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Hating Canberra

  • 29 October 2010

During one conversation about Canberra's flagrant lack of appeal, a friend told me the true reason why Canberra, like Washington DC, is positioned in such an inhospitable climatic location (parched summer coupled with hypothermic winter): 'To diminish the appeal of government for politicians and public servants. Who in their right mind would want to live with that weather for more than a decade?'

Disregarding the mind-states of individuals who gravitate toward absolutist governments, and not vouching for my friend's sobriety when he told me this interesting 'fact', the gist is compelling: that if Australia's capital was Brisbane, we might be living in a banana republic whose despotic ruling family would never want to relinquish their grip on leisure governance.

The model explains a lot about Canberra's austerity.

I recently visited my brother and his wife there. I hadn't visited Canberra since my year six class were bussed off to study public life. In other words, I had previosuly only been there while under the nauseated influence of junk food for four days. My few recollections of that first trip are a mud-brown motel with a swimming pool and the rumour of a Kim Beazley sighting.

This time around, I decided I would try my best to form a coherent view of the city.

My foremost impression was that Canberra's defining quality is the dull consistency of its design. The city is a product of the Modernist project, which attempted to eliminate all disorder and congestion. This imposed, and imposing, harmony, marked by the calculated placement of monolithic buildings and wide roads, neglects what is dynamic about urban life and the what defines great cities: their ability to encompass extremely diverse populations and activities.

The city's layout was heavily influenced by the garden city model, which incorporates the natural environment with urban development, allowing for plenty of park space (and for animals to frolic freely with automobiles...).

Canberra's unostentatious nature is attractive compared with Melbourne's posh Euro gardens, but the labyrinthine roads are frustrating. Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of landscape architecture, wrote, 'Curved streets imply leisure, contemplativeness, and happy tranquillity'. Unsurprisingly, he never lived in Canberra, where the mantra goes, 'Like the clunky machinery of bureaucracy, these roundabouts take us nowhere very fast, chortle, chortle'.

When I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, the place seemed somehow sinister; the deep silence of the street was unsettling. 'A capital city ought to have some life to it', I thought to