Canberra - unassumingly civilised, cosmically dull or just a "A good sheep paddock spoiled". Arriving in Canberra for the first time is like arriving in Brussels, you have heard so much criticism and invective that the chances of you liking the place are nil.
Canberra to the American traveller seems like a sleepy Virginia suburb with its endless residential streets, green leafiness and private gardens coupled with a civic majesty worthy of a capital of 5 million souls not the humble 300,000 who pepper the streets of the Australian capital. Arriving in Canberra for the first time is like arriving in Brussels, you have heard so much criticism and invective that the chances of you liking the place are nil. Canberra is soulless, they say, a failed ideal city full of bureaucrats and people who can’t wait for Friday night so they can fly home to somewhere a bit more serious.
It is true, at first sight the city looks ill-proportioned, not even remotely to any sort of human scale. It was clearly designed for a population of 5 million people on the idea of a garden city where families live in leafy suburbs with large yards and make their way into a bustling and vibrant centre when the mood took them.
However, try insulting Canberra to a local and it is a bit like insulting their children, parents are fully entitled to bitch about their offspring but try doing it on their behalf and you get short shrift. No doubt in Canberra’s case this is partly out of a sense of annoyance at hearing the same old clichés trotted out continually, it makes them instant apologists for the Bush Capital.
Canberra is a young city. It was selected for the location of the nation’s capital in 1908 as a compromise between bickering rivals Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s two largest cities. It is unique as Australian cities go, as it was an entirely planned city. There was an international contest for the city’s design, a design by the Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin was selected and construction commenced in 1913.
Before the architects had a good go at the place, the soon to be city was inhabited by the Ngunnawal and Walgalu tribes. The word “Canberra” is derived from the word Kanbarra meaning “meeting place” in the old Ngunnawal language of the local Ngabri people. Perhaps apocryphally, the name was reported to mean “woman’s breasts”, as coined by journalist John Gale (the Father of Canberra) in the 1860s, referring to Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain.
The city’s major roads follow a wheel-and-spoke pattern rather than a grid. The city centre is laid out on two perpendicular axes: a water axis stretching along Lake Burley Griffin, and a ceremonial land axis stretching from Parliament House on Capital Hill north-eastward along ANZAC Parade to the Australian War Memorial at the foot of Mt Ainslie. There is little mystery here, it is a frontier stab at perfection with classical leanings.
There is no avoiding the issue, Australia’s national capital has an unfortunate reputation for being dull and the urban design does not help. Percy Deane, secretary to the Prime Minister’s department in 1928, said: “The best view of Canberra is from the back of a departing train.”
Nevertheless, Canberrans can be protective about their city. They praise the uncomplicated atmosphere, the lack of traffic, they love the new Parliament, the National Gallery and National Museum, the Portrait Museum and the War Memorial. It is tranquil, close to nature, frankly everything that your average stressed out Sydney-ite is nostalgic for. But no buzz.
The former premier of NSW Maurice Iemma once had a dig at the capital: “Canberra is sterile, soulless and manicured — still six suburbs in search of city”
The local Canberra newspaper replied to the Premier’s diatribe saying that his remarks were : “ill-informed, stereotypical and gratuitous”. Not for the first time. These exchanges are now par for the course and oft repeated.
Canberra is almost pointlessly majestic, as if the design were just the skeleton of an ideal urban sprawl that would eventually be fleshed out. It never has been.
The axes along which the city is built are bolstered by impressive architectural feats such as the new Parliament building or the War Memorial but in the massive open spaces in between there are expanses of manicured lawn, very little perspective, the occasional car and the odd deranged human actually walking. As everywhere in Australia it is the massive expanse of blue sky from horizon to horizon that always wins.
Finding the old Parliament building comes as a relief, its old-world colonial frontier charm and the unassuming design and the even more unassuming PM offices and Cabinet offices are much more to human scale; although the old PM offices do seem a bit like a seedy television studio from the 60s.
The new parliament building is much more majestic and full of gravitas and just plain modern, apart from the entrance which has a positively bizarre interior design, but as you make your way through, it actually makes you soar with pride at the elevated nature of the work that goes on in the parliament itself.
This can be deceptive though. The Australian parliament is famous for its rough and tumble and occasionally for its just plain rough.
Mark Latham, the one time Labour leader of the opposition justly holds the number one spot with his comments on the Liberal Prime Minister John Howard calling him an “arselicker” and the Liberal Party frontbench a “conga line of suckholes”. He also described U.S. President George W. Bush as “the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory”.
Paul Keating, the former Labour Prime Minister, is not far behind with his comments on John Howard, (poor dear): “What we have got is a dead carcass, swinging in the breeze, but nobody will cut it down to replace him.” He did raise the tone occasionally and was once heard to say: “We will be rejecting the opportunist claptrap coming from the Opposition.”
Australian politics is not all “Biff” and there have been moments of integrity and vision. Ben Chifley, the post war Prime Minister who has become something of a bi-partisan legend made a historic speech called the “Light on the Hill” speech in which he said:
“I try to think of the labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for.”
As for the original inhabitants, the Ngunnawal and Walgalu tribes there is not much sign. The Treasury and the Cabinet offices are not teeming with Aboriginals. However a small indication of raw grass roots politics can be felt at the slightly ramshackle Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside the old parliament building. The area looks like an Alabama red-neck’s back yard filled with strange metal and wooden objects and leftovers of BBQs that all seem to have some strange totemic value lying as they are randomly on a manicured lawn.
Back in 1972, the original Aboriginal Tent Embassy presented a list of demands to Parliament from their new headquarters:
-Control of the Northern Territory as a State within the Commonwealth of Australia; the parliament in the Northern Territory to be predominantly Aboriginal with title and mining rights to all land within the Territory.
-Legal title and mining rights to all other presently existing reserve lands and settlements throughout Australia.
-The preservation of all sacred sites throughout Australia.
-Legal title and mining rights to areas in and around all Australian capital cities.
-Compensation money for lands not returnable to take the form of a down-payment of six billion dollars and an annual percentage of the gross national income.
The demands were rejected, and in July 1972, following an amendment to the relevant ordinance, police moved in, removed the tents, and arrested eight people.
In October 1973, around 70 Aboriginal protesters staged a sit-in on the steps of Parliament House and the Tent Embassy was re-established. The sit-in ended when Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam agreed to meet with protesters.
Today, the Tent Embassy appears to be completely unmanned or manned by an army of shadows that would appear only when you walk into a certain space creating a disturbance. Is seems like a metaphor for the Aboriginals, a non-presence, but with traces and relics of anger, confusion and forlorn hope.
Canberra, like all utopian visions – which as an ideal city must have been lurking in the design at some level – fails to please, as it is not to human scale. Utopian visions are too rigid with a thinly veiled agenda to oblige the local populus to behave in a certain away and to enjoy and utilise the city exclusively in one pre-established way. It may be reassuring on one level but it remains forever inflexible. It stifles organic growth and therefore never works.