It’s time to let Canberra picturesquely decay

When Australians, in their endearingly muddleheaded and inarticulate way, complain that there is something “artificial” about their nation’s capital, one of the things they mean (without being able to put a muddleheaded finger on it) is that Canberra has no ruins.

Canberra’s unhappy ruinlessness (giving the city a weirdly embalmed appearance and feel, as if like Lenin’s displayed corpse, it is magically out of reach of time’s changes and ravages) has been an occasional theme of this columnist. I turn to it again now that one of Canberra’s best hopes of a fine, prominent, character-bringing ruin is being menaced by the dark forces of urban immaculateness. Anzac Park East Building - Green light for demolition, a chilling Canberra Times heading sighed on Christmas Eve.

Canberra's Anzac Park East Building. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Canberra's Anzac Park East Building. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

“Plans to transform Anzac Park East into a housing and commercial complex are one step closer to coming into effect,” The Canberra Times reported.

“The National Capital Authority on Friday approved Amalgamated Property Group's application to bulldoze the derelict office building, at the north-eastern corner of Parkes Way and Anzac Parade.”

Like many artists, Arthur Streeton was inspired by ruins. Photo: Supplied

Like many artists, Arthur Streeton was inspired by ruins. Photo: Supplied

O ye (the NCA and the ACT government) of so little poetic sensitivity, foresight and imagination! O ye, The Canberra Times, with your insensitive use of the word “derelict” as a pejorative when in truth the Anzac Park East building, beginning to achieve sublime dereliction, begins to acquire some of the “melancholy grandeur” that the great painter John Constable, a ruins connoisseur, said all truly great ruins radiate as they strut their crumbling stuff.

Constable would, too, have shared my ambitions for the ABC flats on Civic’s edge. They began, in the months between their battling, tattooed tenants’ removals and the massive buildings’ shameful and misguided demolition, to show promise of a melancholy grandeur.

Have the potentates of the NCA and of the ACT government, so very widely travelled (at public expense) not noticed and felt, in their bones, that some of the great character of the great cities they visit is conferred by that city’s ruins?

Lest you think a fondness for, a sense of or deep need for ruins just an eccentricity of this columnist, I leap to correct you. Whole, fine books have been written about it. The classic is Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins and her book is a history of the phenomenon of the “ruin lust” (the Germans invented the word “ruinenlust” to capture the famous sentiment) that has sometimes gripped European art and literature. One of those gripped, Macaulay points out, was Shakespeare himself who inhabited (in his imagination and in his settings for his plays) what she calls “a ruined and ruinous world" of blasted heaths and crumbling castles.

Famous arts institutions continue to stage exhibitions of the art based on the ruined and ruinous. Tate Britain’s 2014 Ruin Lust was a blockbuster and galleries everywhere cannot get enough of photographs of post-industrial Detroit. There are websites galore catering for those who find (in W.S. Gilbert’s words) “a fascination frantic in a ruin that’s romantic” and there is an online world of “ruin porn” that isn’t a bit pornographic in the usual sense but that indulges those of us sensitive enough to find a ripper poetic melancholy in quality decay.

A vacant, boarded up house on the outskirts of Detroit tells the story of the city's past. Photo: New York Times

A vacant, boarded up house on the outskirts of Detroit tells the story of the city's past. Photo: New York Times

There is even “ruin tourism” and while I would never consciously join a ruin tour I do face the fact that some of my fondness for Scotland and for Scandinavia has to do with them being especially ruin-rich. One of the two most memorable buildings I saw in Scotland last year (the other was Scotland’s super new parliament house in Edinburgh) was the spectacularly decomposing 13th century cathedral at Elgin.

What is the titillating “porn” quality in a sensitive person’s appreciation of ruins?

Henry James confessed that his own love of ruin tourism had “a note of perversity” about it. Perhaps it gives a masturbatory buzz to those of us who get a kick out of melancholy. I find that in 1762 a Lord Kames enthused about ruins for the way they show “the triumph of time over strength, a melancholy but not unpleasant thought”.

The Enlightenment giant Diderot (1713-1784) wrote, “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. [Ruins say that] everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.” He also wrote (it has nothing to do with today’s column but so succinctly describes my own beliefs that I can’t resist using it) that “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

This week’s column has become a bit too high falutin’ now (all this Shakespeare and Diderot) when all I am trying to argue is that when Canberra doesn’t allow itself some romantic ruins, it is faking that it has no past. It is pretending that, urbanly embalmed just because it is a federal capital showpiece and must look spiffy, it is aloof from the ways in which time turns all of our infrastructure and our dreams to rubble.

Australians will never love their federal capital city until it, Canberra, puts away the embalming fluid and allows some picturesque decay. Let us make a belated start with the Anzac Park East building, already (now that it is a place of bats, ghosts, spiders and melancholy) 100 times more charismatic than it was when it was only the squeaky-immaculate workplace of public servants.