Distinguished architect Roger Pegrum has just said with authority some things about the architectural tedium of Canberra skylines that I have (without authority) muttered and trilled in many a newspaper column.
He has just told The Canberra Times(‘Most Boring Skyline Ever”: Top architect wants revamped plan for Canberra CBD) that he "despairs" at Canberra’s skyline. He sighs at the way in which conspicuously big new buildings are all the same height and have a lack of variety in styles and dimensions.
“Come down Fairbairn Avenue and look at Civic - it's the most boring skyline ever,” he laments.
My regular peregrinations, from my home in Woden to my spiritual home, Reid Tennis Club, takes me towards the CBD along Commonwealth Avenue. At the point (just about where my old and sticker-festooned Barina chugs past the British and New Zealand High Commissions) where a promising CBD might leap, thrillingly into view the Canberra CBD makes its low, dull, architecturally apologetic appearance. Some city’s skylines soar. Canberra’s only skulks.
Cities with fine, varied, eccentricity-packed skylines set up excited expectations in the bosoms of those who approach them. Pulses quicken. Canberra’s CBD skyline has instead an anaesthetising, pulse-slowing impact.
For some years I struggled to understand why it is that when I play early-morning tennis at Reid I make such slow starts and often find myself down a set before my energies pick up and my innate Federeresque flair begins to come back. But of course it is the CBD skyline’s fault. An eyeful of the Canberra CBD first thing in the morning takes the spring out of one’s step.
Quite well-travelled, I know an exciting skyline when I see one.
So for example I know a Chicago virtue we might try to imitate. It is that, generally speaking, nearly every skyscraper of Chicago’s famously vertiginous skyline turns out to be a strong individual with something unique to its style, dimensions and decorations. A great city’s skyline is made up of buildings that suggest a cosmopolitan, crowded roomful of people of different sexes, personalities, races, creeds and colours and modes of dress. Canberra’s CBD skyline suggests a roomful of slightly-built, conservatively-dressed, like-minded bores, perhaps a convention of bridge players or bonsai enthusiasts or serial letter-writers to The Canberra Times.
How has it happened that Canberra still does not have a single conspicuous building that makes one go “Wow!” with shock/delight?
I’m not sure, but I’m attracted to a version of Oscar Wilde’s passing thought that Londoners, in their personal dreariness, perhaps somehow created everything that was dreary about London, even its thick fog. Canberrans, famously inhibited, cautious, nay-saying and progress-resisting, have probably given us the political/architectural/social mood-ecosystem in which no government, no developer dares to dream of suggesting buildings and precincts that are daring, that risk scraping Canberra’s precious sky. Perhaps Canberrans, wowsers, have made it nigh impossible for Canberra to have any buildings that make us go “Wow!”
With Australian politics now so vile and placing all who follow it in moral dangerI find myself weaning myself off my filthy habit of beginning the day by tuning the radio to news and current affairs. I’m assisted in this moral quest by my free online subscriptions to organisations (they include Poem-A-Day and Paris Review Poetry) that every day e-mail me a poem that is there on my computer first thing every morning.
The poems vary enormously in quality (some are by famous poets, some by obscure wordmongers) and in mood (for some poetry is sublime but some is dark and despairing) but all of them are far better for the soul at daybreak than listening instead to ABC Radio National’s Breakfast. That program’s hosts have abreathless inability to find anything said and done by anybody in the news too banal to bother with.
I mention this now not only to assist my readers’ morals but also because in recent days my poem-suppliers have greeted last week’s death of US poet W.S. Merwin with a flurry of his poems. Merwin was among many things a gardeners’ poet, writing so sensitively about nature and the outdoors and our increasing tragic estrangement from it, himself creating over time a vast garden at his home in ludicrously fertile Hawaii.
Sensitised by the great man’s death and his garden themes, I went out into my own modest garden. It is peak zinnia and peak dahlia time there and I sallied forth with my garden scissors to pick some flowers to put at the gates of the New Zealand High Commission. I may yet do this on another day but at my first attempt my garden’s bees, being the sorts of bees Merwin rejoiced in, put it to me that New Zealand and its bees (and its dragon flies, a special love of Merwin’s) might be better honoured by not cutting and removing the flowers.
“It’s the thought that counts,” they hummed persuasively, suggesting I could somehow virtually dedicate the intact zinnia bed in all its living, life-affirming colourfulness to the cause of solidarity with our grieving NZ cousins.
Moved by their poetic suggestion I put away my scissors and tried (as so many of us, feeling helpless, are trying at this awful time) to find some other way to express this probably inexpressible sadness.