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