation, our national dignity and presence in the world.
For heritage classification the Portal Buildings have been located immediately outside the boundary used to define the "Parliament House vista" listed in the Commonwealth Heritage Register. Nevertheless the immediacy of this location entails heritage responsibilities for the Commonwealth under the AHC Act and listing recognises them as an extension of the Parliament House vista".
Anzac Park East and West are listed in the Commonwealth Heritage Register in their own right, but unhappily heritage legislation, and particularly its enforcement, is unlikely to fully protect them against determined neglect or other adverse impacts that may be the intention or perceived necessity of private ownership over time – even the perceived necessity to on-sell to foreign ownership.
The buildings have been considered functionally undesirable and obsolete as office space for Commonwealth purposes for some years. The Statement of Significance for the buildings does not place value on their function; their significance for future generations lies in their form, mass height, architectural modelling, symmetry and distance apart, all of which were most carefully considered for the optimal result in relation to the War Memorial and Mount Ainslie.
Importantly these buildings are intentionally not attention-grabbing. They were intended by the eminent British planner William Holford, later given a peerage for his contribution to British planning, to frame the vista commensurate with the changes made to Walter Burley Griffin's vision. These attributes are still pertinent in the vista Australians enjoy from Commonwealth Place, the site that historically Lord Holford favoured for the Parliament House and from which Holford's alumni in Australia based their considerations.
Holford's idea took in the realities of Anzac Parade and the needs of science and innovation, a totally different concept from that of Walter Burley Griffin, who designated this land for a National Opera House and a National Theatre. Griffin's cultural enrichments for the National Triangle and the city of Canberra, if built now, would upstage the War Memorial and Anzac Parade, the focus of the National Vista as conceived by the federal government at the end of the First World War.
The Parliament House vista from its height on Capital Hill is now a "set piece" taken from the land axis alignment experienced at the vista-framing opening on the Queen's Terrace. However other dynamics of scale relationship with the War Memorial and Mount Ainslie and with the buildings of the Parliamentary Triangle need careful consideration for different positions along the vista, one of them Commonwealth Place, which are arguably often frequented and a very important part of this national experience.
The replacement of Anzac Park East and West may be considered reasonable for reasons of function. Most important: it is in the public interest that this is done with the retention of national ownership and public consultation.
Intentions to depart from the form, height and so on established for Anzac Park East and West should be fully tested, for example with a mock up, viewed from different positions along the vista over a period suitable to allow public consultation. The outcome will be an important part of the design brief for the new buildings and needs to be organised before demolition and any development of a notional design.
Functionally, the new buildings need to perform a needed national role, one that will enhance the values expressed within the National Triangle and one that is suited to their conservation for future generations. The awarding of the design commission needs careful consideration.
Rosemarie Willett is an architect and member of the Walter Burley Griffin Society.