Canberra’s vision of the ideal city gets mired in ‘mediocrity’

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Canberra's vision of the ideal city gets mired in 'mediocrity'
© Nature Connect/Corbis

Chicago pacifist Walter Griffin’s design for Australia’s new capital promised so much – even German beer gardens. But when war broke out, his ideas were shunned by planners and politicians alike, and a more prosaic city emerged

In May 1912, Chicago landscape architect Walter Griffin won an international competition to design an unnamed capital of Australia. Overseas entrants had been given only maps, a cyclorama landscape print and – if they could access it – a plaster model of the site to work with.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the proposed designs suggested futuristic, high-density metropolises built around elaborate canals and weirs (third-placed Frenchman, Donat Alfred Agache, even pitched a formal European-style city through which raged a wild river – like the Seine in Paris).

Many of the international designs were simply impractical, however, suiting colder, wetter climates and more confined spaces. They lacked sympathy for the landscape.

Griffin – the conjurer and dreamer – was a lousy draughtsman. So his wife, world-renowned architectural artist Marion Mahony Griffin, rushed to produce a series of watercolour and photographic dye images of their dreamt capital.

In nine weeks they created a stunning composition: a city of hexagonal boulevards and streets joined by bush corridors, studded with monumental buildings and anchored by land and water axes. Its heart, where the axes met, was an artificial lake that would emerge with the damming of the Molonglo river to flood the plains.

It was a beautiful blueprint, resonant of the garden city movement that influenced the Griffins’ evolution as architects at the foot of the Chicagoan maestro Frank Lloyd Wright. But beyond Marion’s grey-green, brown and russet images, this low-rise, medium-density, monumental capital had an ideological foundation, reflecting Walter’s stated intent to design a city for a country of “bold democrats”. […]