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Walter Burley Griffin’s Canberra and his Tramway. The Ideal City of the Future? (Part One of Three)

Dr Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey

Honorary Professor, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific

Professor emerita, Otsuma Women’s University, Tokyo

After winning the competition for the design of Australia’s capital city in July 1912, Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) declared:

“I have planned a city not like any other city in the world. … I have planned the ideal city – a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future.”[1]

One hundred and ten years have passed since Walter Burley Griffin made this statement. His original plan underwent changes even before he arrived in Canberra and variations have continued ever since. Yet the essence of his unprecedented urban design of Australia’s capital has been maintained for a century: topographical features defining the lay-out of a decentralized city where government buildings are placed in a parkland setting with iconic vistas across the lake, and good-sized plots for single dwellings grouped in suburbs separated by shrubs and trees.

As the Bush Capital, Canberra’s low-density lay-out with its emphasis on nature has received high praise, but also been criticized for lacking a metropolitan centre. A steady population increase has validated the desirability of living in the decentralized capital, but has also brought change with high-rise, high density areas increasing. As Canberra’s population is heading for the half million mark and is even mooted to double in the next 40 years, it is time to recall why Griffin planned Canberra the way he did and discuss which features of his design should be abandoned and which should be kept or reinstated. Should we finally be building the net of tramways he envisaged and extend the present line to Woden? Should the ACT’s government’s projected 70% housing infill occupy the area along the tram lines? Or should Griffin’s plans for low-density housing in a park-like atmosphere be respected? As we are facing the effects of climate change with rising temperatures, fires, storms and floods, is Griffin’s design of 1912 still relevant to the future?

The answers to these questions will not only shape the lives of the present residents of Canberra, but also those of generations to come. Since they will define the Australian capital, they are of relevance to the whole nation. With the tram projected to pass through the parliamentary triangle, they require the approval of the Federal Government. This paper hopes to provide background information for this weighty decision. 1. Becoming a Landscape Architect.

Griffin grew up in an age where the worst aspects of the industrial revolution, such as pollution and disease produced by cramped, unsanitary housing for workers appeared in rapidly growing cities. This produced movements around the world advocating planned cities with an abundance of green space for healthy living. New York’s Central Park of nearly 3.5 sq. km designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1858 was an early manifestation of the City Parks Movement, providing a green oasis for rich and poor as an escape from unhealthy urban density and pollution. The City Beautiful Movement found its prototype in the design of Washington by Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825). Here buildings of national importance are given monumental treatment and combined for grand vistas in the baroque style of imperial architecture.[2] The Garden City Movement, on the other hand, strove to move workers out of the city into new satellite towns where houses surrounded by ample green space such as parks, tree-lined avenues and gardens promote healthy living. Cadbury’s Bournville Village built for its workers outside Birmingham, UK, provides a well-known example.[3]

As Western architects were exploring new ways of housing and city design, traditional Japanese concepts of living in harmony with nature appeared on the world stage. In 1873, at the world exposition in Vienna, the new Japanese imperial government, participating for the first time in an overseas exposition, turned an area of over 4,000 sqm into a wonderland for European visitors, including a traditional Japanese garden complete with lake, cascading waterfall, arched bridge, stone lanterns and small hills planted with miniature trees symbolizing a larger landscape. Carefully placed into this presentation of Japanese nature were a Shinto shrine, a pavilion for classical Japanese music and two traditional long wooden buildings where everything displayed including the Japanese garden with pebbles, rocks and all were sold at great speed. [4]

Inspired by the success in Vienna, the Japanese government’s display at the 1893 Columbian exhibition in Chicago was even more ambitious. This time the Phoenix Hall (Hōōdō) and gardens of the Byōdō-in temple at Uji, constructed at the end of the 10th century by a court noble to visualize life in paradise, was re-created. The building with its flat, winged roof was reflected serenely in the surface of a small lake. For the fair, marshland was turned into a lagoon with a wooded island on which the Japanese temple stood. It became one of the most popular attractions of the fair.[5]

At the time of the Chicago exposition, Walter Burley Griffin was a 17-year-old high school student with a strong interest in town planning and nature. He grew up at Oak Park, described as “one of Chicago’s suburban fringe villages” where giant oaks lined broad avenues bordered by lawns without fences.[6] It was an environment of low-density suburban living, connected to down-town Chicago by railway, much in tune with his later design for Canberra. On a fly leaf of a schoolbook, he had already worked out a scheme for town planning which his wife maintained was later incorporated in his plan for Canberra. Reminiscent of his design for Canberra is also that with his love for nature, he persuaded his parents to plant so many local trees around the house that it became known as ‘The Jungle.’[7]

Griffin was a frequent visitor and much inspired by the exposition’s serene lagoon setting and the island where the Japanese temple was providing respite from the hectic bustle of the exposition. He became convinced that close contact with nature was essential for psychological and social well-being, and architecture mirrored in water and surrounded by trees became a hallmark of his design.[8] Apparently, it was the Chicago exposition that persuaded the high-school student to choose a career that combined architecture and landscape design.[9] Griffin confirmed this when soon after his arrival in Australia he said that “the Chicago Exhibition gave me my first lesson in town planning”.[10]

2. Frank Lloyd Wright, the Griffins and Japan.

Another frequent visitor to the Japanese exhibit of the fair – who not only resided in the garden suburb of Oak Park but also moved his office there - was the young architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) for whom Griffin worked early in his career. Wright would never admit Japanese influence on his work, merely affirming that Japanese design was in tune with his own inclination.[11] Be that as it may, in Japan his ability to combine the demands of Japanese aesthetics with Western building techniques brought him, among others, the important commission to design the Imperial Hotel in the heart of Tokyo. Having arrived in Tokyo in the late 1960’s, I spent many a Sunday afternoon with friends in the famous coffee shop located in one of the arms of the U-shaped building where in spring the cherry blossoms seemed to envelop the restaurant. For us, this was an environment only to be experienced in Japan, and only later did we realize that the building was designed by an American. Wright did admit, however, the influence of the Japanese woodblock print on his work, and it has been suggested that this influence was as profound as it was on the impressionists, such as Vincent van Gogh who reproduced Japanese prints in oil. [12]

Similarly enthusiastic about Japanese aesthetics and design was the architect and artist Marion Mahony (1871-1961) who produced Wright’s drawings and later married Griffin. On one of her drawings of Wright’s architecture of 1906, the latter wrote “Drawn by Mahony after FLLW [Frank Lloyd Wright] and Hiroshige”. This not only expressed Wright’s thoughts that the style of the famous Japanese printmaker well suited his designs, but also that Mahony had perfectly absorbed it in her work.[13]

Reminiscing in 1940 on the influence of Japanese prints on her colleagues, Mahony observed: “They all began to collect prints – and notice in the architectural ones the essential formula for a modern occidental architecture: the sympathetic affinity of the Japanese house to immense quantities of light and air … The influence was positive but subconscious.”[14]

One of those who collected Japanese prints was the man she met in Wright’s office and married in 1911, Walter Burley Griffin. During Wright’s first stay in Japan in 1905, Griffin was left in charge of the office. On Wright’s return from Japan there was a dispute about Griffin’s pay, and the latter decided to accept Japanese prints instead of cash.

As Mahony observed, the influence of Japanese design contained in these prints was subconscious. Hence it could be denied by Wright and finds no direct expression by Griffin. However, when in his plan for a Chicago suburb Griffin suggests that light fixtures should become “appropriate garden elements, a possibility exemplified in the stone lanterns of Japan” it becomes evident that the scenes of his Japanese woodblock prints were at the back of his mind and had become a reference for his design.[15]

3. The Prairie School and the Design of Canberra

As Chicago grew from a town of three hundred thousand people when Griffin was born to a metropole of over two million by the time he designed his plan for Canberra a mere thirty-five years later, new ideas for architecture and town planning breaking away from tradition and creating an innovative cityscape were much in demand. Like elsewhere in the world, a reaction to rapid industrialization and high-density living was a return to nature. In Chicago this produced what came to be known as the Prairie or Chicago School of which Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the chief exponents and to which also W.B. Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin belonged.[16]

An important feature was - very different from traditional European architecture – the low shape of the houses. Wright explained: “To Europeans these buildings on paper seem uninhabitable; but they derive height and air by quite others means, and respect an ancient tradition, the only one here worthy of respect, - the prairie.“ The prairie, these were the gently rolling or level plains of the American Middle West where in Wright’s eyes “The natural tendency of every ill-considered thing is to detach itself and stick out like a sore thumb in surroundings by nature perfectly quiet” and “more intimate relations with out-door environment sought to compensate for loss of height.”[17] Anyone familiar with the work of the Japanese print maker Hiroshige – whose style Wright suggested was influencing Mahony sketching his architecture – cannot ignore the basic similarities of the prairie houses with the farm houses on the Japanese prints.

Griffin’s prairie houses, similarly low and inconspicuous, nestling in the contours of the land, can still be seen in Sydney’s suburb of Castlecrag. When in 1920 his post of Federal Capital Director of Design of Canberra was abolished, Griffin with partners purchased land to design his own suburb overlooking Sydney’s Middle Harbour.[18] Prospective buyers of plots he warned that the conventional steep roof pitch was not acceptable, for elsewhere “the natural scenic beauty has disappeared under a crust of red roofs and behind a grid of paling fences.”[19] Conditions on the sale of land also included that only one main building be erected on each plot, and that the plans for construction were approved by him. The same applied to the erection of fences.[20] In Castlecrag, Griffin could turn into reality what he was visualizing for Canberra. Fortunately, the ideal of the garden city with single houses on good-sized garden plots, and nature strips with pedestrian paths and not fences separating them from the road to create a park-like atmosphere found the support of John Sulman (1849-1934) who was appointed Chairman of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee in 1921, though ironically, he was fiercely critical of other aspects of Griffin’s plan.

Sulman was an English architect and member of the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects. In 1882 he contracted typhoid in Naples and two years later his wife showed signs of tuberculosis. In 1885 he sold his flourishing practice in Kent, UK, and migrated to Australia with his family. Having become a respected architect and town planner in Australia, he outlined his vision for the country’s new capital in an article of 1909. Dwelling on the need for wide spaces suggests that his move to Australia might well have been motivated by his search for a less densely populated country where contagious diseases like those that afflicted himself and his wife, were less easily transmitted. He wrote:

The closely-packed miles of streets of the older cities are no longer regarded as inevitable … In a new city such as we are contemplating, where there is no lack of land obtainable at agricultural or grazing values, it would therefore be a sin to permit of the old conditions being repeated … In no case should (public and semi-public) buildings be crowded, and they should all be surrounded by grass and trees and shrubs. [21]

Further down he suggested:

As I propose that the Parliament House and all the Government Buildings surrounding it should be set each in their own ample reserve of garden ground … the space between structure and structure will be so ample that it will have the effect of one large park or garden, with fine buildings set therein. [22]

The original article appeared in The Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects of 1909 with a slightly altered version published in The Transactions, Royal Institute of British Architects, Town Planning Conference, London, 10-15, of 1911.There can be little doubt that at least the earlier version of the article in the prestigious British journal would have been available to Griffin by the time the competition for the Australian capital was announced early in 1911. The vision for the new capital of the renowned Australian architect being so close to his own must have encouraged Griffin and his wife Mahony to lavish considerable time and effort on the proposal for a capital half-way around the globe. It casts doubt on Griffin’s statement that he had not had high hopes for success since he planned Canberra according to his ideals and “not in a way that I expected any government authorities would accept.”[23]

Thus, it might well be thanks to Sulman’s vision of the new capital that Canberra was given the shape it has today, for it encouraged Griffin to do what nobody had done before, namely to apply the underlying principles of the Prairie School to the lay-out of a whole city. Griffin’s design of Canberra is in perfect harmony with the natural environment, using the surrounding elevations to guide the eye to the centre, namely the lake. He saw the site for the capital “as an amphitheatre with [Mount] Ainslie at the north, in the rear, flanked by Black Mountain and Mount Pleasant, all together forming the top gallery, with the slopes to the water, the auditorium, with the waterway and flood basin, the arena.”[24]

Canberra is often criticized for not having a centre. Griffin did not intend his city of have just one centre. He specified:

“The central district of the city will contain three centres – centre devoted to government buildings, the municipal centre, and the mercantric (sic) centre. The outlying district will contain five additional centres. Three of these will be agricultural centres, one a manufacturing centre, and another a suburban residence centre.”[25]

Planned cities have the advantage of avoiding the ad hoc jumble of unplanned thoroughfares and buildings crowding around a constantly expanding central area as the city grows. Griffin strove for what he saw as an orderly and more democratic lay-out where there were several centres each with its own function. With plenty of space between them, they can be expanded in well-ordered fashion as the need arises. Griffin wanted these centres connected by up to 60 m wide, elegant avenues, lined by many rows of trees, separating different types of traffic and pedestrians. They were to be bordered by verges or nature strips, placing the buildings along these avenues into a continuous park-like setting without fences.[26]

4. Walter Burley Griffin’s “model streetcar city.”

The terms for the competition specified the inclusion of tramways, and Griffin’s design has been called “a model streetcar city”.[27] The new capital was to be covered with a net of trams running along his straight, wide, tree-lined avenues with the aim that 90% of the population would live within 500 metres of a stop. Townhouses and shops were to line these avenues

“for trade must be where the people are … Business, necessarily attracted by easiest accessibility will tend to align itself on the most direct of the avenues connecting the local centres … Modern and prospective means of street transportation in the tramway and fast vehicular traffic … mean a very different and far more lineal distribution of ordinary retail trade than where a walking range has been the determining influence”

Griffin asserted in 1913.[28] Why did these tram lines along avenues with townhouses, shops and restaurants like we find in other cities never materialize in Canberra?

There is one flaw or oversight in Griffin’s plan for Canberra. That is the cost of his design. Basic to his plan of a large expanse of water in the middle of the city, his wide parkways with up to four rows of trees and houses in a parkland setting is a low population density and hence a low tax base to finance his network of trams to which most residents would have access within 500 meters from home. His design was “intended to provide for an immediate population of 75,000”, three times the number of 25,000 specified in the conditions of the competition.[29] Griffin might have imagined that the Australian government would lavish funds to create the most beautiful city in the world. But neither the population nor ample government funds were forthcoming.

The assumption that business would “align itself on the most direct of the avenues connecting the local centres” would have been true for Chicago with its inner-city population of nearly 2.2 million in 1910. But then Chicago was an overcrowded, unhealthy city. Griffin’s aim was neatly summarized in a 1913 journal article reporting that his objective was “the provision of fresh air and sunlight; comfortable homes, amid healthy surroundings and ample spaces for recreation, so that our city dwellers may acquire some of the advantages of a country life and city children no longer be permitted to grow weedy, stunted and deformed.”[30] One hundred years later most people would agree that Griffin’s aspirations were achieved. However, the question of how low-density housing, a pre-requisite for this plan, would finance an extensive network of trams, has still not been answered, with the borrowings necessary to finance the extension of the tram remaining a highly contentious issue.[31] But not just finance, also social and technological developments which Griffin could not have foreseen, sabotaged his plans and made his network of tramways obsolete.

On March 6, 1963, Prime Minister Robert Menzies opened the Monaro Mall in Civic, Australia’s first three-storey, fully enclosed, air-conditioned shopping centre. It was the year in which Kings and Commonwealth Avenue were completed and the next year the lake was starting to fill in.[32] Canberra’s population spread on either side of the prospective lake had not even reached 70,000, still too small to populate these straight long avenues of Griffin’s design and to warrant the considerable expense of laying the infrastructure for and operating a tram. Once the American invention of fully enclosed, temperature-controlled shopping malls with the convenience of multiple shops, restaurants and rest rooms all under one roof was introduced, avenues lined with shops as they had been established in other cities prior to the advent of shopping malls were unlikely to attract customers, especially with Canberra’s cold winters and hot summers.

Further, Griffin could not foresee that car ownership would come within the financial reach of most Canberran families before the city’s population density made the establishment and operation of a tramway viable. In 1962, the capital’s population had grown to some 62,000 people, who owned a total of 19,801 cars, including station wagons and utilities. This amounted to one car per three people. With a good part of the population being children, and couples then mostly sharing vehicles, it meant that the greater part of the adult population had the use of a car.

Moreover, with more women caring for children entering the workforce, cars have become increasingly essential, especially for families where both parents are working. Children need to be ferried to kindergartens, schools and a variety of extracurricular activities before and after school. By 1964 an estimated 94% of Australian homes had a refrigerator.[33] Since then households have increasingly been buying food in bulk at supermarkets in large shopping centres, for which a car is essential.

In 1963 the first houses were built in Hughes marking the beginning of the Woden Town Centre with its own shopping mall and offices, further dispersing Canberra’s growing population. As other town centres followed with increasingly large shopping malls, Griffin’s plan of busy shops and restaurants lining wide, tree-shaded avenues supporting the operation of a frequently stopping tram became obsolete.

Moreover, there are environmental factors which makes a decentralized city like Canberra unsuitable for a tram, or light rail as it is called now. For the tram needs the protection of multi-storey houses on either side of the line to shield its overhead wires during storms. Griffin’s love of trees had him place the tramway between rows of them. This looks idyllic, but any branch falling on the overhead wires, or the rails, will stop the whole line until repairs are completed, for no other tram can pass. So will, of course, an electric black-out. Buses can drive around obstacles and can charge their batteries elsewhere when there is an outage in one part of town.[34]

Important for a decentralized city like Canberra is also that buses can provide rapid service between town centres after having picked up passengers at multiple stops. Fixed rails prevent fast services of a tramline, since overtaking a slower multi-stop train is not possible, unless the massive expense of doubling the number of rails and sacrificing a large part of the road is undertaken. Moreover, to save on construction costs and permit vehicle traffic to turn left without crossing rail lines, the tram runs in the middle of roads. That means, passengers must cross the road, with traffic lights required at every tram stop. When the road uses an overpass, like for instance Canberra’s Adelaide Avenue crossing Hopetown Circuit, passengers must be ferried by lifts or elevators to the tram stop. Buses need no more than an extra space the size of its carriage at the side of the road to provide a safe stop for passengers without obstructing traffic.

In Griffin’s age, traffic was slow. Now trams can run at some 70 km/hour, but quickly braking at this speed is a problem. The tram’s popularity from its inception at the end of the 19th century was built on providing a smooth ride on bumpy roads by means of its steel wheels running on steel rails. The lack of friction prevents trams from braking as quickly as cars with rubber tyres. The same applies to trains and for this reason train tracks are fenced. The danger occurs when trams, vehicles and pedestrians share the same crossings. As the speed of trams increases, so are near-misses and life-threatening accidents.[35]

All the above facts are readily observable, and one can expect that even non-experts, like our politicians, understand that tramways are unsuitable for a decentralized city like Canberra.




Footnotes: [1] Walter Burley Griffin, “Australia’s Federal City Planner Tells the Story of His Design”, Building, Vol. 5 No. 59, 12.7.1912, p. 43. The author would like to thank the staff of the ACT Heritage Library for their assistance obtaining the material for this article, and Tony Hogg, Brisbane, for his comments. [2] Australia. National Capital Authority, The Griffin Legacy, Canberra the Nation’s Capital in the 21st Century, 2004, pp. 36-37. [3] For details see Bournville Housing, A Description of the Housing Schemes of the Cadbury Brothers Ltd. and the Bournville Village Trust, Bourneville Works, 1922. Republished 2013. [4] Julia Krejsa, Peter Panzer, Japanisches Wien, Vienna, 1989, pp.26-30. [5] Alasdair McGregor, Grand Obsessions, The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, Penguin, 2009, p. 45. [6] McGregor, Grand Obsessions, p. 23. [7] James Birrell, Walter Burley Griffin, University of Queensland Press, 1964, p. 11. [8] The Griffin Legacy, p. 38 [9] James Weirick, “Walter Burley Griffin, Landscape Architect: The Ideas he Brought to Australia”, Landscape Australia, 3 (1988), p. 243 as cited in John W. Reps, Canberra 1912, Plans and Planners of the Australian Capital Competition, Melbourne U. Press, 1997, pp. 309, 468, fn. 87. [10] G.A. Taylor, Town Planning for Australia, Sydney, Building Limited, 1914, p. 35 as cited in John W. Reps, Canberra 1912, p. 468, fn. 87. [11] McGregor, Grand Obsessions, pp. 45-46. [12] McGregor, Grand Obsessions, p. 46. Siegfried Wichmann, Japonismus: Ostasien-Europa Begegnungen in der Kunst des 19. Und 20. Jahrhunderts, Herrsching, 1980, p. 41. [13] McGregor, Grand Obsessions, p. 48. [14] Grant Carpenter Manson, interview with Marion Mahony Griffin, January 1940, Manson papers, Oak Park Public Library, cited by McGregor, Grand Obsessions, p. 47. [15] Western Architect (Chicago), XX, No. 8 (August 1913, p. 70 as cited by Birrell, Water Burley Griffin, p. 60. [16] The Griffin Legacy, p. 33. [17] Frank Lloyd Wright, Drawings and Plans of Frank Lloyd Wright, The Early Period (1893-1909), unnumbered page. [18] C.R. Bradish, “Prominent Personalities Walter Burley Griffin, Table Talk, 30.12.1926, p. 11, 30 Dec 1926 - Prominent Personalities WALTER BURLEY GRIFFIN - Trove ( Consulted May 2022. Peter Harrison, Walter Burley Griffin Landscape Architect, National Library of Australia, 1995, p. 77 has 640 acres. [19] Harrison, p. 80. Quotation, p. 80, citing Griffin. [20] Harrison, p. 79. [21] John Sulman, “The Federal Capital”, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 28 August 1909, p. 682, cited in Paul Reid, p. 29. [22] Sulman, 1909, p. 684, cited in Paul Reid, p. 29. [23] Walter Burley Griffin, “Australia’s Federal City Planner Tells the Story of His Design”, Building, Vol. 5 No. 59, 12.7.1912, p. 43. [24] Walter Burley Griffin, Building, 12 December 1913, cited in The Griffin Legacy, p. 14. [25] Walter Burley Griffin, “Australia’s Federal City Planner Tells the Story of His Design”, Building, 12.7.1912, p. 43. [26] The Griffin Legacy, pp. 66-68. For Griffin and the concept of democratic architecture and city planning see pp. 28-30. [27] The Griffin Legacy, p. 74. [28] The Griffin Legacy, p. 74. [29] “Australia’s Federal City Planner Tells the Story of His Design”, p. 42. John W. Reps, p. 69. [30] Progress, 1913, as cited in The Griffin Legacy, p. 40. [31] For the large deficit the ACT has accumulated see John Stanhope and Khalid Ahmed, Insolvency haunts debt-heavy ACT government | Canberra CityNews. Consulted June 2022. [32] The Griffin Legacy, p. 106. [33] Australian food history timeline-first domestic refrigerator ( Consulted May 2022. [34] For details see my PowerPoint presentation on this subject at Intro and Beatrice Bodart-Bailey Canberra Light rail history - YouTube. [35] A pedestrian was seriously injured after being hit by a tram on Northbourne Avenue near Ipima Street | The Canberra Times | Canberra, ACT. Consulted July 2022.


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