L-R: Malcolm Snow, Catherine Townsend, Dr Elizabeth Farrelly, and Catherine Carter
L-R: Malcolm Snow, Catherine Townsend, Dr Elizabeth Farrelly, and Catherine Carter

Telling an audience of Canberra city-shapers that their metropolis has no interior is a brave move. But author and architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly is not afraid to stare down the development industry. Following is a report on a Salon Canberra event organised by the author.

The author of Killing Sydney was in the nation’s capital recently to talk about her book – a “heart-broken love song” to the Emerald City. Farrelly has considered what makes cities tick for more than three decades.

She believes her home town faces destruction as heritage is torn down for high rise development and urban character makes way for motorways. Canberra is the book’s whipping boy or, as she says, a “cautionary tale” of a city that “seems so determined to betray itself”.

“In Canberra, the whole city is regarded as something to be got through and out of,” Elizabeth told the Salon Canberra audience . “Local roads are designed as motorways and federal roads are designed as slippery rings, with nothing to grasp, no toehold for the cognition… Canberra has no interior. You’re never really in it. You’re whizzing through it.”

ACT Government Architect Catherine Townsend was one of those in the Salon Canberra crowd, and said Farrelly’s reproach was “fair”. “It’s an observation I’ve made myself. Canberra does seem structured to accelerate one’s passage through.” But this characteristic speaks to Canberra’s current iteration rather than its future.

“It’s a bit like fronting up to an adolescent and asking them to show you their maturity and sparkling repartee. We are youthful. Paris was probably a bit of a ‘dive’ for the first 100 years. It takes time to get good, to develop the layers.”

Canberra was designed to avoid the haphazard growth patterns of an unplanned city, Townsend  noted. When we enter an unplanned city – whether that’s New York or New Delhi – “we let all human characteristics ‘hang out’.” This is the urban equivalent to “wearing our undies on the outside – you can’t hide the characteristics of the city but it can be ugly”.

It is “an accident of history” that so much of Canberra’s physical presence has been dominated by transport. Canberra was built in the century of the car – in an era when oil resources would never run out. With an abundance of land, our road reservations are eye-wateringly expansive. “Northbourne Avenue is a football field from one side to the other,” Townsend added. “This is both a gift and a challenge.”

Infographic: Arran McKenna

“Our roads are an asset and a crutch,” observed Noam Maitless, director of architecture and urban design at GHDWoodhead and associate professor of Engineering at The Australian National University. “It’s an easy hit to reduce the national capital to its roundabouts, which, truly, can be confusing.”

Maitless is from Los Angeles, so he is familiar with the condemnation of “countless suburbs in search of a city”. “It’s a criticism I’ve learned LA and Canberra share. To quote Gertrude Stein, ‘There’s no there there.’ I used to defend Los Angeles from my East Coast colleagues by saying that LA accepts all criticism with equanimity – everything said about it is true.”

While Canberra does not have the scale or thick skin of Maitless’ old hometown, “it does have similar, unassailable qualities which make it unique, sympathetic and enticing”.

The City Renewal Authority’s chief executive officer Malcolm Snow believes the Griffins [the original designers of Canberra] always “envisaged interesting places”. But the “purity” of their original vision was diluted by American-style traffic engineering in the 1950s and 60s and the “indulgence” of available land.

A city centre of “generous geometry” and the “clover leaves” of our parkways are symbols of a city conceived for cars not people.

We need to go back and “put the missing pieces of the Griffin puzzle into place,” Snow urges, starting with “the big empty spaces such as car parks”. While we are always “wrestling with the past,” the trendline is in a positive direction. “More than 70 per cent of new urban development is happening within the existing urban footprint,” he said.

Catherine Townsend was also optimistic. The “slick and seamless drive-through” form of the past is making way for an alternative future – of light rail, scooters and places for pedestrians.

Elizabeth Farrelly was less so. She railed against a planning style she dubs “plonkism” – where buildings are dropped down with little thought for their environment, or how they might enrich our streets and enhance our lives. Farrelly lamented the “lost opportunity” on Northbourne Avenue – or what she calls the “refusal to make streets”. There was “no negative space, no surprise or intrigue or invitation. Just plonkism.”

If plonkism has an opposite, it is what Farrelly calls “pokeability”. “A city you can happily poke around is a good city.” How can Canberra become more pokeable?

Malcolm Snow said there were some “vestiges” of pokeability in places like NewActon and Braddon. But how do we get more places like Smith Street in Melbourne – recently named Time Out’s coolest street in the world, or King Street in Newtown, which just scraped into the top 20.

“It’s not only about design. It’s about managing and retaining the qualities that make it pokeable,” and that demands “light-touch regulatory controls,” according to Snow.

The secret is to introduce “texture” – a word Townsend chose carefully.

“At the moment the edge of Canberra’s avenues have no texture.” It’s this lack of texture that Farrelly dislikes. “We can improve the traction and the texture, so people will stick at the edges.” This includes the light rail, which “retains and attracts” activity “outside the insular cell of the car”. Rezoning and new buildings with active façades, where people are visible both inside and out, also adds layers of interest.

Noam Maitless said some of the “low-key elements” that make up Canberra’s “interior dialogue” will be those that help us build that pokeability.

“Low density requires an appreciation of small degrees of difference and nuance”. Canberra’s future, he observed, may be in becoming a constellation of interdependent villages, rather than in following a dense central city-dependent suburb model.

“We’ve grown out but it’s time to grow up. We have an urban structure that is fundamentally sustainable, close to nature and well-suited to active and shared transport, if we can learn to develop ‘in-place’. It’s an enviable legacy we haven’t yet realised”.

Townsend argued that Canberra was built like a showroom. Only now is it being furnished. “In the Griffins’ time there were two chairs and a sofa – and they were almost 10 metres apart from each other. But to have a comfortable conversation the chairs need to be pushed together. We need that in our city.”

Catherine Carter is director of Salon Canberra.

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