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Canberra: A Case of Over-Capitalisation?

When Sydney and Melbourne tossed a coin to decide where to put the capital of the new nation, it landed on its side. The two rival metropolises had to settle for a capital that was exactly halfway between both of them. This happened to be a sheep paddock.

They've done a lot with the paddock. Architect Walter Burley Griffin "planned an ideal city, a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future". For his trouble they named a lake after him and proceeded to bugger up his plans. By the time Bill Bryson arrived in the late 1990s he pronounced it "an extemely large park with a city hidden it."

I've alway had a soft spot for Canberra having gone to university in the Bush Capital. There is plenty of Bryson's parkland and once all the politicians jet home for the weekend, it's a very livable city. One thing I can never understand is why it has such a large concentration of "Nationals": the National Library, National Museum and, more recently, National Museum of Australia. All fine institutions and worth the taxpayers bucks, but why are they in a city that's mutually difficult to get to for both Sydney and Melbourne?

Bryson remarks constantly about how difficult it is to travel around the Nationals, because the public transport options are so poor. Taking a bike around the lake makes a good alternative if the weather is fine, but let's be honest it often isn't. It's a product of most pollies having a driver and car, because getting to/from the airport is usually a taxi (though it's only a short hop).

But it's not all bad in the 'berra. Once you find these Nationals they're rich treasure troves. The newest arrival is the Museum of Australian Democracy which was hustled into the old Parliament House, a federal building which was almost instantly redundant when it was built for an expanding government in the 1930s.

One of my favourite buildings is the National Library which manages to look both Modernist and classic at the same time. Its collection is huge and the Bookplate cafe is one of the best places for lakeside grazing. But my favourite landmark isn't a National at all, it's in Australia's great tradition of Big Things. The spookily named Black Mountain Tower has views across the the Brindabella Ranges and the sprawling city that can be seen without the height of the revolving restaurant. In the city that inspired troubled poet Michael Dransfield, I call the pointy object on the hill the Big Syringe.
Thanks to Carolyn Bain for the update on Old Parliament House.


  1. Hey George,

    I also have a soft spot for Canberra, having spent a year there as a graduate trainee in the 1990s. The nature is a definite plus, but Civic could really do with some livening up.

    It might have been worse, though: they could have chosen Albury as the site!

    Do you know about the 666 bus and the Masonic conspiracy theories? (you know, all the triangles and circles in the urban planning). Could be worth a post on its own ...

    Keep up the good work.

    D ;-)

  2. DP, I love the occultist theories about Walter Burley Griff, but am never sure how much to believe. The story I heard was that the 666 bus created a pentagram between Canberra's satellite suburbs. Not sure if it's a post or a screenplay treatment with the bus making a fateful journey that opens up the gates of hell - centred of course on Parliament House . Could save a lot of people drawing horns on Peter Garret, et al.

  3. I grew up in an estate designed by 'The Griff'. It consisted of intersecting kidney shapes. Looked good on the map, but in practice meant that 30% of kids trying to get to your birthday party missed the cake and lollies as drove in endless ellipses trying to figure out which road to take....

  4. Have you read Andrew McGahan's Underworld? I think it would make you smile. Would we really miss Canberra if it disappeared? I would, I think it's very sweet and I had a lovely time at Old Parliament House. On Bob Hawke's desk they have a copy of the form guide for the Melb Cup the year they left the building.

  5. Nice one Dunners but alas, too late for my very short stint pretending to work in the public service in the 'berra. Note that the National Portrait Gallery has moved into a gorgeous new building all its own, not far from Old Parliament House. The Vanity Fair exhibition is a stunner. Old Parliament House, meanwhile, now houses the brand-new Museum of Australian Democracy - and it's pretty fab too. The PM's office is fabulously retro. Geez, do I sound like a guidebook updater? Sorry!

  6. Canberra rocks! It's like a small country town but everything works properly and you don't get woken by drunks. The light is different - there is no intermediate grey that can make Melbourne look dismal. The birdlife is awesome plus there are markets where people sell their own homemade alcohol. Come and visit!

  7. I'm with you not against you, Perez. Will head north for this magic light again soon.

  8. I know ya love it, HP. Just gushing cos I'm still in the honeymoon period.

  9. You need to come back to the 'berra and check out all the new bits - it's like someone woke up one morning and said, hey, why are there a lot of dirt carparks in the centre of the nation's capital, let's put up some 15 storey glass and steel thingies instead!! Not sure if it's an improvement but a change is as good as a holiday.
    You might be particularly amused by 'New Acton' (Ian Potter house down by the lake gets a makeover and some hefty pricetag restaurants) and 'the Xchange' (precinct around the old Workies now a-glitter with UniLodge OS student accommodation and ridiculous eighties embellished lamp-posts).


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