JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Happy birthday, to a vision turned sterile

Date

Regular columnist and former political speechwriter

View more articles from Martin McKenzie-Murray

Burley Griffin envisaged a humanised capital city. So what went wrong?

Canberra turns 100 this year, but awkwardly it seems Australians have forgotten its birthday. The Bush Capital must now be cursing its weird remoteness, and the fact that outside its borders ''Canberra'' is not the name of a city, but shorthand for political bastardry.

In less than a week it will be precisely a century since Lady Denman stood upon a foundation stone and announced that Canberra, by way of gerrymandering and interstate suspicion, would be the site of our new federation's capital. Back then Canberra was practically a blank slate, a clean canvas upon which the American architect Walter Burley Griffin - and his wife - would later impose their diabolically impaired vision.

Not only have most of us overlooked our capital's birthday, but its milestone anniversary has not softened criticism of Canberra either. Running parallel to the cheerful parochialism of those organising centenary events are some very different and unflattering stories.

In a recent speech, Tony Abbott doubled down on his promise to slash public service jobs and reminded departmental heads and their deputies that their jobs were not guaranteed should he become prime minister. The argument is sloppy, of course - it's leveraging the popular but inchoate sense that government is bloated.

That's not to say the federal service isn't bloated. From my limited experience I not only saw staffing surpluses, I saw team morale bruised by grossly inadequate executives spending our time and money on obscuring the root fact of their uselessness. It's a vague form of corruption.

But I must qualify this: I can only speak of government communications teams, and we don't often speak with specificity or sophistication when we talk of public service cuts. When we speak of cuts, we favour the broad and unhelpful slogans of prejudice. This is a shame, because there is no comparison between a police officer and an alcoholic writer of incoherent press releases - the guy who takes home more than the one fishing bodies out of a lake.

Abbott hasn't been the only party-pooper. A few weeks ago a former departmental speechwriter wrote an opinion piece, ''Coked Up in Canberra'', about notional blizzards of cocaine swirling around our invented capital and enjoyed by over-entitled young bureaucrats. It was an embittered, inaccurate and ungenerous story, a fever dream of our capital that I only faintly recognised. But in the article I saw the outlines of my own frustrations.

On the day I moved to Canberra I was taken to the top of Mount Ainslie. From there you can view The Plan - the sight lines, the Parliamentary Triangle, the geometric symmetry. From there you could also see the empty boulevards and feel the crisp air. That cool wind didn't just come from the Brindabella Ranges. There was a chilling vibe. Here was the ''unreality'' of Canberra that Keating had described.

Nearly 100 years before, the city's planner had wanted nothing less from his design than a revolution in our consciousness. Griffin described his plan for Canberra as ''[the best opportunity] so far afforded for an expression of the democratic civic ideal and for all that means in accessibility, freedom … and splendour''.

But what was splendid in the vision was sterile in the living. Griffin had designed a city that pre-empted the primacy of the car, which was both prophetic and pathetic. Instead of a tightly knit centre, six (now seven) small districts emerged, separated by vast space and ill-connected by public transport. Between these centres lies mandated green space, which is pretty for tourists but pushes locals apart, limits land availability and drives up property prices.

All of which demonstrates the cruel irony of Griffin's vision of a ''humanised'' city - a vision that demands some of the lowest density living among our capital cities. Griffin applied to his canvas a vision that sought splendour in empty roads and monuments, rather than in the people that would inhabit it.

I heard plenty of arguments in defence of Canberra, and they were always the same. The arguments were simply descriptions of natural beauty: lushness, wildlife, proximity to snow slopes. But Griffin was not designing a national park, and parakeets and mountains do not make a city. People do.

Cities require imagination and leadership - long-term plans - but in few places in the developed world will you see a city so damagingly beholden to its original vision as Canberra. In open societies, cities normally express the power of pluralism - the fluent vitality of the fullest range of professions, personalities and nationalities.

There is diversity in Canberra, but it's maddeningly, inorganically muted by the concentration of bureaucrats ironically shepherded to a place far removed from the Australians they're meant to serve. It's as if Griffin had unwittingly designed Superman's Fortress of Solitude for wonks and staffers.

Martin McKenzie-Murray is an Age columnist and former Labor Party speechwriter.

31 comments

  • Griffith’s vision was heavily influenced by the design of Washington and the Chicago World’s fair. – a vision of low white buildings shimmering along the edge of an artificial body of water. It is nonsense to suggest that Griffith envisaged a compact city. In freely adapting the design of Washington to the bush capital, he was well aware that Washington had outgrown the original design of Pierre L’Enfant and made sure that design for Canberra was capable of expanding to be much larger than his original design. In 1911 it was assumed that by the year 2000 Australia would be as populous as the United States had been in 1900. Those wide open spaces in the north exerted their siren calls then as strongly as they do today. Keating in this (as in so many other matters) was right – Canberra does have an air of unreality because of its design – based on another continent’s climate and the stage set of a world’s fair.

    Commenter
    LGM
    Location
    ST PETERS
    Date and time
    March 07, 2013, 9:57AM
    • "From my limited experience ..."

      Stopped reading there. I hardly doubt youre in any sort of position to make an accurate assessment of the PS Martin.

      Commenter
      That Guy
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      March 07, 2013, 11:48AM
      • Amen to that. Having grown up in Canberra, I find this article complete rubbish. He obviously hasn't spent enough time there to form a proper opinion. It is a lovely city

        Commenter
        cygirl
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        March 07, 2013, 2:55PM
    • You _former_ political speech-writers mustn't have got much further than Parli House and the odd pub a stone's throw away in Kingston or Manuka. Either that, or you were here too long ago and your view of the place needs updating.

      If you bother to get to know your capital, you'll find the Canberra Griffin planned starting to blossom. Granted it's taken time, and perhaps you were here when it felt a little more sterile. Urban infill is happening now at a rapid pace and bringing with it the exact organic vibrancy, vitality, and range of professions, personalities and nationalites you seem to think it lacks. Need proof? Google these: You Are Here festival, Rat Patrol Oz, Make Hack Void, Art Not Apart, Corinbank, Canberra Diaspora, Cashews Local Gold Guerilla Gigs, Canberra Full Circle, Canberra Musicians Club... I could go on. All these folk make the most of the way this City's been designed.

      There's certainly a strain of public servant that blows into town on a 3 year contract, sticks to themselves, and returns home to bag the joint out. But those wonks and staffers should get out more. They might just find a community Griffin (and themselves) would want to be a part of.

      Commenter
      Nancy Porker
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      March 07, 2013, 11:54AM
      • "Canberra turns 100 this year, but awkwardly it seems Australians have forgotten its birthday". I don't know that there is any awkwardness involved. More the case that those tasked with promoting the capiial's Centenary have failed dismally to promote the event in an appropriate way. Many of the so called Centenary events are events that routinely take place in the Capital anyway (attended by a handfull of people) and there is no link to the centenary as such. The big bash to occur this weekend is all a bit strange even for those of us who live here. With no disrespect to Ms Robyn Archer who is no doubt being paid mega bucks to arrange and promote the Centenary of Canberra 'How are these events linked to the Centenary?". It is as if the organisers know little or nothing of the Capital's history which was in fact approximately 70 years old when Lady Denman proclaimed the site as the nation's capital. It is probably just as well that this embarrassing program of events was not promoted to the rest of Australia which would have added to the ridicule that we constantly endure. Many residents will as usual leave the city for a long weekend.

        Commenter
        Grange
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        March 07, 2013, 12:01PM
        • "parakeets and mountains do not make a city. People do." Exactly, and so many Canberrans fail to understand this when they talk up Canberra's natural features as being one of it's winning qualities. Nature is beautiful because it is not a city, and conversely, a beautiful city is not nature.

          Commenter
          Mellah
          Date and time
          March 07, 2013, 12:02PM
          • Maybe this will all end up with you apologising like Guy Pearce who said he was sorry for "being such a d#ckhead" and admitting "I actually really like Canberra"?

            Commenter
            Mossrocket
            Location
            Canberra
            Date and time
            March 07, 2013, 12:07PM
            • Things will start changing with all the new apartment complexes going up in the town centres and plans to increase population density along Northbourne Avenue etc, but it will take time. I think many of us can see (and know) Canberra's potential, which is why it is so frustrating to see how slowly things are progressing. I guess we should remind ourselves that the city is only 100 years old and didn't have much political commitment to developing it until Menzies came along. Burley-Griffin's legacy/ vision was maybe good for the times but, things have moved on, town planning ideas has moved on, public transport needs have moved on. Keeping some of the heritage in Canberra's origins is very important, but I think Canberrans need to be a little less precious about new developments changing the urban landscape, particularly in the town centres.

              Commenter
              Adam Newsterad
              Date and time
              March 07, 2013, 12:11PM
              • The ACT Gov is what is wrong. They stop/prevent this City from growing or making it a fun, enjoyable place to live. Its boring, cold and full of political crap. Whether you're 15 or 60, Canberra lacks excitement, it has nothing going for it nor does the government bother promoting the Capital City. Sad to say but Canberra has got to be the worst Capital City in the world!!!

                Commenter
                Blaic
                Date and time
                March 07, 2013, 12:13PM
                • This is precisely the kind of idiot statement that makes you realise we Aussies still suffer from a kind of cultural cringe. 'Fun', 'enjoyable', 'excitement'? If it was up to you, Blaic, it would be Summernats all year round.

                  Commenter
                  JS
                  Location
                  Canberra
                  Date and time
                  March 07, 2013, 2:49PM

              More comments

              Comments are now closed
              Featured advertisers