A few nights ago after the rain, I wandered around the Lyneham Flats. The sky was a bruised, soft blue-grey and everything was washed clean and damp after a summer thunderstorm.
The derelict flats and their gardens are poignant for many reasons. Here, a passionfruit vine clambers over a garden wall. There, a lemon tree. You imagine someone thinking “Great, I’ve got some frost protection so the citrus should be OK”.
Fragile pale pink “Perle D’or” rose bushes have grown, unpruned, to a mighty size and wisteria tumbles over abandoned clotheslines. A brave row of agapanthus and cannas lines the entry to a pair of gardens while rubbish clutters broken doorways.
People lived here and loved these places. They tended them with care to create a little beauty and to make a home. These are not gardens installed according to the dictates of the latest television makeover shows. They’re simple places of the heart.
Nobody much will mourn the Lyneham Flats when they’re gone. As they await demolition, the windows are broken and boarded up. Graffiti ripples across the exterior walls and shopping trolleys, old office chairs and fast food packaging litter the courtyards.
Across Northbourne Avenue, the advertising hoardings promise a new kind of future in Midnight, or Mulberry, or Soho where everything will be shiny and tall and exciting (just like the residents, at least according to the marketing).
The battle to save anything substantial from the Northbourne complexes was lost long ago. For many Canberrans, it was good riddance, their architectural and social significance long forgotten after years of neglect. Once, though, it was different. Once, they told a story about bright hopes for a new way of living and a new city.
The Northbourne Housing Group as a whole was designed for the NCDC, inspired by the best modernist design of the time, and included the first high-density public housing scheme in Canberra, although it would never be described as such these days.
The intention was to create a gateway entry to Canberra, but also to make a statement about the kind of city we were building here. As visitors drove into the city, the simple housing for public servants would also be a very public indication that this was the people’s capital.
As the city grew rapidly post-war, it filled with people from around Australia who saw Canberra as the embodiment of a certain kind of dream: a place of opportunity, where people’s brains and ability would assure their futures, not inherited wealth or status.
A place where their families would have space and fresh air, where the public schools would be first-class and within walking distance, and where communities could grow around local shops and ovals.
We’ve changed a lot since them, sometimes for the better and perhaps sometimes for the worse. The city has grown out and grown up. But the values that underpin this community still matter. That’s why we have salt-and-pepper public housing here, not elite enclaves.
That’s why so many of us are uneasy about the dizzying rise of multiple private developments, filled with shiny new apartments, with “price points” that will put their owners in hock for decades, always presuming the investment does retain its long-term value.
Over the road from the Lyneham Flats, lights winked in the display units, offering new dreams about Canberra life in the 21st century. I walked home past Tilleys in the gathering dusk, as the sound of music and laughter spilled out onto the pavement.
And I wondered, who still cares about Canberra’s values? What should we keep of the past, and what fades away? What do you think?
For a fuller description of the architectural values of the Northbourne complexes, click here.