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Three Canberra architects on lessons from history for a planned city

We spoke with three architects currently practising in Canberra to investigate the city’s planned history and what it means to work in that shadow.

Three Canberra architects on lessons from history for a planned city

Yamaroshi in Mort Street, Braddon by Judd Studio, photograph by Brett Boardman.

This story originally appeared in INDESIGN #90, the ‘City Futures’ issue – get your copy here.

To think about city futures is to think about the planning of future cities. Sydney and Melbourne have their fair share of precinct controversies such as Barangaroo or Docklands, but when thinking at the scale of a whole city, it’s easy to forget that we have an internationally significant case study right under our noses in Australia.

As a city planned just over a century ago, Canberra has many lessons to teach us about the future of cities — not only in terms of its particular design but perhaps more significantly on the nature of urban planning in general. Can we even imagine the planning of a whole city from scratch on this kind of scale today or indeed ever again? Given the scale of challenges facing urban life, from climate change to housing affordability, it seems necessary to consider the place of large-scale planning.

Canberra Federal Capital of Australia preliminary plan 1913, signed by Walter Burley Griffin, National Library of Australia.

So, what can we learn from Canberra? Walter Burley Griffin won the international competition to design Australia’s new capital in 1912. The design philosophy was closely tied to the garden city movement and, speaking to some of the architects and designers working on the ground in Canberra today, the original plan’s connection to landscape and topography is one of the first things that comes up.

“I believe that the original city plan for Canberra did an extraordinary job of utilising the natural landscape assets that we have,” says Ben Walker, founder of Ben Walker Architects. “They have become treasured landmarks, open spaces, landscape backdrop and visual legibility devices that give a sense of coordinated structure to the layout of the city.”

When compared to other planned cities of the twentieth century, such as Brasilia or Chandigarh, the integration of topography and respect for landscape are standout features of Griffin’s plan. However, Canberra continues to face problems of sprawl and a heavy reliance on car transport. Ella Masters, a Canberra local who is heading up Hayball’s new studio there, also notes how, despite the topographical sensitivity, the area’s Indigenous history is not visible in the structured planning language. How planning might escape colonial logic and create cities that genuinely connect with Country is an open and crucial question for the future.

A paradox lies at the heart of planning. Any design worth supporting needs to have conviction in its underlying principles and present a strategic, long-term approach. At the very same time, however, it needs to provide for a built-in capacity for adaptability, evolution and, frankly, failure. To plan a whole city is to set things in stone while leaving them open to change.

The original Canberra plan did not and could not have foreseen changes in population growth, nor the full ramifications of car transport. “One of the biggest issues is public transport. I think the experience of Canberra is very different for those who have cars and those who don’t,” says Masters. She also notes how cities are subject to continual reinterpretation as new layers are added over time according to the planning orthodoxy of the day.

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Branx in Lonsdale Street, Braddon by Judd Studio, photograph by Brett Boardman.

One of the layers in the case of Canberra is of course its symbolic and practical role as the national capital. Elisabeth Judd, co-director of Judd Studio, adds: “Canberra is unlike any other city in Australia. What’s unique is this sense of weaving the landscape through the city, of the urban and landscape spaces working for the community that lives here, as well as its position as a place for the Australian people.”

In this city of 400,000 – a figure wildly divergent to the original planners’ estimations – there are already multiple vectors of complexity at play. Canberra has been successful in many regards: consciously incorporating the landscape into the design, creating multiple centres, transport corridors and so on. However, its failings include the distances between places caused by sprawl and the attendant reliance on car transport, as well as arguably lacking the kind of vibrancy that comes with higher density and organic urban development.

Stepping back to view the whole city as a case study, it’s an important reminder about the need for strategic planning alongside the necessity – and inevitability – of revising and reinterpreting plans in the future. “If the plan is good, then it should be able to endure and hold up as a foundation. But the plan is only as good as the thinking at the time,” adds Judd. “The challenge for future generations is to understand what the foundational ideas were and building on them to respond to contemporary challenges.”

Ben Walker Architects, photograph by the Guthrie Project.

The planned cities of the 20th century represent failures in many regards, with Canberra perhaps one of the more successful examples. It seems important to argue for the place of city-scale planning, however, as we confront this century’s urban futures.

The architects working in Canberra all speak with a sense of inheriting a tradition of which the city is deeply proud. As Walker says, “it’s impossible not to be confronted with the planning intentions for Canberra in our day-to-day work.” As the city continues to adapt, most pertinently in moves towards being more compact and well connected by public transport, it continues to provide an example for Australia and the rest of the world. Close attention might tell us more about striking the right balance between committed plans and a capacity for change.

Find out more about INDESIGN #90 and susbcribe here!

Ben Walker Architects


Judd Studio

Ben Walker Architects, photography by the Guthrie Project.

More from INDESIGN #90: Chris Fox’s radical logics of change

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