Canberra: the post-ceremonial city

A nice processional route, like the avenue of Rams on the way to the temple of Karnak, is handy in a city. Ditto for set pieces, like the piazza framing views of St. Peters in Rome (hi to all of the students who have come with me to that spot to analyze Bernini’s fine tricks with perspective).

But Canberra, my god, is ceremonial space. One wonders where the people might come from to provide all the traffic. Distant slums? Catacombs under Mount Ainslie? You get a better sense in Brasilia of there being people around…

…than you do when surveying the lifeless set-pieces of Canberra. They look like the pyramids and obelisks of some long-lost civilization. But even by those standards, Canberra seems vacant and overblown. I haven’t been to Angkor Wat, but I have been to Teotihuacan in Mexico City. Compared to Canberra, Teotihuacan almost feels cozy.

Some of Canberra’s ceremonial space, like the Anzac Parade (into which you could just about fit the Upper West Side of Manhattan) and the lawns between Parliament House and the lake (itself bigger than just about any city in the whole world before the 1700s) kind of make sense. They’re just over-scaled. The upcoming Anzac Day march to mark the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli will be an interesting test of whether a space of this size can ever be filled. I picture crowds lined 1-deep for half of its length.

But that happens when architects doodle on tiny-scale maps and don’t actually visit the site. They make everything too big by a mile. (An inside tidbit for you all: Walter and Marion didn’t submit their entry to the Canberra design competition expecting to win. Marion was just having fun with her set squares and a nice piece of silk).

Canberra plan shaded WBG 1
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I’ve just led a workshop at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra with real-life, actual Canberrans. I had only ever seen Canberrans in cars, so I wasn’t really sure they existed. But they do. Honest! Like tribal elders converging on a clearing where they meet once a year to plan war or peace, they appeared from the woods early yesterday morning, ready for our bike tour of the lake. Look closely at the next image, and you will see how they appeared to me just before dawn.

By their clean appearance, I could tell they could not live underground or in trees but must be residing in houses of some kind, with bathrooms and laundries. (If you know how or where Canberrans might live, please, avail yourself of the comments facility at the bottom of this post).

Setting out on a 15km ride from the city, I expected I might see some houses at last, or apartment blocks, or cave entries, or even just ladders leading into tree houses, but as far as I can ascertain from looking off to both sides of what I admit are fabulous bike paths, Canberra is comprised of ceremonial space and nothing else.

New Guinea mud men (or whatever they’re called) will tell you why some lands can’t be lived on or eaten from. They will tell you their ancestors are buried there, women go there to menstruate, or that evil spirits are lurking. In the case of Canberra, we are told empty space is by decree of the gods Walter and Marion Griffin, who once doodled some nice patterns on silk and surprised themselves more than anyone that their doodles were built. (True story: I designed a park in Singapore where groups travel each week to meditate because my park has some kind of great energy. I met them and was received as a god. Shit like this happens.)

The story of the building of Canberra is one of the yokel locals thwarting the efforts of those arty progressives, the Griffins, in much the same way conservatives are supposed to have thwarted Jørn Utzon in completing the Opera House. So the fact that Canberra has all of this undeveloped land at the center, plus the most car-centric urban planning of any Australian city, and a population density less than one-third of Houston’s in Texas, is all by decree of the Griffins. To say otherwise marks you as conservative and anti-progressive, in the 1950s sense of each word.

I went for a ride last night from the city center to the Eastern edge of this map along the North edge of the lake:

I saw darkness and rabbits. Were I not a 47-year-old man with no reason to live, I would have been scared. A bike trail is useless as transport infrastructure if it is not heavily used after dark, and this one most certainly isn’t. You can see where I’m heading with this. I’m leaning toward an argument for developing the bejesus out of Canberra’s lake edge.

th 09.10.22 Anzac Parade 1 1
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If anyone else were to say that, you would know they were implying new slip lanes and traffic lights bringing cars from the motorways into new development districts. I am saying that all the infrastructure that will ever be needed is right there in the bike tracks, which may just need to get a little bit wider. All of Canberra’s growth for the next 20 years could be absorbed by apartments flanking the riverfront bike tracks, activating these places at night, thus making the lakeside safe and inviting. The developments could be serviced solely by cargo trikes using bike tracks. They shouldn’t have any car parking at all.

The phrase “National Capital” is frequently intoned down in Canberra to justify the copious green space in a way that would have sounded progressive back in the 50s. But we progressives have progressed in our thinking since then. It chagrins us that our nation’s capital is one of the world’s most energy-intensive cities regarding transport. I find it comical that myths about each patch of lawn near the artificial lake being sacred and kept alive, just so that teachers have something to tell their pupils on excursions to Questacon, have caused this city to develop outward rather than inward. Canberra is only slightly smaller in area than London, but instead of 8 million people, it has 360 thousand. That’s a disgrace!

One of the greatest problems with Canberra’s sprawling is its urban form that imprints attitudes in everyone living there about oil prices, car import duties, school choices, child rearing, shopping habits, working, etc.. Those are not just any old people. They are the policymakers of one of the world’s most affluent nations. I should be grateful that at least they are exposed to quality cycle tracks in the CBD:

Unfortunately, they are also exposed to an obesogenic, environmentally ravaging, and socially alienating pattern of city development. You think Los Angeles has a problem with sprawl: Canberra has one-eighth the number of people per square kilometer. Even Houston is 3 times as dense.

Some people can live in a place and know it is wrong, like a few I met at our workshop. Most people can’t go through. They hold views about urbanism that whatever experience of cities has shaped has been presented to them in the course of growing up or moving to accept a new job. Take this guy, for instance, who believes roads are progress symbols. He doesn’t have a problem with sprawl.

I went to Canberra looking for the kind of post-industrial space that, in other Australian cities, could give bicycle-oriented development some kind of a foothold. And yes, there is some. But after my ride last night, through all of that darkness surrounding the lake, I’m wondering if, in this case, we are not looking at a phenomenon yet to be named: the post-ceremonial city.

My sincerest thanks to Angelina Russo, The University of Canberra, Daniel Oakman, The National Museum of Australia, Meredith Trinko, and the diverse Stella cast of Canberrans who came to the workshop. Actually, I think everyone I mentioned just then is Canberrans. Do you live in this tower?

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