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Lake a watershed for the city

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Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

Lake Burley Griffin in the early stages of development.

Lake Burley Griffin in the early stages of development. Photo: Rakin Rahman

The old and the long resident have it all over most of us with this one. One cannot be a true member of the aristocracy unless one is BL, which is to say that one lived here Before Lake. That's when the floodplains of the Molonglo River contained racecourses, golf courses, and open country lay between Treasury and Beauchamp House. Canberra was two towns, separated by the river, with the two main bridges supplemented by places such as Lennox Crossing near the present museum.

I wasn't here myself, being a brat at boarding school in Sydney, but about 40,000 people lived here before the works began, in about 1960, and there were rather more when the main works, including the completion of Scrivener Dam, and of new Commonwealth and Kings Avenue bridges in September 1963. From then on, the walls were closed, the river was blocked and began to rise behind the dam until it filled to the contours of the present lake, but, alas, 1963 and 1964 were on the dryish side and the lake was not filled until April. It was not formally opened until October 1964.

I know of no plans for a birthday then or at any other time, but given that this has been a year of birthdays, including Canberra's 100th, I think that we ought to think about letting the lake into this year's action, perhaps with some sort of big public picnic on the anniversary of the closure of the Scrivener gates. Even BL nostalgics are inclined to agree that it was the making of the city, and that it has been a glory and an ornament, if sometimes a muddy one, ever since.

Walter Griffin and his wife, Marion, deserve, I suppose, the primary credit for the lake, but they were by no means the only entrants in the Canberra design competition who made provision for one. Indeed, those organising the competition (and the man who had selected the area as the site of the capital, Charles Scrivener) had thought of its possibilities too, one of the reasons why, in sending out materials to those who asked, they included detailed topographic maps, including lines showing the areas enclosed by various of the severe Molonglo River floods of the 19th century. It had ben obvious that there could be no permanent buildings inside these flood lines.

A part of the extra added genius of the Griffin plan is that he and Marion actually mocked up the landforms from the maps, drafting a city design that nestled within it. So far as their lake went, however, it was made more of geometric, largely circular designs based roughly around the contours. By contrast the lake plan adopted is rather more natural.

Building the lake became virtually inevitable only when prime minister Robert Menzies - in almost every way as much the ''father'' of the city as anyone else, including Griffin - decided to get serious about constructing the national capital, in the mid-1960s. Menzies faced down critics and ''moaners'' inside his own party as well as Labor, and, in particular disputed the cynical suggestions that the lake would end up stagnant, a source of non-stop fog, mosquitoes, silt and reed beds.

I do not know whether this is true or not, but I remember an old ACT engineer who told me that there were protesters in front of bulldozers about 1962 when they were cutting, slightly, into the western bottom of Black Mountain so as to create the lake's shape. These saw the lake as something artificial and unnatural, bound to cause some sort of unspecified economic catastrophe.

He swore it was the children of those protesters who were out there protesting at the same spot several decades later, when bulldozers were moving earth back to provide an easement for the Molonglo Parkway, being built to add to the routes to Woden, Weston and Tuggeranong. This time he claimed, cynically, the ''greenies'' were arguing that the lake was some sort of sacred site which should not be ''filled in'' so as to provide a road for the devil car.

Right or not, he is probably correct in the hint that building the lake would probably be more difficult these days, when there is so much that is necessary by way of environmental impact statement. I think the lake must be counted a success even in environmental terms, but there would be some who would be more grim than me about some of the problems of lake management and pollution over the years. It cannot, however, be said that any of their worst fears were realised - and as for Queanbeyan bodies and faeces occasionally making their way into the lake, that could and did happen from time to time with the river as well.

The water spout and the Carillon add to the glories of the lake, and the bridges, if not noble, complement it. And to its development we also owe not only the islands in the middle, the possibilities one day of active ferries, beaches at places such as Black Mountain Peninsula, and the yachts, rowers, scullers and pleasure craft, but also attractive wetlands, especially to the east, under Fyshwick.

Without the lake we would not have Commonwealth Gardens, which (other than the islands), was the principal beneficiary to the earth movements required.

Indeed I hope that one day a confident national trustee - there's no hope of the National Capital Authority in this role - might insist on a raised pedestrian footbridge completing Sturt Avenue, as Griffin intended, all the way across to Russell Hill. That would complete one of the central lines of the plans, while making far easier a pleasant walk through the wetlands and birdlands.

In a distant past, The Canberra Times was fond of April Fools' Day jokes about the lake, including about plans to empty it to clean up the silt and the carp, and the idea of a third bridge between Acton and Weston parks.

But I also hope that the next prime minister, when he has time to put his mind to it, gives a thought, this 50th birthday, to renaming it Lake Menzies, as those who planned it more or less intended and expected.

It is sometimes said that Menzies didn't want anything named after him. Rot. He didn't want to be commermorated by a mere suburb, or a public lavatory. And he definitely deserves more.

And Walter? And Marion? First there's the embarrassment of the present name containing the word Burley, when it was merely a second name of Walter Griffin and not, as some seem to think, a part of his surname.

But these two should be commemorated by having our two mountains - Ainslie (Marion) and Black Mountain (Walter) named after them - in particular, recognition of the significance of these peaks in the triangles of their plan. Black Mountain and Ainslie (and the man it commemorates) are pretty boring names anyway.

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