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Why does Canberra look like it does?

Updated: May 4, 2022

A history of planning in Canberra

This is Part 1 of 2. All of the material in Part 1 is sourced from Paul Reid - Canberra following Griffin: a design history of Australia’s national capital – first published 2002 by National Archives of Australia.

CHOOSING THE SITE FOR THE NEW CAPITAL CITY Following the decision to site the Federal Capital in the Yass-Canberra District, by a vote of the Federal Parliament on 8 October 1908, Charles Scrivener, Commonwealth Surveyor General, was instructed to select a federal territory of not less than 900 square miles. The site was to provide for: a beautiful city, occupying a commanding position, with extensive views, and embracing distinctive features.

Scrivener’s initial report of 25 February 1909 identified an area including the Molonglo and Murrumbidgee River valleys and picked a precise location for the city – “in an amphitheatre of hills with an outlook to the north and north-east well sheltered from both southerly and westerly winds” -- on the south side of the Molonglo River and south-east of Kurrajong (now Capital) Hill.

A committee of government officials chaired by David Miller (Secretary, Department of Home Affairs) presented their report on 16 June 1909. The city site was shown straddling the Molonglo River but the report said ‘the greater part of the city area is on the southern side of that area’.

The base map supplied to competitors in the subsequent design competition extended the site to include Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain, with more flat land north of the river than south. Most competitors interpreted this to mean they could put their city on both sides of the river. It was to be a crucial misinterpretation of the Department of Home Affairs’ intentions.

THE INTERNATIONAL TOWN PLANNING CONTEXT John Sulman, a distinguished Australian architect and town planner, provided a paper on the ‘Australian Federal Capital’ to the 1910 Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) conference. He described the city as a ‘garden suburb’, with Parliament House as its chief feature, surrounded with ‘ordered symmetry’ in a plan based on ‘radial lines’ to have the effect of one large park or garden, with fine buildings set therein.

Ebenezer Howard (author of Garden Cities of To-morrow) made the important distinction between ‘garden suburbs’ and ‘garden cities’ (free of slums and enjoying the benefits of both ‘town’ and ‘country’). Raymond Unwin (designer of Letchworth, the first ‘garden city’) pointed out that giving all buildings large spaces around them means spreading the town over an excessively large area… we must develop on the principle of grouping our buildings together in certain parts and leaving adequate open spaces around each group.

THE DESIGN COMPETITION In 1911 an international competition was launched. Competitors were told: The Designs will be submitted to a Board consisting of an engineer, an architect and a licensed surveyor for investigation and report to the Minister…The Minister will adjudicate upon the Designs… This was unacceptable to the Royal Institute of British Architects, which boycotted the competition. The Royal Australian Institute of Architects refused to nominate members to the jury.

Nevertheless the competition proceeded, with the judging criteria still being negotiated up to the closing date for entries on 28 February 1912. It was agreed the jurors should select the best three designs. Conditions of the competition included: ‘The premiated [prize-winning] Designs shall become the property of the Government for its unrestricted use, either in whole or in part’ and ‘The Government by its own officers will give effect to the adopted Design’.

137 designs were received. The jury took 12 weeks and provided a split decision. Two jurors nominated first: Walter Burley Griffin of Chicago; second: Eliel Saarinen of Helsinki; third: Alfred Agache of Paris. Those jurors were looking for ‘geometric order’ while the minority juror favoured ‘compactness’. The Minister, King O’Malley, accepted the majority report and cabled Griffin: ‘Your design awarded first premium’ in May 1912.

THE GRIFFIN DESIGN The Griffins’ design reflected Raymond Unwin’s position but was strongly influenced by Daniel Burnham’s work on Washington and Chicago, and the City Beautiful movement. Walter Burley Griffin, together with his wife Marion Mahony, also worked with Frank Lloyd Wright who created the concept of Organic Architecture, in which buildings should appear to grow easily from their site and each part should conform to the pattern of the whole of a design. The genius of the Griffins was that they were able to apply the principle of Organic Architecture to a whole city.

Walter was an organiser who loved putting things in categories. In this project he created an Order of the Site (the natural environment) and an Order of Functions (the needs of the people). Marion created the geometry that integrated the two orders. The result is the Organic City: a synthesis of function and design where the Orders are perfectly integrated by a specific geometry.

The meaning of the composition is eloquently described by Griffin scholar and landscape architect James Weirick: Across the broad valley of the Molonglo, Griffin inscribed a great triangle aligned on the mountains which rose above the site. The triangle was defined by tree-lined avenues and spanned the central basin of an impounded lake. For the base of the triangle, Griffin envisaged a continuous zone of activity – a commercial terrace which would be the premium address of the nation, backed by the premier shopping street and a residential district of courtyard apartments. The commercial terrace would overlook the central park of the city, which would reach down to the northern shore of the lake. Various public institutions would be sited within this park…The park and the street, freedom and enterprise, would form the base of the triangle. Looking across the lake to the Government Centre, the completion of the triangle…would express in compelling physical form the will of the People.

AFTER THE 1912 DESIGN COMPETITION The Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, David Miller, advised O’Malley to appoint a Departmental Board to consider eight ‘premiated’ Designs and prepare a plan which would be more suited to the local conditions and less expensive to execute. O’Malley agreed to the Board but instructed that it only consider the three prize winning designs and one other, which was favoured by the Department and had been purchased by the Government. That scheme located most of the city south of the river.

On 25 November 1912 the Board recommended approval of a new plan it had prepared itself. The Board’s plan was an amalgam of several of the designs but located the whole nucleus of the city south of the river. Apart from the hospital, to be on Acton Peninsula, development north of the river could be postponed indefinitely. The only part of the Griffin plan retained was the site for the ‘Capitol’ on Kurrajong, and the land axis from it to Mount Ainslie.

O’Malley approved the Board’s plan and tabled its report in Parliament. When the distorted hybrid design was made public there was predictable outrage from around the world, but the Government was unmoved. Work on Canberra proceeded according to the Board’s plan, with the naming of the capital and laying the foundation stone on 12 March 1913. Construction commenced for the first two permanent buildings, the powerhouse south of the river and the hospital at Acton.

CHANGE OF PLAN In May 1913 the Labor government was defeated and the Liberal Party took office. New Minister William Kelly took control of the Federal Capital Territory and immediately invited Griffin to come to Australia and discuss his Design with the Board. After meeting Griffin and the Board in August 1913 Kelly instructed Griffin to prepare new drawings.

For six weeks Griffin talked with the Board and tinkered with his design. With the assistance of one man he prepared a new plan and a revised report – the ‘Report Explanatory’. One significant change he made was to add an ‘Initial City‘ in the position the Board wanted – what is now Manuka centre.

GRIFFIN TAKES OVER (OR DOES HE?) On 18 October 1913 Kelly dismissed the Board and appointed Griffin as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction. Griffin could however do nothing without the support of the Department which had publicly rejected his designs. Kelly never did clarify the working arrangements.

In July 1914 the Governor-General dissolved both Houses of Parliament. The ALP regained government, with William Archibald appointed Minister for Home Affairs. Miller persuaded Archibald that Griffin and his plan had to go. But then there was a Cabinet reshuffle under Billy Hughes and King O’Malley was appointed Minister for Home Affairs. He confirmed and extended Griffin’s appointment and Miller moved to the Department of Defence.

Griffin produced various plans including a completely revised layout in 1918, which became the official plan for the capital. But by the time his contract ended in 1920 there was little to show for his seven years of effort.

THE FEDERAL CAPITAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE (FCAC) In January 1921 the government created the FCAC, to review the Griffin plan and to advise on the construction of Canberra. John Sulman was appointed chairman and from the beginning he acted to support the Department against Griffin. Sulman asked the Minister to put aside Griffin’s design and reinstate that of the Board. The FCAC proposed the development of the city should be in three stages. The first would be the establishment of Parliament at Canberra together with necessary administrative departments. The second would be The removal of the central administrations of other Departments to the seat of Government [Canberra], additional railway connection, and execution of some permanent architectural and engineering works. The third would be the progressive realisation of permanent and monumental works, ornamental waters etc. Most of Griffin’s proposed development north of the river and the lake itself would be deferred indefinitely.

O’Malley said he could not depart from Griffin’s intention to start work around the Civic Centre.

The Departmental officers had always wanted a residential community complete with a commercial centre and railway station close to Camp Hill. The only way to achieve this within the guidelines set for the FCAC was to build two towns, one on Griffin’s northern side and one on the Board’s site south of the river. This they did, but they blamed Griffin for this and said wrongly that his ‘principle is the segregation of a certain class of the population upon one side of the Molonglo River, and another type of citizen on the other. In fact this was an invention of the FCAC, which allocated the north side to ‘workers’ and the south side to ‘officials’. All the private schools, and three-quarters of the church sites identified by the FCAC, were on the south side.

Following the first land auction in December 1924, shops were built at Manuka and Kingston to serve the ‘officials’ settlement’. The first and only cinema at Manuka added to the attraction of the southern town. Telopea school, the powerhouse, government printer and railway station consolidated this first settlement south of the river.

On the north side, at Griffin’s centre, progress on a town for the ‘workers’ was slow. Sulman produced a prototypical design for the shopping centre blocks with colonnades rather than verandahs. The Melbourne and Sydney Buildings were eventually constructed to this design, either side of Northbourne Avenue, rather than on Griffin’s Municipal Axis (Constitution Avenue).

Griffin had designed his avenues as boulevards flanked by commercial and residential terraces. The continuity of Griffin’s terraces reinforced the line of the avenue allowing the emphasis to occur at terminals on the hills. The FCAC destroyed the possibility of continuity by adopting Sulman’s position that every important building should be isolated (in landscaped settings). Ultimately this resulted in a very loose suburban spread, which later residents found so inconvenient.

The FCAC was abolished in 1924 and a new body, the Federal Capital Commission (FCC), was formed with the intention of accelerating action on the federal capital.

THE FEDERAL CAPITAL COMMISSION (FCC) The FCC was established on 1 January 1925. Its role was to construct and administer Canberra, with wide powers over construction and development and good funding. To ensure it followed the Griffin plan a version of his 1918 plan was gazetted in 1925. This was only a street layout plan with no indication of land uses or buildings and it was subject to amendment, in practice whenever required by the FCC.

A FCC annual report indicated it was undertaking ‘general planning of Canberra as a Garden City’. It was in fact ignoring Griffin’s development intentions or indeed Ebenezer Howard’s concept of a Garden City, ie. combining the best features of Town and Country. Canberra developed into a low density garden suburb – it was all Country and no Town. Poor transport, isolation and lack of amenities were attributed to failure by the FCAC, who in turn blamed Griffin.

The national capital was opened for business on 9 May 1927 with a ceremony in the Senate Chamber of the Provisional Parliament House. As more people came to live in Canberra the FCC’s construction-led administrative style became unpopular with residents and it was abolished under the Scullin Labor government in 1930, after only five years of operations. Canberra reverted to Departmental administration with a locally elected Advisory Committee.

THE DEPRESSION, WORLD WAR II AND POST-WAR RECOVERY There was little investment in or enthusiasm for the capital city from 1930 until 1955, when evidence was given to a Senate inquiry revealing the absence of effective planning and departures from Griffin’s plan over this period. Lack of government support and funds was a major cause, but ignorance of Griffin’s design for Canberra was endemic. A British architect described Canberra as a ‘plan without a city’.

A National Capital Planning and Development Committee had been set up in 1938, but it generally continued the lack of understanding and application of the principles of the Griffin plan. It was seen to have achieved very little, because planning control was haphazard and fragmented between different departments.

In May 1949 Canberra’s first Town Planner, Trevor Gibson, was appointed, initially with the Department of Works, then with Interior. Gibson analysed the scattered development of Canberra and decided the Griffin plan was too rigid.

Gibson started the process (which the National Capital Development Commission continued) of converting Griffin’s avenues from concentrations of urban activity into through traffic corridors. The development pattern was turned inside out. Traffic engineers, with their precise calculations of escalating traffic flows and the road space to accommodate them came to dominate town planning for the next 25 years. Canberra was particularly vulnerable. Where previous departures from Griffin had been opportunistic, Gibson began a systematic process of transforming the gazetted plan.

Griffin proposed a medium-density urban city in which terraces of residential and commercial development, rising to four or five storeys, were concentrated along his straight avenues. Intensity of activity and movement supported the geometric structure of the city integrated with its topography. In the hinterland, between avenues, local community facilities could have seclusion.

Gibson, in his attempt to deal with the disruptive influence of increasing numbers of motor cars, turned Griffin’s pattern inside out. Applying solutions developed by Le Corbusier and the Modernists, the avenues were used for through traffic, carving corridors between inward-looking neighbourhoods. Instead of urban continuity intensifying along the avenues with major concentrations at star centres, Gibson’s road system treated Griffin’s star centres as traffic interchanges and cut Griffin’s city into separate pieces.

Gibson’s work provided the planning rationale for the settlement pattern of modern Canberra that replaced Griffin’s Organic City. A traffic network formed the frame for a series of garden suburbs designed as self-contained neighbourhoods. This low density, heavily landscaped environment was what Australians called a ‘garden city’, thus concealing the degree of departure from Griffin’s continuous urban terraces.

THE 1955 SENATE COMMITTEE The Senate Select Committee on the Development of Canberra tabled its report in September 1955. The report paints a picture of neglect and disorganisation. There had been no effective Government commitment to the necessary planning and development work in Canberra and no organisation capable of carrying it out. The Committee took considerable care in tracing changes already made to Griffin’s original design and giving its opinion as to which changes were for the better and which were to be regretted.

The Committee was informed by the evidence of Peter Harrison, who was a senior lecturer in town planning at Sydney University and represented the Town Planning Institute at the Inquiry. He was both a modern town planner and a Griffin scholar. The Committee relied heavily on Harrison’s view of the principles of Griffin’s design. It became the officially accepted definition for the next 20 years, the period in which the form of the modern city was determined. Harrison said: The design of the Capital as Griffin conceived it was based on the major axis from Capital Hill to Mount Ainslie bisecting a triangle formed by Commonwealth, King’s and Constitution Avenues containing the formal water features of Molonglo Basin. This is the central theme which placed the Griffin Plan above all others, the grand idea without which the Plan of Canberra has no meaning.

Unfortunately, as Paul Reid said: “The Senate Committee and all subsequent planners have accepted Harrison’s definition of the Griffin principles: a triangle of roads and the Land Axis. Everything else – the hierarchy of uses, the careful distinction between Federal, Municipal, Domestic and other functions, the use of key sites for key buildings, the use of architecture to define the city and decorate the landforms, the settlement patterns, the transport and service systems, the Causeway that was to carry through traffic clear of the Government Centre, the extending geometric net of roads, the precise geometry of the water basins – was treated as expendable. It threw away the picture and kept the frame.”

Copyright © National Archives of Australia, reproduced with permission from NAA



By Richard Johnston

B.Architecture, Dip. T&C Planning, Dip. Environ. Studies, Life Fellow, Planning Institute of Australia


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