Are we wrecking Canberra’s modern history?

Genevieve Jacobs 5 November 2018 29

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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29 Responses to Are we wrecking Canberra’s modern history?
Nellie Mills Nellie Mills 10:50 pm 07 Nov 18

This one definitely should stay. My dad worked on the Academy.

bj_ACT bj_ACT 2:36 pm 07 Nov 18

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.

Ryoma Ryoma 6:27 am 07 Nov 18

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.

Suzanne Garnett Suzanne Garnett 11:13 pm 06 Nov 18

Absolutely. As a visitor to Canberra I would like to see history preserved.

Branko Frank Frković Branko Frank Frković 7:15 pm 06 Nov 18

Warren Morris Warren Morris 2:12 pm 06 Nov 18

There are a lot of very ugly post war buildings that do not deserve to be preserved. They have served there purpose!

Coralee Rauber Coralee Rauber 1:44 pm 06 Nov 18

Theyr ruining everything

Julia Ross Julia Ross 1:22 pm 06 Nov 18

Yes we are, I hate the concrete jungle that Canberra is turning into, it is fast losing its 'soul'.

Junia James Junia James 1:09 pm 06 Nov 18

Yes they should be preserved. So sick of what is happening in Canberra now. All the same crowded housing, highrise etc. Whatever happened to a classy look. All by a government that in 2 referendum 70% voted we didn't want it. Still got it though

Kerry Jackson Kerry Jackson 12:30 pm 06 Nov 18

Yes. The often modest mid century home is being replace with huge grey flat roofed monstrosities in suburbs like Aranda, Ainslie O'Connor that fill the block and say nothing about the environment or suburb around it.

Coleen Box Coleen Box 11:24 am 06 Nov 18

Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s worth saving. I like the new Canberra with functional buildings making better use of the climatic conditions. The design of the older buildings was not always appropriate and many of the buildings have served their purpose. Just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it’s good either but a blanket ban on demolition is not realistic.

Reta Westerburg Reta Westerburg 9:54 am 06 Nov 18

Yes!!!!we just decided to preserve our red Canberra brick ex govie and have designed front and back decks that will compliment the 60s design and using recycled Canberra bricks. I know some buildings are just blatantly unattractive but don't replace them with something just as ugly

    Karen Joy Stone Nowak Karen Joy Stone Nowak 3:51 pm 06 Nov 18

    I'm guessing you've also got a lovely sized block as well, unlike some of the new suburbs where 300m sq is very common. :)

    Reta Westerburg Reta Westerburg 4:04 pm 06 Nov 18

    Karen Joy Stone Nowak yes we do and original hills hoist 😉

    Emmac Ph Emmac Ph 7:07 pm 06 Nov 18

    Ours is orange brick and we're doing the same but with a few updates like double glazed Windows and insulation.

Jenny Gordon Avery Jenny Gordon Avery 8:57 am 06 Nov 18

Tim Ross's treatment of Canberra and its architecture in his one off tv special was fantastic. He spoke so highly of Canberra gems and of our town in general. Loved the show and love Tim's style.

Trish Roberts Trish Roberts 8:53 am 06 Nov 18

The bus shelters may be viewed affectionately (and there's currently an exhibition in CMAG) but some will be moved, possibly discarded, when the new Transport system comes in 2019.

Mike Long Mike Long 8:26 am 06 Nov 18

Doing a Donald Trump, removing the past just for the sake of leaving our own mark.

Denise Smith Denise Smith 8:20 am 06 Nov 18

Yes definatly.

Robyne Mitchell Robyne Mitchell 8:06 am 06 Nov 18

Canberra has the ugliest architecture. Town planners are not town planners!. The streets in Wright and Coombs are so narrow. If one parks in the street there is little room for another car on the road. Unbelievable. No room for trees in the gardens or nature strips for cooling down the area in the changing climate. Just lets create another hot box suburb. Rant over!

    Jenny Gordon Avery Jenny Gordon Avery 8:54 am 06 Nov 18

    Unfortunately Robyn this is not unique to Canberra. Outskirts of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are designed the same way. More dwellings = more revenue through stamp duties/ rates/ etc. It has zero to do with a decent lived environment.

    Janet Ilchef Janet Ilchef 8:35 pm 06 Nov 18

    They're like a ghetto

Janet Ilchef Janet Ilchef 8:04 am 06 Nov 18

Yes, our architectural heritage is being destroyed, things which should be preserved. How did the Capitol Cinema in Manuka get pulled down? Heritage trees that were protected and are on Mr Fluffy blocks are just - cut down. Not a problem. Yes, I know they are not architecture but they are another symptom of the people who run this place doing whatever they please. They are also destroying the nature of lovely suburbs, not just with high rise but with ugly dual occupancy which then pushes up the price of homes with land around them. We must look after our beautiful city before it is uplifted beyond redemption

    Karen Joy Stone Nowak Karen Joy Stone Nowak 3:49 pm 06 Nov 18

    I'm guessing being that the Capitol Cinema is owned by Canberra's wealthiest resident the demolition was a relatively easy thing to get approved. They were run down sadly. :(

    Janet Ilchef Janet Ilchef 3:50 pm 06 Nov 18

    Karen I know who the owner is and they are trying to do more of the same. Too often money changes hands in this town, to its detriment, on planning issues

    Karen Joy Stone Nowak Karen Joy Stone Nowak 4:08 pm 06 Nov 18

    Janet so do I!!! The rich get richer!!! :(

Lynne Audsley Lynne Audsley 7:58 am 06 Nov 18

Yes! I was beginning to think I was the only person dismayed at the soulless towers going up everywhere!

Sharon Daley Sharon Daley 7:45 am 06 Nov 18

Yes yes and yes they should

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