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


‘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.


UTOPIA by Robyn Archer, AO
Canberra, 4 Nov 2019

I have to say clearly, especially as the first speaker up today, that I am no expert, and since leaving mid-2014 after five years here as creative director of the Centenary of Canberra, I sadly haven’t had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in Canberra and so aside from a very brief look around yesterday, can’t claim to know what developments have taken place in the last five years. I can see the light rail is in, looks good and people are using it: I’m not so sure about the canyon of new developments either side, and lament the closure of Electric Shadows Bookshop – though the new to me Harry Hartog is very good.  Tomorrow afternoon I will have an opportunity to speak to the City Renewal team to talk to them about the place of arts and culture in the re-imagining of any twenty-first-century city, and no doubt learn a bit about what’s in their thinking. So, given all that, I do hope my offering will be of some use to this conversation.

Utopia is an idea or an ideal – surely NOWHERE is absolutely perfect. Dystopia is, alas, more often a reality, and one which I doubt we can apply to Canberra: but it all depends on your perspective and circumstances.

Driving up from Melbourne yesterday through hundreds of kilometres of smoke haze certainly suggested the dystopian futures of some cinematic fiction. But if we accept that dystopia strictly means a place of suffering, chaos over which you have no control – for instance a totalitarian state – that’s not Canberra. It is certainly, for instance, a prison camp such as those that operated during WW2, and when I see those reports of the women and children in the camp in Syria I think that would satisfy my definition of dystopia.

So while I think there are surely dystopian elements to some people’s experience of Canberra, and think that the future may well hold even more, as it does everywhere in Australia if urgent action isn’t taken now, I’d remind us that what can be Paradise for one person, can be hell for another. Bertolt Brecht was in exile in Hollywood during WW2 and described it in his Hollywood Elegies (I sing a setting by composer Hanns Eisler)

“for the unsuccessful, Paradise itself can be hellfire”

LA is currently literally, hellishly on fire, and that’s not a cultural matter – but surely, as the Governor of California has pointed out, a matter of climate change, the consequences of which have been ignored through corporate greed.

I think Tasmania is a also a good example: paradise for those who have moved there, bought a relatively cheap delightful house, love the nature and calm of the island and still have enough cash to travel off the island from time to time.

The picture is very different if you’re an adolescent in a third or fourth generation of unemployed or under-employed family, living in an isolated community, and unable to leave. For that young person the island might feel like a prison – its charms obliterated by the hopelessness that individual feels.

But let’s turn first to Utopia.

I was recently in Helsinki. Its architecture and Design treasures are many, and the city makes the most of them.  I deliberately stayed for a week in the clearly labeled Design District, within an easy crisp walk of the Design Museum and the Architecture Museum  (both of which incidentally are inviting all and sundry to contribute to ideas about what a new combined museum should be, feel, look like) and living right amongst any number of design hubs, stores, eateries , ventures etc. clearly listed on a neat little give-away and map entitled  Design District Helsinki.

I had only been to Helsinki once before, for a very short visit, recalled the elder Saarinen’s Railway Station, but hadn’t had a chance previously to get into the outer suburbs to see the Alvar Aalto Studio and house, nor to enjoy the trademark design successes of Itala, Arabia and Marrimekko, to mention just a few. It’s a fantastic way to spend a week, and the Air BnB I stayed in was appropriately very simply furnished, a tiny studio with a big window outlook onto a park with the yellowing birch whose autumn colour dominated the entire city, and one of the most handsome and efficient electric kettles I’ve ever seen. I also took the three and a half hour clean and efficient train journey through Lakeland to Jyvaskala and saw the Aalto Museum there.

The fact that I ate so splendidly in such cool Helsinki surroundings also indicates that design is central to the places you eat, the chairs you sit on (absolutely everywhere I went there were beautiful functional comfortable chairs), the crockery and cutlery you eat from, the presentation of the food, and perhaps most importantly the increasingly green credentials of sourcing local produce and food production.

The restaurant on my last evening there claims pioneering zero waste in Scandinavia: for instance my tapa consisted of delicious seasonal oyster mushrooms (deep-fried with a black garlic dip) cultivated in urban Helsinki from a mulch of their used coffee grounds. When a cheap food chain can make this happen for people who now eat Maccas or Kentuck, then we’ll be getting somewhere.

Now, there’s no reason why Canberra couldn’t emulate all of that and to some extent the ingredients are already there. I know the Design Canberra Festival has links with the Helsinki Design Festival and I daresay the ideas have already been flowing, but I also assume there’s still a way to go until Canberra’s design attributes are fully exploited. And that question still hovers over us all- at what point do people of modest means get to access the quality of design in so many spheres and forms, that we, the privileged do. Forgive me for assuming that just because you are here, you have the advantage of education or at least have been led to enjoy challenging thinking and conceptual imagination.

In Finland I feel sure that the appetite for good design has been encouraged through education. All levels of education, including Higher Education, is subsidised – that is, let’s be clear, free to those who qualify. Their newer architecture is beautiful and spacious and spare (such as the new Helsinki University Library, where they actually still have BOOKS, lots of them, and the university’s Think Corner which describes itself as offering “spaces, services and events to generate new thinking and new creative energy. Doors and ideas are open for everyone.”)

For forty years, Finland has subsidised healthy meals for students who now pay around $5 for a healthy square meal. Those from poorer families pay nothing. It starts with well-being, and proceeds to good thinking – or as Brecht once wrote:

“ Food is the first thing, morals follow on”

Yep, all of that sounds Utopian to me, and all of it could be replicated here in our national capital, setting a marvelous precedent for the nation: it all depends on what you value most.

But additionally, in terms of design heritage, it’s hard to match what Canberra can offer if you just choose to promote a particular approach. There are few cities anywhere in the world that can claim they began with design rather than simply the accident of location – for water, farming, transport, shelter, access. Of course the land was occupied many times over- first of all, as I have understood it, a place of transit for the First Peoples here – a pathway up to the high country for lore- then occupation by those peoples and subsequently by pastoralists. But the idea to create a capital was followed by a competition, and a winning design. And we can still feel the bones of that design today. That’s rare. Griffin’s design was definitely Utopian; he wanted to create a perfect capital city  – as was the elder Saarineen’s for the re-imagining of Helsinki. Griffin’s was only partially realised, Saarinen’s scarcely at all.

My own hometown of Adelaide started with the creek now known as the Torrens, an ultimately unsuccessful water supply for what the city became. It also had roots in the Utopian dream of a place where people could establish and practice religions other than Roman Catholic or Anglican which dominated the other major settlements at the time. As with much that begins in the Utopian frame, that dream was later the basis of mockery.

The City of Churches was once a monika which positively signaled the particular reformist nature of South Australia (reinforced later as the first Australian state to introduce female suffrage, the first to decriminalize homosexuality, and the first to appoint a woman as Artistic Director of a major Australian arts festival – me, but that was after the ACT had appointed me to direct the slightly smaller National Festival of Australian Theatre). But in the twentieth century that monika was used to denounce South Australians as wowsers, much as Walter Burley Griffin’s circular design plan for the city became denounced as confusing and misleading and somehow a metaphor for what goes on at Parliament House.  Alas, still at times a relevant critique.

Adelaide’s subsequent overlay of design by that roguish soldier of fortune Col William Light has also been vastly outgrown by population explosion. My own mentor John Willett (translator and editor of Brecht but also author of Liverpool’s Art in a City commissioned in the 1960s to advise what Liverpool should be doing in the city about public art) always considered Light a madman for thinking a city could be contained in his perfect square grid, surrounded by its four sides of parklands.

Yes you can still observe those perfect bones, but what lies beyond that early circumscription is an often ugly sprawl, which we can see in so many other metropolises and megalopolises worldwide. Light didn’t consider this. Griffin did. In his famous letter of 1913 to King O’Malley, then Minister for Home Affairs, Griffin wrote:

“Any arrangement looking a hundred years ahead has to be elastic, permitting street improvement and construction to proceed little by little, no faster than the city growth demands but at the same time in a way that will be adequately  ultimately without that constant shifting of the site uses in the various sections, which has led to specific waste through destruction of property as well as instability of business in all of our cities heretofore”

This really speaks to designing to the future, and if only Griffin had been allowed to be involved in the execution of his own design rather than being excluded from the mish-mash the committee eventually designed and chose themselves, it may have avoided many of the challenges that the evolving capital has had to face.  Hats off to Aldo Giurgola who went back to Griffin’s backbone and ensured that new Parliament House would stay true to the initial strong idea.

During the Centenary of Canberra I had the privilege of visiting that other designed-from-the-ground-up Utopian capital, Brasilia. Its own dry bones are all too obvious, with such empty spaces, peppered with brutalist concrete structures which threaten never to soften or humanise, apart perhaps from the beautiful planting Niemeyer designed of three different trees with three separate flowering seasons so there would always be colour in the capital. Though never say never.

Oscar Niemeyer annoyed the hell out of everyone by living to 104 and died just the year before our Centenary celebrations. Many were champing at the bit to make changes and possibly they are happening by now. The surest thing is that you never know which way the wind will blow, and where the dust will eventually settle. Again allow me to quote Bertolt Brecht…

“Of all sure things, the surest is doubt”

I confess that for me, from my particular perspective, Canberra is quite Utopian, and I would gladly have remained here for the rest of my days, indeed immediately post the Centenary celebrations, I even bid on a modest house and missed out. But I have been a gypsy of necessity for so long that going where the work is has become a fact of my Picaresque life.

So I speak very personally when I say that living so close to nature, with many of the resources and advantages of a larger city, with my extensive archive sitting in the National Library and the vistas around the lake, the simple impressive clean-lined buildings, and indeed only three hours door to door by car to a very big city if I really need it, is my idea of perfection.  My Utopia does not include swarming throngs and a vast choice of late-night entertainments- and that’s not age, I’ve never needed those things, love many big cities in the world and spend time in them, but don’t need them all the time. That has been my privilege – to live on the beach in Adelaide, on the very edge, and ten minutes from the airport. I have always been able to get out.

And I have a taste for the minimal in architecture and design. I love straight and angled hard lines better than curved soft ones- exactly the opposite of Niemeyer whose wiki page quotes him as saying

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein”

I adore nature, but nature can very effectively be nature, especially in places where you can observe and live through a variety of seasons – a place like Canberra. Humans can do something else interesting within nature – I enjoy Japan and the control it exercises within nature, sometimes over nature; and equally I am fascinated by large scale natural disaster movies. I don’t wish the effects of such occurrences on anyone, nor do I want to be subjected to them myself. But I do like fictional portrayals of scenarios in which nature exerts its ultimate authority – when the tiniest micro-organism or the largest shifts in the tectonic plates tell us with certainty that as much as we build to keep nature at bay, we actually have no ultimate control over the big picture. I like Japanese and Chinese scrolls which portray the philosopher in the mountains – to show just our small and insignificant we are. Even so, I love the useless pursuit of order and the advantages of restraint.

When I directed the Melbourne Festival, my office was on the fourth floor on Flinders St, so I could observe at close quarters Federation Square being built. Why is contemporary visual taste so cluttered? Fed Square itself presented as PoMo, for sure, but within the broad, bare open piazza of Paul Carter’s Nearamnew, there was a kind of robust strength that I loved. Now I pass by and it’s a mess of agitprop hokkas and signage – the failure to resist catering to some mythical lowbrow desire for unthreatening public space that must choke with colour and movement everywhere – a catering to the equally false myth of short attention spans. Hats off to Canberra for maintaining a stance against the proliferation of garish signage.

I know from the inside that the clearest freshest ideas I have, the best decisions and choices I make, come when I empty out. When I waste time, procrastinating with banality and simple physical or organisational tasks. When I’m not trying, that’s when the ideas pop out unbidden. I dream when I make myself not busy. The lack of distraction is very good for some brains.

Why do so many major art galleries believe they have to emulate shopping malls?  Why not instead persuade the public that the alternative of quiet contemplation and stillness might ultimately be better for the brain, instead of competing with what Italo Calvino describes in his Six Memos for the Millenium as

what many consider to be the vitality of the times – noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring – belongs to the realm of  death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars”

It was a colonial and racist context in which the national capital’s founding fathers argued that ‘ ‘Men think better in colder climates’ – and hence the choice of this site for the new Federation’s capital. And yet, I have always found it to be true that the clear air, the four seasons, the absence of heavy industry and traffic, the presence instead of ease of access and birds and nature, and the very absence of those diversions which has heaped criticism on the capital for so long, are exactly what allow us to live and work well here.  It is odd that anyone should be surprised about the degree of original thought and design in Canberra- the CSIRO is a great example.  Not distracted by the hubbub and noise of big city fashionistas, creatives have the space here to think freely. No surprise then that DESIGN abounds in this capital built of DESIGN and absolutely fitting that the DESIGN festival should happen here.

If we want a Utopian capital we have a lot of work to do to persuade the people. Good on Greta Thunberg for having a go – but when she accused the chosen ones at the UN of stealing her future she was talking to the wrong people wasn’t she?  Those UN representatives are chosen by their governments and it is WE the people who elect our governments. It is surely up to us to demand of our elected representatives that they truly represent us and we must convince our fellow Australians to elect the people who will carry out our will – and thus our first urgent task is to persuade a majority of citizens to be convinced of our Utopian dream and then ensure that our elected representatives are accountable. It ain’t easy – and contemporary democracies, as Brexit and Trump prove, are not necessarily reflecting the will of the majority. To be clear, 17 million people in the UK voted to leave the EU. That means less than a quarter of the UK’s population has determined the current mess that country is in – and many consequences for us. Hilary Clinton got almost 3 million more votes than Trump. Democracy ? There’s a big job ahead.

As I said at the outset, I’m no expert and I haven’t yet had the time to revisit Canberra, but I can guess at some of the dystopic aspects. I imagine the ACT is feeling short of space and that housing of any kind for those of modest or shortened means is an issue, let alone housing of good design and energy efficiency.

As much as I have longed for that high speed train that links the east coast via Canberra, can we imagine the crisis of housing that would create as so many Sydney-siders would choose to live in Canberra and take less time to get to work than they do now just crossing that big city. As every place in Australia, water must surely be an issue, and if the water issue is not solved then we are surely looking at a dystopian future. The lack of water will have an immediate effect on the availability of food – again dystopian; but these are all Australia-wide issues rather than just Canberra specific.

However, given its natural and cultural advantages (by these I mean the significant national collections as well as the thriving contemporary arts, crafts and design scene – and assuming that these can all be properly funded to thrive), Canberra could surely lead in this respect – as the national capital, take all the steps needed to make us resilient into the future and truly Utopian.

I have also visited the Belgian university town of Leuven, and in my tour of the interesting and very grand old town hall learned that the old chamber is now used only once a month by the current council. A new council building has been constructed adjacent to the railway station – this is so that the 3000 workers can take a train to work and go straight to their office – and this is because the Mayor has determined that Leuven will have a zero carbon footprint by 2050 and this location for workers will reduce car use. The mayor is a socialist and is a Moroccan who gained his degree in economics at Leuven University.

Now, that’s what I call leadership in the right direction and it’s that kind of practical future-thinking that might well work against dystopian futures, and would be fantastic for our national capital to pursue. It was gratifying to note that an ACT government was elected with a mandate of establishing the light rail. And the figures around the marriage equality survey again showed the ACT as an electorate well-disposed to reform. This place really could show the way for the nation.

We all know that long-term planning is very difficult – I understand why some politicians pursue a populist agenda – because if they don’t win the next election they can’t fulfill any of their plans– and our last federal election showed clearly that a majority of Australians in the national context are against reformist agendae. New strategies are required.

I often quote John Stanhope’s decision not to give in to developers but preserve the burnt-out slopes for an Arboretum as a rare example of future thinking – a project he would never see come to complete fruition  in his own lifetime ,just because it would take 100 years.

I’m sure the implications about watering the Arboretum are tricky, but it’s that kind of bold thinking we now need, and need even more urgently. The trick is to find a way to convince a majority of voters that the long term is more important than the short. It was CSIRO Fellow , and part of the global Resilience Allaince, Brian Walker, whom I met during the Centenary of Canberra planning phase, who emphasized that our current situation demands some pain, some reduction.

Clearly the majority of Australians are not prepared to do that yet, and yet radical change ought to be on any agenda that proposes planning to avoid a dystopian future.  And the meta-strategy around all that, is radical reform of our economic structures. Both Naomi Klein in her new book On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal and Ann Pettifor’s The Case for the Green New Deal put forward strategies for such change – almost Utopian, some critics declaring them unachievable, yet they are at least thinking about it, proposing something fresh.

I notice there’s a growing backlash to so-called ‘progressives’ who are accused of not allowing a diversity of opinion by shutting down open conversations between opposites via extreme political correctness. But climate-change is NOT a matter of opinion – it’s scientific fact, underscored recently by the 11,000 expert signatories to a recent report. What is holding us back is surely not the ‘quiet electorate’ but the divers racket which simply refuses to look at those facts.

What we continue to hear is a hundred years old. As long as the catchcry is ‘jobs and growth’, we are doomed.

We must find ways to reduce and prosper; simply creating the jobs of the old world is not going to work especially as robots are enabled to take up much of the rote labour. Reduction and new-world jobs is what is required, not just ‘jobs and growth’. For instance, If older Australians can or want or must keep working, then there has to be a strategy whereby young people can also have rewarding sustainable resilient occupations.

It’s clear that people, in English–speaking nations at least, do not want to change – Australians said it clearly in the last election, as did the British who wanted to be as comfortable as they grew in post-war decades, and the Americans ditto wanted America to be ‘great ‘ again.

There’s a dangerous inclination refusing to understand that the world has changed and human behaviour must change too. Where is the leadership that will insist on the radical changes we need? More importantly, who has the skill to convince voters to elect representatives who will make those necessary changes happen.  It would be so good to see our national capital take a lead on all that needs to be done and make the twenty-first century Utopia a reality rather than just a hopeful dream.