It was at the end of year twelve that I first announced my intention to live in Canberra for the duration of my degree. I was interested in politics and philosophy (though, like most university students, ended up changing my major altogether), and Canberra had all the relevant institutions to make moving seem like a good idea. I’ve never stopped having to explain this decision. Why would you move to Canberra?, people constantly asked. There were a few stock responses to my move among my friends, family and vague acquaintances. It’s boring there was the first; It’s cold there and I always get lost there (and not in a whimsical way) soon followed. Surely, after having lived in Canberra for four years, I would have something more interesting and less stereotypical to say about it than stock material that everyone says. But in a way, the critics are right: Canberra is cold and difficult to navigate and departs greatly from the idea of a bustling metropolis.
Part of the reason for this is urban planning – and Canberra has been planned from day one. The city was designed by American architect Walter Burley Griffin. If you’re long-sighted, the relationship between his original vision, which dates back to 1912, and the reality of Canberra is clear. Parliament House envelops a small hill. A road circles around it. A triangle comes out of one side, containing a couple of art galleries, the High Court, the National Library of Australia and Old Parliament House. The south and north are divided by a lake that had been dug out of the ground so that residents could simply have a lake, despite high levels of bacteria therein. There is a line of symmetry between Parliament House and the War Memorial.
The geometric spaces between roads looks aesthetically interesting from above. On the ground, however, it is a maze of curves, and interstate students are told to just walk towards Black Mountain on the likely occurrence that they’ve forgotten where their sleeping quarters are after a long night. Often, in order to get south, you need to drive north before the road curves around. People get lost and rather dizzy. Canberra’s artistic integrity can be a bit of a logistical nightmare.
Historically, there has also been some tension between artistry and politics. Canberra has three mountains: Black Mountain, Mount Ainslie and Red Hill. In his original design, and because the existing vegetation on the mountains was far from thriving, Griffin planned to plant the entirety of each mountain with native flowers of a single colour. This element of the Canberra project was put on hold in time for the outbreak of the First World War, which slowed construction. In 1920, Griffin got into a fight with then prime minister Billy Hughes and was consequently dismissed before the coloured flowers were planted.
Other parts of Griffin’s plans were never realised due to expense or were bitterly fought by public bureaucrats. For instance, Griffin wanted a tram line down Northbourne Avenue, a major artery in Canberra’s geography. What appears there now is a very wide road (three lanes of traffic in each direction) and a very wide embankment in the middle, practically begging for a tram. Griffin also wanted more parks and boulevards, and more commercial terraces and courtyard apartment blocks.
The original design was made with the expectation that the city would expand. Griffin had said, ‘Any arrangement looking forward one hundred years has to be elastic, permitting street improvements and construction to proceed.’ Today, new suburbs have been created, and public spaces and roads continue to be updated.
French philosopher Michel Foucault makes the point that architecture and the way the government might choose to plan urban spaces can be a subtle means of controlling the population. In my first year of university, I took a walk around the lake and later sat with friends to look at the swans. At one stage a swan jumped out of the water, ferociously waddling towards us, and it was difficult to decide if the swan was more intimidating than the buildings surrounding us. We were across the lake from the National Museum, the National Library, the High Court and Parliament House. There, Parliament House perched over us, over the city. Were it not from the reminder given to us by the tent embassy, only some metres away, Parliament’s sovereignty seemed assumed in the landscape.
To me, though, an urban landscape doesn’t merely attempt to cultivate discipline, but also culture. Later that day, I met up with a friend for coffee. We were across the road from my apartment block and in walking distance from a number of perfectly nice cafés. On the way, we passed a statue that reminded me of a yabbie catcher I once made from a stocking and a wire coathanger on a school camp in grade four. Another statue, down the road, was a giant concrete parcel with the word ‘fragile’ on it. Then, arriving in Civic (the Canberra equivalent of a CBD), we were greeted by sheep, busts of Australian poets, and a giant pillow that looks like a goonbag. There were emos hanging out on the goonbag, which they do when they have nothing better to do – and in Canberra, that’s always.
I suspect that urban planners are trying to make vibrant a place that isn’t vibrant. Public art and paving urban spaces in concrete are poor ways of hiding the fact that nobody has created anything spontaneous. After all, there is a specific governing body, the National Capital Authority (NCA), responsible for implementing new public developments and plans (as well organising lake clean-ups). Despite early bureaucratic qualms about the viability of Griffin’s vision, it is ironic that urban planning today attempts to abide by the general vibe of his original design, which encouraged public life and culture. Those wide boulevards that were never realised? If you go into Civic right now, it’s quite likely that your path will be obstructed by metal cages surrounding building sites that intend to extend the pavement.
The NCA’s plan is also updated for modern worries such as sustainability and efficiency. What is happening in Canberra today is the rejuvenation of spaces (such as rundown car parks or former empty sites) with the use of polished concrete, a generous supply of park benches and commissioned street art in the form of statues. They’re meant to be clean, green and social. The problem is that this rejuvenation is top–down. While the NCA asks for public submissions, there is no real sense that the development has any purpose, other than to make Canberra more attractive to visitors, and no real regard to how the space is used (or, more accurately, not used). Civic is a good example of this. There is a large, brick-paved pedestrian mall that spans several blocks and gives the space required for gatherings and public meetings. For most of the day, though, it is desolate. I have hardly ever seen any other ‘rejuvenated’ spaces populated, and indeed, like most of Canberra, they seem to spend most of their time being empty – except for the time when public servants like to eat lunch.
When I first came to Canberra, it was hard to tell where the university campus ended. Canberra has the same sense of sparseness and a similar quantity of trees and greenery, as a university campus. It seems to be immaculately kept – clean (through rundown or a bit out of date in certain places), empty, graffiti-free. You don’t get the impression of a community created by its people, but rather a set of aesthetic principles reflected upon and implemented by a central bureaucracy. Whether that central figure is Walter Burley Griffin, the federal government in the context of funding limitations, or the NCA, it is institutions, not people, who are imprinted on the streets.
The Canberra Times editor-at-large, Jack Waterford, will tell you that Canberra is ‘outward-looking’. Residents care for international news, political analysis. They don’t care a great deal for local trivia. Their home and their interest is not really in a specific locality, but, as global citizens, they are instead of the world. Canberrans don’t have any particular ties to Canberra and don’t really feel that sense of ownership that people get when they are ‘home’. The thing is, most people in Canberra are not really from Canberra – and this is information they will readily divulge. They are visiting for study or work or politics; they may fly in and out often. Though Canberra may be where they find their house and family, as a pivotal place for government and research, they don’t look to Canberra as being anything more than a practical place to be.
So transient is the population of Canberra that I doubt the city would take any interesting form without the presence of urban planning. What spontaneous expressions could arise from a culture in which everyone is concerned with the outside world and is perennially opting to join it? From year to year, even month to month, my friends at uni were never really the same group. People would graduate or get a job and move away, or go on exchanges and travel around. In my third year, for instance, one of my housemates decided that he no longer wanted to do his degree. He was going to take some time off and probably transfer somewhere else. Our original plan was to graduate in the same year, but this idea was itself ephemeral – just a suggestion, an idea to hang over us. It’s hard to commit to a specific future if you live in Canberra.
I lived in Canberra for four years, and it was never my home. I grew to be fond of it and bored of it; I basked in it and liked to explore it. But I never grew attached. The population felt transient and preoccupied with whatever their reason was for being there. Indeed, so few people stay that it’s probably just best to facilitate aesthetics through any means possible, even if it may be inauthentic and supported by statute and excessive amounts of organisation. As a result, it makes perfect sense that the city is planned by a delegated authority, rather than through spontaneous expression, which firstly may hardly exist and secondly could never truly be there.
At some point, I also knew that my time would be up soon enough. This was fine. Canberra is a unique place, but realistically there wasn’t much for me to get attached to – the large range of free museums notwithstanding – that I couldn’t find elsewhere. But Canberra, with its roads that go south then ultimately lead northwards, was never lonely, and only cold in the literal sense. Its population comes and goes, and the city is designed to let them.
This article originally appeared in Voiceworks in the Winter 2012 edition.