Design Canberra Festival Design Canberra Festival

MEDUSA, Plastique Fantastique, DESIGN Canberra 2019. Photo: 5 Foot Photography.
MEDUSA, Plastique Fantastique, DESIGN Canberra 2019. Photo: 5 Foot Photography.

VISIBLE CITY: Bush Capital and Cosmopolitan City? by Ken Maher, AO

‘The Visible City’ is an annual urban renewal series of public conversations presented as part of the DESIGN Canberra festival. The series brings together inspirational and sometimes radical perspectives with contemporary case studies in urban renewal to inform Canberra’s ambitious CBD renewal as it transitions form and function.

This year during Visible City: Contemporary Canberra: utopia or dystopia? we asked our speakers: How do we make visible the Griffins’ vision of a bold, radical and big vision for a young nation and an ideal utopian city of democracy in contemporary Canberra?

The panel discussion was a valuable opportunity to engage deeply with the idea of utopia in Canberra’s past, present and future. For those who are interested in revisiting the talk or who missed the event, DESIGN Canberra would like to make available our speakers’ presentations.


Bush Capital and Cosmopolitan City? by Ken Maher AO
Canberra, 4 Nov 2019

Mention of utopia brings immediately to mind the wickedly funny and cruelly accurate satire of our much-maligned public servants – there is much of Canberra in Rob Stitch’s ABC series.

However, today I will not focus on this, but rather on the physical city – the stage on which its citizens enact their lives and reflect on the past, present and future – from utopia, through dystopia and I would argue now in recovery. I am optimistic Canberra can be a truly engaging city, respecting the legacy, while being relevant to future generations.

The foundations for utopian Canberra were laid down by Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin. The Griffin/ Mahony vision for Canberra was unique, and inspired as expressed in the beautiful drawings by Marion, and amazingly ahead of its time in western culture for recognising the need to celebrate nature and respect the land, as did our indigenous custodians. While also suggesting a co-existence of nature with civic and cosmopolitan life.

I am particularly fond of Canberra since many years ago living here briefly as a work experience architecture student, then having practiced here in the 1980s, when it was somewhat dull and had no public life. This was not what the Griffins intended. The parliamentary triangle and city hill were to be vital and active places with crowded concourses as – places of ‘plaisance’ – places now given over vast deserted open spaces and characterless exposed car parking.

The Vision 

Strongly influenced by Jeffersonian democracy, the Griffins’ vision for an urban landscape structure, expressed through a strong geometry derived from the natural topography and landform setting – an amphitheatre defined by surrounding mountains – was a masterstroke.

Griffin was director of federal capital design and construction between 1913 and 1920. He laid out the triangle that defines the heart of Canberra. This was intended to be the active heart of Canberra – an integrated expression of national aspirations and civic and cultural life.

Griffins’ drawings from 1921, previously forgotten or dismissed – proposing walkable streets, retail activation, tram networks, mid-rise apartments to street frontages, and carefully shaped central spaces – a horizontal city. Yet like many utopian visions from brilliant minds, compromise has prevailed.

From the earliest times, the vision faced successive acts of disruption, leading to the current experience of neglected landscapes and unloved and deserted urban spaces. Walter Burley Griffin was prescient in his observation that: “I had planned (a city) not in a way I expected any government authorities would accept – I had planned an ideal city.”


In the 1920’s, Griffin’s vision was threatened through interference from various political and bureaucratic influences, as well as contrary visions including the English “Garden City” movement, and the “Mediterranean” aesthetic favoured by Sir John Sulman, as opposed to what Griffin imagined as a uniquely Australian architecture as he later designed elsewhere in Australia.

Yet Griffin himself recognized and promoted the organic and evolutionary nature of cities, noting in 1914: “in the light of the ever increasing rate of social progress during the past 100 years of the modern city, manifestly it will not suffice to accept the already established requirements as the conditions for centuries to come”.

The vision would need to adapt. Then a more significant shift in the planning of Canberra occurred from the mid-1950’s and beyond. This followed a Senate Inquiry that established the National Capital Development Commission and the introduction of William Holford to transform Canberra into something more akin to an English “New Town”.

While intended as a replication of Griffin’s plan at a larger scale not only was regrettably an anathema to the character of the local  landscape, the resulting the “Y-Plan” with its dispersed town centres isolated by bushland, and connected by freeways. Thus commenced a period of domination of traffic engineering and the car, which remains to this day, sadly sucking the life out of the city centre.

Here the irony is that the enticing vision of the landscape city has morphed away from Griffin’s urbanity, to a place of low-density suburban sprawl, isolated “satellite” towns connected only by expressways with poor quality and car dominated centres.

This was and continues to be truly dystopic. Many have bemoaned the departure from the Griffin Plan, while others put the blame for Canberra’s dislocated form on the Griffins.

Tom Greenwall identifies the dilemma perceptively in his recent Inside Storey essay titled ‘A City in search of its centre’: “The vision of a bush capital — a city that converses with its natural setting rather than seeks to conquer it, that does not relegate the environment to the periphery but incorporates it into its core, that refrains from towering over its citizens and instead speaks to them as equals, that privileges public space in a manner commensurate with its commitment to public service — is as urgent and compelling as ever.”                                                              

The bland place-less-ness of much of the late 20th century commercial architecture of Civic further denies the urbanity Canberra deserves.


The National Capital Authority’s seminal 2004 publication ‘The Griffin Legacy’, based on research by NCA from 2003 and led by Stuart Mackenzie and Ian Wood-Bradley, sought to address this and recapture lost aspects of the Griffins’ utopian vision.

Observing that “The Griffin Plan sought a seamless connection between the functions and setting of the ‘federal city’ and the everyday life of the ‘municipal city,’” this significant document sets some worthy aspirations and propositions, building on the Griffins’ legacy as an enduring framework to revitalise Canberra’s centre to achieve urbanity, linking the city to central national area and significantly to extend the city to the lake.  An unrealised proposition was to promote the Griffin legacy through a “Griffin Institute” –still a worthy possibility.


The rash of recent rebuilding on Northbourne Avenue, despite good intentions of planning and development controls, is resulting in walls of mediocre buildings, with poor relationship to the streets, and little contribution to the landscape. Also the newer suburban Canberra including Molonglo with lack of landscape and amenity with badly designed housing bearing no relation to the Canberra of the Griffins.

Central Canberra’s geometric urban form and flat topography are supportive of a walkable city, yet current dominance of cars, which I am confident will recede in the future, is preventing the pedestrian amenity essential to a contemporary urbane experience. In addition, Canberra needs a planning and development control regime focussed on three-dimensional experiences rather than simplistic zoning plans with minimal development controls. 


The monumental urban structure that underpins a character fitting for the nation’s capital needs to be given counterpoint through more intimate and human scale elements.

The design of the public realm, and particularly its streets, built interfaces and local spaces is critical to improving the amenity, comfort, legibility and vitality of the city. There is an emerging opportunity to recapture this urbanity through increased density, while reinforcing the intensity and essence of the landscape setting. However, change is afoot. 

Building on the National Capital Plan arising from the ‘Griffin Legacy‘document, the Territory Government has been active: introducing Light Rail with greater than anticipated success, and more recently establishing the City Renewal Authority for central Canberra to focus intensifying the occupation, and improving the quality of the public realm, increasing pedestrian and cycle amenity, and promoting street life enriched by cultural engagement.

Climate emergency: a sustaining City?

All this needs to be considered in the context of our greatest challenge and Canberra can lead the way in the absence of effective action from the Federal government. While the Territory Government is to be commended on declaring a “state of the climate emergency”, there is still needs to be more action and a much stronger focus on sustainability in the built environment.  We have passed the tipping point and we now need to go beyond carbon neutral to restorative actions.

Most of the newer suburban housing is unsuited to climate, has poor and inadequate environmental ratings, and is poorly orientated. Consequently, there is a reliance on energy consuming air-conditioning. This leads to a city that struggles through past decisions to be environmentally and socially sustainable. There is also, as with most Australian cities, a huge challenge for Canberra to effectively control sprawl, deal with poorly designed and poor performing residential stock, and dependence on cars in the absence of sufficient public transport.

Public Realm and creative life

Nurturing the public city as a platform for urban life can re-establish some of the intentions of the Griffin Plan. Focussing on the reinvention of Civic Centre, as a cultural and genuinely mixed-use place will be also be critical. 


Griffin believed in a responsive, and what we would call today, a sustainable architecture – and one that was uniquely Australian. This he realised elsewhere rather than in Canberra.

Reinventing his approach now in Canberra is not possible, however, the quality and performance of the city’s architecture is critical. Canberra needs contemporary architecture that respects its remarkable setting – architecture with landscape engagement, authentic materials, one that is visceral and experiential. This has a legacy with the many fine modernist buildings from the twentieth century that needs to be respected and continued. 

The Future?

Canberra is facing an opportunity to build on its intrinsic character through the intensification of its inner urban localities to achieve the Griffin vision of a cosmopolitan and urbane city. Key to this will be the transformation from a vehicle-dominated city to a more equitable and sustainable transport and movement network – more amenable streets for all modes of movement.

Canberra has real potential to be a great city – through its relatively intimate size, its well-educated community, its strong food and arts culture, and the incredible legacy of the Griffins’ vision. The foundations are strong, the limitations can be transcended, and the transformation is limited only by the motivation of its communities and governments.

So what could that future hold? Some possibilities are:

_an holistic renewed strategic vision and action plan for the transforming the Griffin vision to a sustainable urban framework

_high speed rail links to Sydney and Melbourne right into the civic heart

_increased density in middle ring(s) with diverse housing typologies for equity and affordability. There are interesting exploration of these opportunities for Australian cities in ‘City Limits’ by Grattan Institute 2015, and ‘No place like home’ by Peter Mares 2018

_a reconfigured Civic Centre expressing and celebrating the culture of an intelligent and inclusive city by reinvigorating with a cultural heart, with a diversity of uses and pedestrian cycle and electric vehicle networks

_transit links to the satellite towns, with transformed, re-urbanised and cosmopolitan centres. This could involve greater investment from Federal government through city deals.

_an extensive trackless tram network throughout the city with localised transit loops

_a new public forum surrounded by a new Legislative Assembly sunken into a forested yet traversable City Hill, respecting Griffin’s intent for a celebration of this important topographical element and reconnecting eastern and western city

This is not a literal return to Griffin’s vision but a reinterpretation of the spirit and energy of its legacy, befitting to our national capital. I have faith in the emerging generation who are transforming community values and enlivening the city. Greater influence and authority needs to be given to role of the citizens in guiding our future and I believe this can be achieved through adopting more deliberative democratic processes, including comprehensive application of citizen’s juries.

As Tom Greenwell suggests the Griffins’ vision offered the tantalising coexistence between seemingly the “incompatible opposites, a tension between open space and built form, natural environment and urban density, provincial stillness and cosmopolitan intensity.” He suggests Canberra has not failed, but just needs some ‘thoughtful recalibration’                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

A last enduring word from Walter Burley Griffin:

“We can all be interested in the Australian Federal capital city, not so much for what it is now or will be necessarily, but because of what it stands for: an opportunity, the best, I believe so far afforded for an expression of the democratic civic ideal and of all that means in accessibility, freedom, wealth, comfort, convenience, scale and splendour”.

I do hope more of Canberra’s citizens can embrace the merit of a shift in density to achieve a real urbanity, sustained by the distinctive identity of the essential landscape vision of the Griffins, and work towards this utopian future.