Bunda Street in Civic, a pedestrian, cycling and motor vehicle free-for-all. Photo: Melissa Adams
A VERY good working rule of life is that one should ignore architect's ''concepts'' and artist's ''impressions'' of the landscaping of any proposed design or development. Hideousness should be seen straight on. Another is that one should imagine the scheme in operation from a point of view about 200 metres east, west, north, south and moonwards from its centre, starting from a point of sceptical but not invincible doubt not only about whether the evils it is said to address exist, but whether, if they do, the plan will fix them.
This is particularly the case with Canberra planning, especially under the feeble national and local leadership we see of recent days.
It is with this morbid point of view, and the sense of certainty that nothing done by a designer, builder, an architect, planner or engineer in Civic in the past 40 years has been an improvement, that one contemplates the latest proposals for the district. These include letting a football club manage a large-scale redevelopment on that part of Braddon Oval now called the Braddon Club, and turning Bunda Street into a pedestrian, cycling and motor vehicle free-for-all.
As it happens, 300 yards to the north lives the correspondent habituated to addressing his readership with a perpendicular pronoun in this column, so I should, perhaps, declare an interest going beyond the merely aesthetic. This does not mean that I stand to lose or gain financially from whatever catastrophe is inflicted upon us. It is that I have to look at it and endure it more than most of those trying to foist it on us. Civic, originally designed by Walter Burley Griffin as an ideal municipal centre for a population of about 40,000, has been pretty much wrecked since about 1973. Probably the last good thing that happened there was the building of the merry-go-round. It is too early to say whether the closure of Alinga Street and Petrie Plaza - done at the same time - was a wise or silly decision, but it was not actually destructive of anything, even if it hastened the departure of two of the then three supermarkets located in Civic.
I am neutral about the pedestrian malls this created, and, generally, a fan, if not an uncritical one, of the outdoors tables which followed the defiance, by the venerable Gus Petasilka, of rules about the private colonisation of the public domain.
It is hard to be neutral about anything that has happened since. But the fact that it is a wreck ought not be a licence to make it worse. It would still be possible to create a place that would be admired about the world. But nothing on hand offers this.
Among the absolute catastrophes has been the closure of Ainslie Avenue, and the consequent removal of a host of transport options desperately needed by a city increasingly an island between stagnant canals. Every politician and planner associated with this forward thinking piece of greed and planning incompetence should be hanged, drawn and quartered, though alas, even at the time, this progeny seemed to have no father or mother, and seemed to just happen without discussion, consultation, or condition. In arrears, a sadly deficient National Capital Planning Commission, as it then was, attempted, for about five minutes, to require those to whom it had passed the land to keep the vista ''open'', but, as ever with planning matters in the ACT, lost interest or forgot.
Another was the appropriation of Ainslie Avenue, as well as a vast area alongside Bunda Street, to the Queensland Investment Corporation.
Where enterprise elsewhere just barely survives, as for example in Alinga Street, QIC seems to be encouraged to buy up and leave deserted shops and fooderies, forcing people into the hideous mall whether they want to go there or not. The mall is entirely without architectural distinction - indeed it is of epic banality even by Florida standards - but, in the manner of malls all around the world it is run in a way so that the mall owner, not the shop renter, captures virtually all of the value of goodwill, and good service. No business has ever profited by operating from inside a mall, but many have no choice because of the destructive effect of a mall on strip-shopping competition.
Another disaster is that Civic has, I think, more intersections controlled by traffic lights than any other conurbation in the world. I once argued that Alice Springs had more traffic signs per square metre, but that is not quite the same thing, if a product of the same type of reactive Stalinism. When I came to Canberra 43 years ago there were no traffic lights in Civic, and the arrangement of the streets, and parking, was such that they were not necessary. We ''need'' so many now not because of the densification of Civic, but because planners rubber-stamping proposals have failed to imagine flow-on effects from willy-nilly development.
In fact, just the same planners have created virtual cemeteries in Civic - the old Boulevarde Buildings for example, and, sometimes I think East Row and London Circuit - because they did not anticipate that they were strangling commerce and industry with what they imagined to be expansive decisions. My guess is that three quarters of the present Civic has a lower worker or shopper density these days than it did in 1965. Desertification continues apace: if anyone wants to ride a bicycle, there is already probably more flat land without a pedestrian to be knocked over (with free extra added abuse from the lycra-clad rider) than there was when the area was surrounded by acres of car park.
Naturally the ''artists' impressions'' of the cycle ways show comely gels perambulating on ladies' bikes, not eco-fascists torpedoing through crowds abusing anyone who dares get in their way. And, with that sensitive concern for job creation, the Bunda Street road would be raised to mall level, everything being repaved. In my time in Civic, Garema Place has been repaved at least 10 times and Petrie and Bunda Streets at least six. None has ever made an improvement worthy of the inconvenience to shoppers or shopkeepers by street closure.
Once if a shop was sold and the buyer left it closed, he forfeited a lease after 12 months. Alas this rule has long conflicted with the ACT land management rule that nothing should ever be done that might negatively affect the morale of developers.
In this, our centenary year, it is worth contemplating that neither the ACT nor the Commonwealth government has commissioned, built or occupied a decent piece of architecture for the last quarter of a century. [One could say last half a century were it not for Parliament House]. Not even an inoffensive one, indeed.
I expect that the ACT government's lulu - some appalling set of edifices and future slums to replace the ABC buildings in Cooyong Street - is just around the corner. For some reason, ACT powers-that-be want the design job given to an insider - one of the sorts of chaps who has produced the city we so know and love - rather than setting new standards, national and international, for attractive medium to high density inner city terrace development. With ACT ministers Simon Corbell and Joy Burch as the chief ''clients'', one senses an aesthetic triumph in the making, no doubt complementing and ''completing'' the hideous Colosseum that Treasurer Andrew Barr would like to build, at taxpayer expense, for the Raiders on Braddon Oval.
The Colosseum would no doubt sit attractively alongside the Braddon Club development. The Club operates separately from the Raiders by way of prolonging a long-forgotten rugby league turf war of the 1960s, before the dominance of the Queanbeyan Leagues Club consumed all, and produced the Raiders. Some smarty rent seekers profited enormously, though the club has nothing whatever to do with its founding purpose.
It, and the Oval should be resumed, with compensation based on the unexpired part of the sporting-ground lease paid to the Raiders. It should be added to a unified development zone embracing the ABC Blocks on Cooyong Street, and the Catholic sites on Donaldson Street.
The obstacle to redevelopment to be planned by the Raiders or the Braddon Club is about betterment, as Ron Gilbert sometimes argues. It is that the current land tenants got the land for sport, not medium density development, and show no sign of having the capacity to produce a housing development of national standards. Anyone who doubts that should examine the McMansion-style Raiders headquarters on Torrens Street, or the Braddon Club itself.
It would be a brave call to expect from the Raiders worse taste and style than from Simon Corbell, Joy Burch, Andrew Barr and their bureaucrats, but, in a contest, I think the Raiders could win.