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Mistaken Identity, by Christopher Vernon

Constructed de novo, beginning in 1913, Canberra’s urban fabric is now a palimpsest which registers the hands of a succession of architects, landscape architects and city planners. Nonetheless, the capital is foremost haunted by the ghosts of its original designers, American husband and wife duo Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. Fascination with the couple and their prize-winning plan (1912) exceeds anything they knew in their lifetimes, so much so that almost any new large-scale development is inevitably measured against its fit within popular and official perceptions of the Griffins’ design intent.

Walter Burley Griffin entered the design contest (the couple’s submission was officially made in his name only) as he idealistically esteemed Australia as “a democracy already in the vanguard of political progress.” Most essentially, he presumed Americans and Australians shared the same socio-political values; simply put, Griffin erroneously equivocated Australia’s Federation (the 1901 political reconfiguration which inaugurated the Commonwealth of Australia) with a “Declaration of Independence.” The American was a stranger to the Westminster system, the workings of a constitutional monarchy and the relationship, for him an unfathomable one, between nationalism and imperialism. The latter became more acute with the outbreak of World War I and was further exacerbated by the United States’ delayed entry into the conflict.

Griffin’s street nomenclature scheme for Canberra and its later government revision, for instance, illustrates the misfit between his American ideals and Australian reality. In the capital’s centre, he symbolically projected Federation—or, more accurately, an imagined Australian republic—into the street cartography, ascribing thoroughfare appellations such as Federal, State and Australasia. In a dominion still closely tied to the empire, these were tellingly renamed Kings, Dominion and Empire. According to one government official, the new system redressed concerns that the American’s names were “not in keeping with Australian sentiment.” The alternatives evoked Australia’s colonial past and powerfully asserted its imperial present and imagined future. Fundamentally, Griffin assumed that Australians saw Canberra as a nation-building project, akin to the creation of Washington, DC. Unfortunately for him, nothing could have been further from the Australian truth: Canberra was pragmatically conceptualised as a mechanism by which Federation could be achieved, appeasing the regional and economic rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. The decision to build it was one effectively made by default.

Today’s esteem for the Griffins’ original design is a comparatively recent phenomenon. In the wake of the Griffins’ 1920 project departure, for instance, the Commonwealth quickly eschewed the couple’s vision for an urbanity akin to their native Chicago ‘down under’, reconceptualising the embryonic city as a sprawling collection of bungalow-studded garden suburbs. No less prominently, by the Post WW II era, some had come to see the city’s geometric layout as ‘American’ (despite its French ideological origins), largely owing to the nationality of its first authors. In remedy, the Commonwealth retained a leading British town planning authority to redesign the capital’s centre in a manner analogous to the more familiar, that is, more ‘Australian’, Picturesque.

In the 1980s, however, the late Aldo Giurgola revivified and reasserted the Griffins’ original ideals in his prize-winning design for Australia’s Parliament House, most palpably through his monolithic, pyramidal flagpole structure which crowns the building –an architectural ghost of the Griffin’s unrealised landmark Capitol building.

Most recently, overt interest in Anglophilic design messages has subsided. Instead, Canberra promotes itself as the ostensibly ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ (despite its automobile dependency) ‘Bush Capital’, appropriating ecological concern as central to Australia’s national identity. Beginning with the political symbolism underpinning the Griffins’ original plan, this paper unravels more than a century’s efforts to calculate and negotiate Australian identity through the on-going development of its national capital.

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