5 November 2018

Are we wrecking Canberra's modern history?

| Genevieve Jacobs
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The Shine Dome is part of Canberra’s distinctive modernist architectural history. File photo.

As our old post-war buildings are knocked down and new apartments go up, are we wrecking Canberra’s heritage too?

Commentator Tim Ross thinks so. “What’s happening in Canberra is you are destroying great things and replacing them with complete rubbish,” says the former radio presenter and self-described “design nerd”, who speaks at the Press Club this week.

And in doing so, he believes we might also destroy a key tourist opportunity to sell ourselves as an architecture destination. “Palm Springs in California makes $45 million of revenue each year when they run their modernism week. That should be happening in Canberra because there are more modernist buildings, they’re better and they have better stories. But for some reason Canberra doesn’t understand what they’ve got,” Ross says emphatically.

He’s back in Canberra to give the annual Griffin Lecture for the ACT Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects on Wednesday, as part of the Design Canberra festival. He’ll argue that in our current mad scramble to go upwards and outwards around the country, our architectural heritage of the last 60 years is being destroyed, and ask why we think it’s okay to erase the recent past.

In Sydney, for example, Ross says there has been a major shift in attitudes towards the Sirius building at The Rocks. The iconic harbourside public housing is now the subject of a major campaign to prevent the prime site being redeveloped. But here, he says it was “a disgrace” not to give heritage listing to Churchill House (now Open Systems House), architect Robin Boyd’s last major design.

“There is an amazingly rich architectural history here in Canberra. The benchmarks are the likes of Harry Seidler, Robin Boyd, Roy Grounds, Col Madigan. It’s a perfect canvas for modernism, you have all the best architects all over the country working here for that period of time. You don’t see current developers referencing any of that.”

Evoking an image of kids running through the gum trees among the National Gallery’s sculpture garden, Ross calls the site “an incredibly perfect slice of Australia. A free gallery, full of the best art in the country, designed by someone who started making furniture with a pipe bender.

“You cannot tell me there is a better experience you can have with your children in their holidays, instead of going to a theme park to get their photos taken with some 16-year old dressed up as an American cartoon character.”

He praises the Molonglo Group’s work at New Acton, creating a new urban centre that he believes compares with what MONA entrepreneur David Walsh has done for Hobart, although on a smaller scale.

New Acton has been praised for its architectural qualities. Photo: RAIA.

But Ross believes that Canberrans don’t always feel enough pride in their city to save it from the relentless march of mediocre development. “Part of the problem with talking about Canberra’s architecture is the baggage of being the butt of people’s jokes. I found when we filmed Streets of Your Town (for the ABC), that people need to take civic pride in their towns. They need to let wonderful Australian buildings move them like a sporting victory, or a great Australian song or movie.”

If the development money talks any louder here in the national capital, Ross believes we’re in danger of losing a significant chunk of our history, pointing out that these aren’t colonial buildings copied from elsewhere, but buildings that were made by Australians and for Australians.

He’s critical of the tendency to turn iconic designs into kitsch, referring to the Shine Dome’s nickname, The Martian Embassy, as “deeply disrespectful”, but is intrigued by the recent love for Canberra bus stops.

Canberra’s iconic bus shelters are viewed affectionately, but where’s the love for our modernist buildings? File photo.

“There’s been this mini explosion of making them into icons because they represent people’s personal experience of modernism in Canberra. It’s where you had your first kiss, where your mum dropped you off on the way to school. Why can we have pride in the bus stops, without feeling the same way about the buildings? ”

Tim Ross delivers the Griffin lecture at the National Press Club on Wednesday at 11:30 am as part of the Design Canberra festival.

Do we need to save more of our post-war buildings? Do you feel pride in our city’s appearance? Comment below.

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I have to say I agree with many of the comments here.

Particularly Janet and her “that those people who used to live in the flats near the centre of town were frequently on low incomes and are now marginalised somewhere in the outer suburbs”

Its crazy the ACT Government has shunted housing residents out of the City and Red Hill and off to Tuggeranong or Gungahlin without adequate resources, facilities and support services.

How Red Hill developers managed to dump 250 Public Housing dwellings and with the support of ACT Labor/Greens replace them with 250 expensive and nice dwellings for the wealthy , I’ll never know.

I also agree with Ryoma in wondering why developers can’t build nice looking, well made and well sound insulated Apartment blocks in Canberra. I think purchasers would pay an extra $25k for this level of quality. Instead the developers are pocketing $150k approx per apartment in profit according to reports.

What astounds me is that developers cannot seem to work out that there is a market here in Canberra that references the better buildings around the city (whether historical or modern). Do these people have no pride in what they put up? Why do they think bland, ugly, utterly generic boxes are acceptable? Even more importantly, if we do get a housing crash, do they think that such housing will hold its value – and what damage will be done to their brand?

I suspect, however, that many of the people worried about this are those who either are (or intend to be) long-term Canberra residents. Much of our population is not – they are here for a couple of years for study or career, and as such, may not feel anything much for the city beyond what they personally get out of it.

It’s unlikely many of them have any understanding of Canberra’s architecture, or what’s happening to it. They may well have lived in identikit housing elsewhere in Australia (as heaven knows there is enough of it) or overseas, and so the idea that it’s possible to demand something well-designed and beautiful doesn’t occur to them.

And it’s this audience the developers are aiming at.

Capital Retro7:15 am 06 Nov 18

I walked around the Shine Dome last weekend. Not only has the “shine” gone but so has the outer ring water feature and the lawns and shrubs around it are either dead or dying. Even the feral rabbits appear to have left.

It must puzzle the millions of international tourists that are visiting Canberra.

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