12 October 2009

On rogues and Walter Burley Griffin

| johnboy
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Whenever anyone’s trying to put one over the people of Canberra as sure as the sun rises the corpse of Walter Burley Griffin will be metaphorically exhumed and paraded to make the case.

Today I came across the man himself talking to the New York Times (thanks to Cornell University) about what he actually had planned for Canberra. Now I’ll be the first to say the city might have been much improved if we’d stuck to his inspired vision. But let’s face it, this city is nothing like what he had planned:

His Australian city is planned upon the radial or gyratory type, with three principal centres, from which boulevards and streets radiate. His only other experience in planning a city was when he drew plans for the rebuilding of Shanghai, China, which, a few years ago, it was proposed to rebuild a few miles from its present site, with its narrow streets, swarming tenements, and insanitary areas. Mr. Griffin drew the plans for the new Shanghai in detail, but the scheme was abandoned.

In planning the Australian capital, with centres and radial avenues, Mr. Griffin has followed the plan generally held by architects to be the ideal one for cities of the future. Among the foremost advocates of such a plan is D. H. Burnham of Chicago, one of the most distinguished architects of America. Mr. Burnham has planned two American cities along these lines–Chicago and San Francisco. His plan for the rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake and fire was not carried out, but there is still some hope that Chicago will be rebuilt to a certain extent along the artistic lines he has laid down….

The international contest for the plans of the capital opened…[in]…June [1911], but it was not until a number of weeks later that American architects learned of it. The Australian Government sent out maps of the Federal district and elaborate detailed pictures of the site upon which the city was to be built, with full reports on the geological formation of the district, water supply, and climatic conditions.

Mr. Griffin spent two months in work upon his plans, and finally submitted thirteen drawings, five feet by thirty inches in dimension. These included a lay-out of the central district of the city, a general plan of the city and its environs, long sections through the city in two directions, and a prospective bird’s-eye view of the city from Mount Ainslie.

“It affords me pleasure to know,” said Mr. Griffin, “that my work has been chosen as the best plan for the building of a national capital–the first time such a thing has been attempted on any large scale. George Washington employed Major L’Enfant to plan our capital at Washington, but this work was on a small scale, for no one had the slightest inkling of what the growth of the City of Washington would be. The original ideas were partly carried out in Washington, but the city’s growth has overstepped the plan and it has been in many ways disregarded.

“The plan I have prepared for the Australian capital will cover an area of twenty-five square miles, and is intended to provide for an immediate population of 75,000, with ample provision for the growth of the city as gauged by the increase in population of other foreign capitals. The plan is complete in every detail and covers everything that the city will need–street railway system, steam railway line, business and manufacturing districts. I have planned the city so that the three mountain peaks about it will close its principal vistas and form a splendid background for its architectural beauty.

“The central district of the city will contain three centres–a centre devoted to government buildings, the municipal centre, and the mercantile centre. The outlying district will contain five additional centres. Three of these will be agricultural centres, one a manufacturing centre, and another a suburban residence centre.

“The city will have many features unknown to the modern city. I would call attention to two of these as especially distinctive. One is that the residences built upon the streets connecting the great radial avenues will enjoy quiet and secluded park-like atmosphere and at the same time never be further removed from main business thoroughfares than four blocks. The other unusual feature is that the city will have but one railroad entering it. All the freight yards, freight depots, and warehouses and transfer facilities will be located outside the city limits.

“Railroads that enter large cities mar their beauty and are always flanked by poor districts. The railroad line that will enter the Australian capital from the north and pass through it to an exit on the south has been treated in my plans with regard to beautifying rather than disfiguring the city.

“I do not know to what extent my plan will be carried out. The Australian authorities may merely adopt my ground plan and fill in the architectural details to suit themselves. However, if my plan is carried out in all its details, I think the Australian capital will be the most beautiful city in history.

“I do not know whether I shall be called to Australia to superintend the construction of the new city. I hope so. I rather expect I shall. It would be only fair to me. There is nobody in the world who can work out my ideas like myself.

“I do not know what type of architecture I should adopt. I have planned a city not like any other city in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expected any governmental authorities in the world would accept. I have planned an ideal city–a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future.

“I am what may be termed a naturalist in architecture. I do not believe in any school of architecture. I believe in architecture that is the logical outgrowth of the environment in which the building in mind is to be located. I have been planning houses in Chicago to meet Chicago’s needs. They do not accord with the ordinarily accepted types of houses. They differ widely from the Queen Anne, Queen Elizabeth, Renaissance, and other usual types. I have tried to make them answer the needs of Chicago climatically and topographically.

“It is of course difficult to describe such buildings. They are not like the buildings of any school. Here in America we have fashioned our buildings after the architecture of Europe. We have no distinctive architecture. Our National architecture is yet to be evolved. When it is evolved it will be an architecture that will meet the requirements of the climate and exactly along what architectural lines it will fall remains to be seen.

“I have never been in Australia, but I have an idea what the climate of Australia is. Consequently I have a vague idea what sort of architecture I should recommend for the future Australian capital. But I am not prepared yet to go into details regarding it. Australia is a newer country than the United States. It has no architectural traditions. Its ideas of architecture are not influenced by any imported schools. Our American architecture is slightly influenced by the Colonial and the Spanish schools. Australia is free even from such slight influences. I think in such a country, untrammeled by traditions, I ought to be able to evolve a very beautiful architectural type adapted to the needs the climate and harmonizing with the topography. I should like to try it.”

The city, according to Mr. Griffin, has two axes–a land axis and a water axis. The land axis–the principal one–does not lie exactly north and south, but slightly northeast and southwest–an ideal orientation for sunshine and shade. The three local mountains in Mr. Griffin’s scheme are used as terminals of important vistas; the lesser hills as architectural focal points as terminals of streets and as centres of industries.

Of the three centres in the central district of the city, the most important architecturally will be the Government Building centre. Kurrajong Hill, a spur of Mugga Mugga, will be utilized as the Capitol hill. On it will be the Administration Building and the residence of the Governor General and Premier.

On a hill just below it and to the north, will be the Houses of Parliament, the Departmental Building, and the Courts of Justice. Capitol and Parliament Hills and their ornate buildings will be the centre of circular parks. The Parliament Buildings will stand upon the edge of a hill forty feet above an artificial water basin with a fountain at the eastern end resembling somewhat the Court of Honor of the World’s Fair Building of Chicago.

To visualize the scheme of the city it is necessary here to describe the water axis of the town, which bisects what Mr. Griffin terms the land axis. The Molongle [sic] River is an insignificant stream about as broad as an ordinary city street. Under Mr. Griffin’s plan this stream will be converted into five lakes lying across the town from west to east. The eastern lake of this chain will be the largest, and will be about two miles long by two miles wide. The smallest lake will be at the western end of the chain and will be one mile long by one mile wide. Between these two lakes will be three formal basins. The central one will be straight on the southern bank and curved on the northern and about a mile long. The two other basins on either side of this centre basin will be circular and a half mile in diameter.

Just across the central basin from Parliament Hill will stand the Federal buildings for education, the zoological and botanical gardens, museums of art and archaeology, the theatre, the opera, baths, gymnasiums, and a central stadium for gymnastic games and state ceremonies that may be held outdoors. All these are to be located on a terrace of which the stadium will be the main feature.

The two other centres of the central district will lie north of Capitol Hill. The municipal centre and the mercantile centre will be connected will be connected with Capitol Hill by broad radial avenues which cross the water basins on two bridges of ornamental architecture. These bridges will be the only bridges that span the water axis. The two radial avenues connecting Capitol Hill and these two centres and the avenue running east and west connecting the municipal centre and the mercantile centre will be the principal business thoroughfares of the city. Topographically as well perhaps as architecturally, the avenue connecting Capitol Hill with the municipal centre will be the main street of the town. It will be a sort of Midway Plaisance, extending from the central water basin to the foot of Mount Ainslie, and from Mount Ainslie commanding a view of the entire central district over the white marble Capitol buildings to distant snowy Mount Bimberi. At the northern terminal of the street at the foot of Mount Ainslie there is to be a casino in the midst of a national park embracing the entire mountain.

At the foot of Black Mountain will be the university and all professional schools arranged in quadrangles connecting with a central system of quadrangles surrounding a library and assembly building. The first system of quadrangles will be devoted to geology, biology, anthropology, and astronomy, the fundamental natural sciences. From it will start groups devoted to mineralogy, agriculture, hygiene, pathology, philosophy, law, commerce, pedagogy, and art, the quadrangles devoted to mechanics and engineering completing the circuit. The mineralogy quadrangle will abut on Black Mountain; the agriculture quadrangle on the eastern lake and forest preserves. The hygiene quadrangle will connect with the athletic field and gymnasium. The pathology quadrangle will occupy a promontory in the lower circular basin. The quadrangles devoted to pedagogy, law, and commerce will stand between the university and the municipal centre, and those devoted to art and mechanical sciences have been allowed the largest space for future extension along the foothills of Black Mountain.

The municipal centre to the northeast of Capitol Hill and across the water basins from it contains the City Hall, Post Office, banks, offices of professions, and of the administration of industries. Almost directly to the east and connected with it by a broad highway will be the mercantile centre. This will contain the wholesale and retail markets where the city’s food supply is sold, and the railway station.

The railway station will be an octagonal edifice of architectural significance and beauty. The single railroad to enter the city will come in from the north. It will traverse a boulevarded street a block wide, and will keep to one side of the main traffic avenue. Through the heart of the town it will occupy a depression. Approaching the mercantile centre it will go into a subway, through which it will enter the station. This subway will come out on the southern side of the hill into another depression through which the railway will traverse the southern portion of the city crossing the water basis by way of a dam separating the eastern lake from the formal central basin. It will be blanked by boulevards to the first agricultural suburban centre, where it will make its exist from the city.

The beauty of the arrangement regarding the railroad will be that the line will run semi-circularly around the business centres and will not at any point cut the main business streets.

To the east of the railway station, occupying two low hills, Mr. Griffin has provided for the principal church site. Churches may be grouped here, or it may contain the main cathedral of the city. Not far away, between the station and Mount Ainslie, will be the hotel region.

On the highest hill inside the central district, a little to the south of Mount Ainslie, will be the military headquarters. It will command the entire city and the railway in both directions, and will include a military academy on the slopes to the north. the hill rises directly from the shore of the eastern lake, and the military buildings will be treated in Alhambra citadel style. Mr. Griffin says that his treatment of this fortress will be the most picturesque thing in the city.

Of the five centres in the outlying district of the city three will be agricultural centres in sheltered valleys to the south and east, between Mugga Mugga and the Monnonglo [sic] River, and a mile and half apart. they will be devoted to producing the food supply of the city, and will include truck gardens, poultry yards, and small farms. these three agricultural centres will be situated about three miles from the mercantile centre of the city.

Directly to the north of the municipal centre will be the manufacturing suburban centre. This will be occupied by the railroad freight transfer yard, gas works, warehouses, and private factories.

The fifth centre of the five outlying centres will be for residences that will occupy the rugged region to the north. Its curved streets will follow the contours of the hills, run through the ravines, and command a view of Cotter Valley and the distant mountain ranges.

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While I am also a big fan of Griffin, I still think his plan was a bit pie-in-the-sky, and could never have been entirely successful. Urban planning has to leave room for changes in technology, culture, population and economics as well as for individual preference. Griffin failed to take these into full account, and his arrogance in thinking that no one could have a better idea than him is reason enough to modify the plan.

It’s a shame we didn’t get the full effect of Griffin’s plan, but although some of the changes to it have been poorer decisions, others have been improvements. It’s just a pity the former outnumber the latter.

More appealing than other cities in design, being planned from the start, except now it seems to be just getting random additions (much which is awful).

I’d like to see a new modern plan, still unique to what we have.

What a pity the railway never went ahead, through to Baddon, as Canberra does not have a good transport system, especially to the railway or airport, unless you have a friend, family or pay for an expensive taxi, all main Cities have transport to these.

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