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Canberra tales: Planners bend their own rules

By Paul Costigan - 26 August 2015 11

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Canberra is a city where residents are continually at odds with planning and development agencies. It is also accepted that planning bureaucrats are skilled at bending the rules to suit themselves and other players.

It seems that it has always been so. The very building they occupy today in Dickson is a testament to their aptitude to get around their own planning rules when it suits.

Back in the early 1990s, the ACT Government agreed to build a special office block for its planning bureaucracy. The building was to be located in Gungahlin to provide an initial employment boost in the new town centre.

Alas it was not to be so!

As so often happens, what the politicians decide is not necessarily what the bureaucracy delivers. After all, in the early 1990s, what planning bureaucrat wanted to live and work out in Gungahlin when an inner suburban office was so much more desirable?

And so it came to be, that despite all best wishes and decisions by the elected politicians, the building was constructed on Challis Street in Dickson.

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Then there was another problem — this time of their own making.

These same planners had implemented planning rules that limited any building in that section of Dickson to 4,000 square metres. But since their new building needed to house 300 loyal bureaucrats, it needed to be twice the size permitted under their own legislation.

The solution? They tendered for two buildings of 4,000 square metres and put a linking upper level bridge between them. After all, what are rules for but to be bent!

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Another incredulous part of this tale is that the building was proudly described as reflecting the multi-cultural colours of the Dickson Chinatown precinct.

I walk past this building several times a week, and I have yet to recognise its Chinatown connections.

Yet again, the planning bureaucrats were able to put their special spin to work and to make out that this was an attractive modern government building.

Finally there is the name of the building —Dame Pattie Menzies House. The wife of Prime Minister Bob Menzies was apparently a very kind and gracious person. She was a significant person in this country’s history.

I have to wonder just what was the thinking behind naming such a horrible glass and steel structure after this nationally significant woman.

And now the chief minister is to flog it off along with other infrastructure assets. What will happen to the naming rights? This story has another chapter yet to be written.

So next time you wander by this infamous building, think of all those battles over planning that have their genesis somewhere deep within these two boxes, how the planning bureaucrats play with their own rules whenever it suits, and how such an unpleasant structure could possible represent the life of a nationally significant woman.

It is indeed a sad tale about what some people are capable of.

This is part of an occasional series, Canberra Tales, offering short stories, mostly true but including many urban myths, about intriguing aspects of Canberra. As with any story telling, we welcome other variations, accurate or otherwise, to these tales.

What’s Your opinion?


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11 Responses to
Canberra tales: Planners bend their own rules
gsanichols 7:04 pm 28 Aug 15

Not a surprise.

wottaway 2:48 pm 27 Aug 15

My company’s new building opened in Sept.’69 at 78 Northbourne.As far as I know,no architechture awards were given that year,this building should have won if there had been.I drove up and back twice looking for it last April,nowhere to be seen.Nothing but junk lining the National Capital’s main thoroughfare to the outside world.
This Dickson building is light years ahead of much of it.

Maya123 10:11 am 27 Aug 15

Why pick on a this building? It’s a much better looking building than the average in Canberra, and it has attractive colours. Not just another boring combination of brown/grey/cream/white/beige. From the photographs supplied, I quite like it. However, perhaps it could offend many people’s beige tastes.

Added: I am not referring to any energy efficiency features in my comments, as I don’t know the details about this building, but if it is typical, I doubt they are great, as most houses aren’t either. If anyone is responsible for building an inefficient house, be careful of throwing stones at this building.

Rbam 1:02 am 27 Aug 15

Having lived in Hong Kong and visited other cities in China during 1990 to 2013. I understand that the colour scheme of this building in Dickson represents the theme and style of buildings in both China and Hong Kong during the 1980-90’s.

The bridge between two buildings is also a common feature in many Asian countries including Hong Kong. The bridge and the hole in between the buildings relates to Feng Shui and the tradition of allowing the Dragon to pass through the building. If the author of this article has yet to recognize the relation to ‘Chinatown’ it seems they have not done their research.

I’d like to understand their perspective on economics – if the author bought a house but the location, property, family members etc no longer suited their needs would they continue to live in the house? No, financially it is more profitable/beneficial to sell your property and either downsize/upsize etc…It’s unreasonable to expect a Government building to do the same over a large period of time.

miz 8:04 pm 26 Aug 15

They even bend the rules at suburban level when it suits – eg acquiring three adjacent govie houses in suburbia to make a ‘cluster’ facility to bypass the requirement for approvals, in places such a facility would never otherwise be approved.

JC 6:08 pm 26 Aug 15

mcs said :

chewy14 said :

Is there anything the author actually does like?

Out of all the horrible buildings in Canberra, this one is way down the list, I don’t mind it all.

Certainly nothing in Dickson by the sounds of it…..

I agree however, its well down the list of awful buildings currently in Canberra.

I get it you have problems but what are your solutions? Leave Dickson as it was in the 70’s and 80’s maybe.

As for planning I personally don’t think Canberra is any different to the issues faced compared to anywhere else in Australia. certainly nothing unique about the issues or the approach.

rubaiyat 3:33 pm 26 Aug 15

watto23 said :

chewy14 said :

Is there anything the author actually does like?

Out of all the horrible buildings in Canberra, this one is way down the list, I don’t mind it all.

Yeah not even close to the worst, by far. There was an article on the weekend about the architectural aspects of Brasilia one of the other planned capitals in the world. I did like the architecture a lot, but if you tried to build it in Canberra people would still whinge and say it looks bad.

The architecture in Brasilia is brilliant, I was an enormous fan of Oscar Niemeyer, but the building is not, as Robert Hughes showed in “Shock of the New”. Close up many of the buildings are shabbily built and maintained.

Canberra’s buildings are whole enchilada, badly designed AND increasingly shabby.

What is enormously irritating is the environmentally stupid orientation and design of 99% of all our buildings. We live in a cold but mostly sunny climate. Designing buildings to take advantage of that is child’s play, but seems to elude both our planners, and a population that actually revels in mediocrity and only ever bestirs itself in umbrage at anything that does not continue the fine tradition of mediocrity.

mcs 3:21 pm 26 Aug 15

chewy14 said :

Is there anything the author actually does like?

Out of all the horrible buildings in Canberra, this one is way down the list, I don’t mind it all.

Certainly nothing in Dickson by the sounds of it…..

I agree however, its well down the list of awful buildings currently in Canberra.

watto23 3:04 pm 26 Aug 15

chewy14 said :

Is there anything the author actually does like?

Out of all the horrible buildings in Canberra, this one is way down the list, I don’t mind it all.

Yeah not even close to the worst, by far. There was an article on the weekend about the architectural aspects of Brasilia one of the other planned capitals in the world. I did like the architecture a lot, but if you tried to build it in Canberra people would still whinge and say it looks bad.

chewy14 12:16 pm 26 Aug 15

Is there anything the author actually does like?

Out of all the horrible buildings in Canberra, this one is way down the list, I don’t mind it all.

rubaiyat 11:05 am 26 Aug 15

I see it rather as a monument to ACT Planning’s mediocrity.

In that it works admirably.

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