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Monaro Mall. Photo: Bronwen Jones.
Monaro Mall. Photo: Bronwen Jones.

Under the canopy

Under the canopy: Monaro Mall an ambitious mid-century design collaboration

In the early 1950s, Canberra was a series of ‘suburbs still searching for a city ‘. The Griffin’s visionary 1911 design for Canberra which would become one of the most ambitious and most successful examples of twentieth century urban planning in Australia, was far from being realised.

In the late 1950 and early 1960s, a dedicated program to revitalise Canberra was underway. As well as relocating public service departments from Melbourne to Canberra, the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) was established to (among other goals) give Canberra an atmosphere and individuality worthy of a national capital.

In addition to building two bridges over the newly formed Lake Burley Griffin, the NCDC invested in developing Canberra’s city centre. Civic Offices (Roy Simpson of Yuncken, Freeman 1959), Canberra Theatre (Yuncken Freeman 1965), Academy of Science (Roy Grounds 1959), Ethos (Tom Bass 1961), Garema Place and other significant mid-century buildings, precincts and public art emerged in the city centre, along with Monaro Mall.

Monaro Mall was Australia’s first fully enclosed and air-conditioned shopping mall, designed by Whitehead and Payne Architects and opened in 1963 by Prime Minister Robert Menzies who described the mall as ‘…wonderful, immoral, tempting and terribly satisfactory’. The building originally contained 3 major and 58 smaller shops (doubling the ACT’s retail shopping floor area).

Monaro Mall’s design brought a new scale and quality to the emerging capital’s city centre: elegant arched canopies, slim pillars standing 9.15m high, and the use of grey marble from Italy, Imperial black granite from South Australia, and Japanese and Italian mosaic tiles.

Public art featured in the pioneering design of Monaro Mall. Margel Hinder’s (1906-1995) rounded sculpture Revolving Sphere 1963 (assisted by Frank Hinder and Frank Lumb) was installed in the original Monaro Mall central concourse. It had its own motor and turned slowly to reflect light from the skylight above. It was removed during refurbishments in the 1980s but we do not know where it is located today.

A tiled ceiling of mosaic glass by the abstract artist Frank Hinder (1906-1992) defines the City Walk entry to Monaro Mall. Star Ceiling (1963) is one of the most subtle artworks in Canberra’s city centre, visible only to people who take time to look up from their busy lives, to appreciate a remarkable blend of form, tone and colour.

In 2017, Monaro Mall underwent an ambitious refurbishment to restore, reveal, reinstate and reimagine the significant building’s heritage values, intent and finishes. Although the building has been listed for more than thirty years on the ACT register of significant twentieth century architecture, Whitehead and Payne Architects’ 1963 Mall had been obscured by multiple renovations and overshadowed by the expansion of the Canberra Centre in which it resides.

Architects Universal Design Studio and Mather Architecture won national awards for their thoughtful redevelopment which paid respect to the building’s mid-century modernist beginnings. Today it is a light-filled and material-rich contemporary retail transformation which activates the public realm with large format windows, street facing shops and cafes and the thoughtful restoration of original marble, breeze blocks and mosaics. This project demonstrates the powerful potential of adaptive reuse of heritage buildings over demolition.

In 2020, DESIGN Canberra will locate our vibrant CBD programs at Monaro Mall’s iconic City Walk entry, home to Frank Hinder’s beautiful installation underneath the imposing slim pillars which have stood the test of time. The Monaro Mall entry is an inspiring expression of the vision of our early planners, designers and artists. It is a timely reminder of our contemporary shared responsibility to preserve and appreciate our rich design history, especially from the mid-century.

This year’s DESIGN Canberra will be a clarion call to our community, to planners and developers, and to the design sector, to care – about our city’s past, present and future.

Frank Hinder
Star Ceiling, 1963, mosaic glass tiles
Entrance to David Jones from City Walk, Canberra Centre, Civic.

Margel Hinder
Revolving Sphere 1963
Monaro Mall, Civic Centre, Canberra
Assisted by Frank Hinder and Frank Lumb


DESIGN Canberra is proud to have the Canberra Centre on board as a Gold Partner as part of the 2020 festival.

DESIGN Canberra acknowledges the Ngunnawal people as the traditional custodians of the ACT and surrounding areas. We honour and respect their ongoing cultural and spiritual connections to this country and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region. We aim to respect cultural heritage, customs and beliefs of all Indigenous people.