We are enriched when our city is reflected though another's lens; when Canberra appears as a character in literature, film or art, or in this case in the apparently gravitational relationship between a city and an architect.
This is an account of shared lives. Roger Pegrum stitches the multiple plans for Canberra into a cohesive and entertaining fabric all the while sharing tales of the shaping of this place. This story of Canberra is a startling reminder that we are so young as to be captured in the arc of a singular professional life.
Seeing afresh the photos of early Canberra I was struck by the audacity and optimism to do such a thing - to boldly lay out the roads and trees for "a very great city one day". It must have been quite discombobulating living in a tiny suburban cluster of Barton or Reid or Narrabundah and to be confronted with the bold future vision apparent from the city lookouts. What we see now is structurally the same as what they saw then.
Roger Pegrum arrived in Canberra as a boy in 1948 and he describes how his new home shaped his future direction: living in and absorbing the Griffin vision whilst observing his engineer father deliver Cotter Dam. To study architecture at that time required a move to Sydney and Pegrum decamped for the first of several significant periods in that city. His education was supported through a NSW Works Department cadetship and post-graduation he was lucky to be immersed in an unusually rich array of architectural challenges including design of the original heroic lighting standards lining Anzac Parade.
The 1960s in Canberra must have been a marvelous time as the population rocketed in size and diversity. The newly formulated National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) was charged with "the planning, development and construction of the city of Canberra" and luckily was sensitive to the Griffin premise that Canberra is a city in the landscape. The controls forbidding development of hills and ridges remain current today and are recognized as an essential attribute of this place.
This story of Canberra is a startling reminder that we are so young as to be captured in the arc of a singular professional life.
With legions of academics, scientists and public servants relocating to Canberra and in need of housing, Pegrum enjoyed a professionally rich period in private practice. As it happens, in about 1970 my parents engaged Pegrum to design a small family home in Aranda. My mother recalls several options being discussed until a final was agreed. I however recall visiting the Pegrum office in the newly completed Colonial Mutual building (by Towell Rippon and Associates, 1968) on University Avenue and to my eyes the astonishingly angled office windows overtook any other impressions.
Our family home was delayed in construction as Canberra's growth rate outstripped the supply of builders and materials. It is from this time that many apocryphal tales of cowboy building practices originate. For instance reinforcing mesh being whipped out post-inspection and relocated to another site.
Pegrum's architecture exemplifies a number of signature characteristics, the most central of which is response to place and context. All architecture should be greater than the sum of its parts but Pegrum developed a language particularly in tune with the bush capital. His orchestration of form, massing and materials exemplify an architecture of clarity and grace. His compositions support and enhance our occupation in ways both pragmatic and lyrical.
The career arc of an architect is often tethered to a singular skill or appetite but this cannot be applied simply to the Pegrum oeuvre. He is truly able to work at all scales (from light fittings to city design) and in multiple voices: public works, private practice and academe. Pegrum's particular skill lies in his ability to work at both the macro and micro scales concurrently - when designing a building he is equally immersed in the reality of the construction detailing and when designing a city he is utterly aware of how it feels to occupy a place - so that the 'big idea' is always robustly underpinned by detail.
Such fluency in the language of design is rare and it could be argued that we are witnessing the slow demise of these skills from the profession. The construction industry has eaten away at the safest and best ways to procure a building by editing out the work that an architect does between concept and construction. An architect should build the work on paper first; refining the design, coordinating the structure and services, ironing out issues before anyone picks up a shovel. Unfortunately there are too many examples (generally in the apartment sector) where buildings have been constructed off planning approval drawings and requiring ACT Government to introduce minimum standards for construction documentation.
Jack Waterford suggests that this book is "... a warning that the city is a continuing project still able to be compromised by bad planning, bad design, bad architecture and bad building." That has some truth but equally I suggest that the principles on which this city is founded are enduring and resilient to the inevitable challenges.
In this book Roger Pegrum tells the story of our city and how we found our feet. His recollections - full of colour and detail - personalise the arc of the city from mid century to this century.
- A Very Great City One Day, by Roger Pegrum. Barrallier Books.
- Catherine Townsend is ACT government Architect.