Most of us would agree that humans are an organism which has evolved and cities have evolved as gathering places for human purposes because collectively we can achieve more than we can separately.
Successful cities accrue layers over time, which reflect the changing needs of life, but they retain the germ of the organism. In successful cities new layers do not smother the old; new development does not oppose and crush the spirit of the city of the past; new forms do not dominate past forms to produce amorphous sameness. We see this retention of the germ of the original city in the most successful cities around the world: Rome retains its antiquities and one can be oblivious of modern Rome and the present in the Forum; Athens retains the Acropolis and allows no tall structure(s) to challenge it; Paris retains the scale of its cultural monuments and its essential reference to the Seine; New York, a city of skyscrapers, retains Central Park; London is struggling to retain the supremacy of place around St Paul's Cathedral, bravely protected during the bombing of World War II.
It may seem unlikely that Canberra will lose the urban structures – the Land and Water Axes, the National Triangle and the Central, East and West Basins of the lake – which are truly the Griffin legacy as it remains; but don't be so sure. There are many threats, at the very least, to emasculate these structures.
When the 34-year-old Griffin settled down to consider the information from the Australian Government which he collected from the British Embassy in Chicago, he focused his three-dimensional imagination on comprehension of the site characteristics as a starting point. It was not a flat featureless site of the kind which lends itself to man-made vistas of monumental and high rise buildings. It was a beautiful site with undulations, a flood plain, proximate, dominant natural features – Mount Ainslie, Black Mountain and Mount Mugga Mugga – and distant mountain ranges.
The most wonderful possibilities which soon occurred to him were 1) the connection of a city with a lake which would control the Molonglo flood plan; 2) the Land and Water Axis alignments; and 3) the natural symmetry of the amphitheatre-like land form about the Land Axis alignment, a form which took in the gently undulating plain at the foot of Mt Ainslie, the central basin of the lake and the rising ground to Mt Kurrajong.
The first opportunity the Federal Government threw away was the symmetrical location of the city on a natural plain about the Land Axis on the north side, overlooking and connected with the Lake. Stated as aesthetic reasons – and an ideology of aesthetics can afflict planners preferences over reason – it seems the Federal Government planners of the 1920s preferred the English picturesque and ironically 'more natural' asymmetry! The change in location of the Department of Defence, already in the pipeline for decision making, may also have contributed. So the city was hidden away without connection with the lake – a situation, not caused, but set in cement by Holford's Parkes Way
My point is that the natural symmetry of the site was crucial in Griffin's decision making, in the formal geometry of the three symmetrical basins of the lake, and in freeing his genius for creating a place with building functions and forms which harmonised with the natural environmental conditions of the place. This is the germ of the organism which began as Canberra city.
The problem created by the Federal government is the asymmetrical placement of the city. When once, if you arrived at Kingston Railway Station there was not city to be seen for miles around, it was buried around Northbourne Avenue and Garema Place. Canberra had become a city for the motor car. Now the ACT Government is driven by land available on City Hill and the 'City to the Lake' with a forced, 'unnatural' connection with West Basin. Both light rail and motor vehicles will course down Northbourne Avenue to City Hill – and perhaps on down Constitution Avenue to the Department of Defence.
City Hill is the last site of the National Triangle which could achieve the making of place with serious design skill. It needs an imagination like Griffin's. The proposal by the Land Development Authority – the ACT Government's NCDC, is, as described by Juliet Ramsay, 'concrete candles on a concrete cake.' The Government is using four pairs of tall (17 storey) 'Gateway' buildings on the intersections of Commonwealth, Northbourne, Constitution and Edinburgh Avenues to advertise to the world that Canberra has become a city – like any other of the most ordinary type. City Hill is set to become the pride and joy of the ACT Government and the focus of Canberra. Its unbalanced, harsh prominence will be in direct conflict with the germ of the organism which Griffin created. Poor land axis vista! Poor Parliament House! Both vistas will be diminished by this 'tour de force' in ugliness. At least Canberra avoided a 'wedding cake' on Capital Hill – for which we can thank the wit of Romaldo Giurgola, the architect who won the International Competition.
Canberra is now being re-conceived as a city like Rio or the Queensland Gold Coast city with apartment buildings on the Lake foreshore. One set of apartments will look into another as they struggle for views. Even lower six to seven storey apartments on the foreshore of West Basin will cast shadows on the landscaped pontoon curving around the basin itself when morning and afternoon walkers are shaded from the long shadows of the morning and afternoon sun. In the shadows there will be kiosks selling coffee and drinks to create 'vibrancy'. Buildings on the west side of Commonwealth Avenue will cut off the vistas to the distant ranges.
We must do better for this incredibly beautiful city.
Rosemarie Willett is an architect and member of the Walter Burley Griffin Society