Sheridan Burke, 30 August 2012
Celebrating the Griffins’ contribution to Canberra as a modern planned capital city
ANNE WATSON: Good evening. On behalf of the Walter Burley Griffin Society I would like to welcome everyone to this, the fourth Marion Mahony Griffin lecture to be presented tonight by the eminent heritage consultant Sheridan Burke. Sheri is fresh off a plane from that other very cold place Helsinki. My name is Anne Watson and I am a committee member of the Sydney branch of the Griffin Society. Before I introduce our introducer, I would like to thank the National Museum of Australia for providing the venue for the lecture tonight. It is very much appreciated. It’s a wonderful theatre. I have given a talk in this theatre before and it works very well. I would like to thank all the hard-working staff who have helped organise the lecture here, particularly Alexandra Tough from the public programs department and the anonymous faces up there in the broadcasting box. I would also like to thank curator Daniel Oakman who led the tour of the Landmarks exhibition before the lecture.
It’s a great privilege to have Emeritus Professor John Mulvaney to introduce Sheridan. As he’s practically a living national treasure, he needs little introduction himself, especially to Canberrans. Suffice to say that Professor Mulvaney is a world expert on Australian prehistory. He’s been described as the ‘Father of Australian archaeology’ - I am sure he loves that. He was the foundation professor of prehistory at the Australian National University, served for 18 years on the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, was a member of the Australian Heritage Commission from 1976 to 1982, and a member of the interim council of this Museum. Professor Mulvaney’s many awards and honours include an Order of Australia in 1991 and the Rhys Jones medal for outstanding contribution to Australian archaeology in 2004. I can think of no more appropriate person to introduce Sheridan so please welcome Professor Mulvaney.
JOHN MULVANEY: Thank you. I can find no more appropriate person than Sheridan Burke to deliver this lecture so we have lots of appropriate people. Sheridan’s career has been devoted to heritage assessment and conservation planning. Her earlier work involved expert advice to, or membership of, the Heritage Council of New South Wales and the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, among other things. She is a director and principal of heritage consultants Godden Mackay Logan Pty Limited and she’s an adjunct professor of the University of Canberra.
She also brings great international experience to tonight’s theme. Sheridan has served as vice-president of the UNESCO organisation known as ICOMOS which stands for the International Council on Monuments and Sites. Today she chairs the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Twentieth-Century Heritage. Together with IUCN, which means the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, ICOMOS and IUCN review and advise the World Heritage Committee on nominations.
I would just like to remind you, before Sheridan begins, about the prominent role which Australia has played on world heritage affairs during the later part of the last century. In 1974, Australia became the seventh of the present 189 nations to sign the 1972 World Heritage Convention of UNESCO. This gave Australia inaugural membership of the World Heritage Executive Committee which met in Paris in 1977 to frame the criteria for marking places on the World Heritage List. Australia also played an important role later on to get modifications to the criteria, placing greater emphasis on cultural landscapes.
Under the chairmanship of the late Ralph Fletcher, Australia hosted in 1981 the first major World Heritage Committee meeting in Sydney’s Opera House. This saw the inscription of the Barrier Reef, Kakadu and the Willandra Lakes - that is Lake Mungo - on the world list. Australia also showed leadership this time establishing its own branch of ICOMOS in 1978, called Australia ICOMOS. Most significantly, in 1979 Australia ICOMOS produced what we know as the Burra Charter, a landmark document in the ethics and conservation of cultural resource management. This charter has gained international recognition.
I am sure that Sheridan Burke will advance sound reasons why Canberra merits world heritage listing amongst the some 950 places already selected. Unfortunately, over the last 20 years we have seen the abolition of the Australian Heritage Commission and UNESCO has worried that our world heritage properties of Kakadu and the Barrier Reef may be in danger. Our government - this is a personal statement - seems to lack the enthusiasm and the adequate funding and staffing of earlier decades, while the cultural and natural environments have been fragmented in the Commonwealth administration so that, whereas once you dealt with one minister, now you deal with many others. In these circumstances, I am afraid that much of Australia’s heritage is on hold. However, we hope for future things. I now invite Sheridan Burke to reflect on the Griffins’ contribution to Canberra as a modern planned city. Thank you.
SHERIDAN BURKE: My thanks firstly to the Walter Burley Griffin Society for the invitation to present the 2012 Marion Mahony Griffin lecture. It’s a singular and an enjoyable honour but also something that I have had some apprehension about because I am very aware that more of the people in the audience know a great deal about Griffin more than I do and a great deal about Canberra more than I do. To a certain extent, I would like to ask you to forgive me as a Sydneysider, but an unabashed admirer and a frequent visitor to Canberra, for any errors of omission that I may make or any errors of judgment, which would be even worse, and join me as we travel down the winding road of modern capital city planning. That’s what brings us here tonight.
Most of you will have seen Walter Burley Griffin’s winning entry in the 1911 design competition for the national capital. It was portrayed by his architect wife Marion Mahony Griffin in delineations that are of comprehensive elegance. They outlined a utopian concept for an organic city, which has arguably delivered one of the finest city plans of the twentieth century. But as a nation and indeed as individuals, we are now more distant from those heady days of utopian socialism, when a national dream to build a totally new capital city was enthusiastically embraced and indeed made a necessity by the Federation of the Australian states [on 1 January 1901].
That spirit of optimism and national confidence which possessed us all 111 years ago was then very well matched by the keen interest of the architectural and engineering professions in the opportunity to plan a new city. It doesn’t come along all that often. Architectural congresses, particularly the one held in May 1901, and a whole range of meetings addressed what the current international planning theories were, and they were in turn analysed and dissected in contemporary media. So those opportunities where we might be able to engineer a healthier and a nobler society in Australia within a new landscape context were very much in everybody’s mind. I would have to ask the question: are we today equally committed to celebrating our national achievements in that area by actively conserving Griffins’ vision?
By the time the design competition for the Australian capital city was advertised in April 1911, there had been extensive topographic surveys carried out across south-east Australia to identify suitable sites. There had to be a good distance from the existing state capitals of Melbourne and Sydney. That was a political prerequisite. The competition entries also needed detailed climatic data, the civic requirements for a 25,000-person city as well as a lot of photographs and cycloramic watercolours of the selected sites. These were all prepared. Entrant instructions required that whatever the design was they wanted to put forward, they must ‘embody in their designs all the recent developments in town planning’. It was a very brief. Wooden competition boxes brief boxes were dispatched nationwide and throughout the world in late 1911.
In distant Chicago, the newly wed Walter and Marion Burley Griffin had just set up a new architectural practice after resigning from the studio office of Prairie school architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Walter had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright for six years, and Marion had worked for him for 15 years, his first and closest associate. The Griffins began their independent architectural practice with several Chicago residential commissions and subdivisions. But Marion later wrote of the jealousy exhibited by Wright after Griffin won the Canberra competition, ‘His [Wright’s] jealousy was so great that after I married Mr G, he wouldn’t speak to me.’ It was clearly time for a fresh landscape to be explored by the Griffins.
The Griffins had followed the Federation of the Australian states with great interest, and Walter was very enthusiastic about entering this competition. He would aim to provide for the future citizens the daily experience of a democracy at work and at play. It would be his first and his last competition entry, he said. But it seems that Walter had a habit of being a bit slow off the mark. As the competition work still had not begun by November 1911, Marion later documented her frustration with his progress in her extraordinary magnum opus of 1949 The Magic of America:
For the love of Mike, when are you going to get started on those Capital plans? How much time do you think there is left anyway? Do you realise that it takes a solid month to get [the drawings] over there after they have started their way? That leaves exactly nine weeks now now to turn them out in. Perhaps you can design a city in two days but the drawings take time and that falls on me.What’s the use of thinking about a thing like this for ten years if when the time comes you don’t get it done in time! Mark my words and I’m not joking either, either you get busy this very day, this very minute or I’ll not touch a pencil to the darn things.
Obviously he listened to her. Solid days and nights of work must have swiftly followed for the Griffin team in the loft of the Steinway Hall in Chicago. And then, again in Marion’s words:
… after 9 weeks of driving work, toward midnight of a bitterly cold winter night, the box of drawings, too long to fit into a taxi, was rushed with doors open and the men without their coats - no time to go up 16 storeys to get them across the city to the last train that could meet the last boat for Australia, the imperturbable Mr Griffin himself the only one not quite frantic by this time because to his mind if Australia was serious about the matter of their Federal Capital they wouldn’t let the moment of the arrival of the plans be the determining factor in their choice and, to his land planning mind, they couldn’t but be serious in such a matter.
The Griffins’ entry box was one of the 137 competition entries that were received and at the end of the formal selection process, on 23 May 1912, three finalists were recommended by an advisory board. The winner was then controversially selected by the Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley, rather than by expert adjudicators - that’s another story. The third prize was awarded to French architect-urbanist and social philosopher Alfred Agache, who would later go on to prepare the master plan for the Brazilian capital city of Rio de Janeiro. The second prize went to Eliel Saarinen of Helsinki, assisted by Frans Nyberg, who had recently won the competition for the design of Tallin in Estonia. Saarinen later regretted not putting more time into his entry - he was late in hearing about the competition - since it had clearly been highly considered by the Australian parties. But, after all, that’s the way things go, and the competition winner that was announced by King O’Malley was of course Walter Burley Griffin, landscape architect, address Steinway Hall, Chicago.
The Griffins’ winning design was portrayed in these exquisitely rendered sepia and gold on silk panels and a large monochrome plan and sections, most of which were prepared by Marion. These are very persuasive works of art as well as comprehensively informative city plans, and they are now treasured within our National Archives collection and are listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. The plans were accompanied by a design report that had been written by Walter, explaining his very logical architectural approach to the function of the democratic heart of our new nation, the city of Canberra.
The Griffins’ plan identified the location of all the major building groups: government, military, municipal and educational, with emphasis on the perspective effects of avenues, axes and vistas. Griffin set into the geometry of the new city his personal theories about democracy, giving symbolic meaning to its layout, its relationships and the grouping of the functional elements. Denser mixed-use inner areas of narrow terraces were to be linked by tramways and a railway system, with lower-density family neighbourhood units on the periphery, laid out along garden city principles.
The bold geometry of the axial roads responded to the topography of the pastoral site and expertly capitalised on the Molonglo River running through it by confidently envisioning the creation of a splendid lake in the open valley between the hills. Walter said that his design concept was to provide:
The very best design on the most modern lines for this City, which should be an example to the rest of the world … I have planned a city not like any other in the world. I have planned an ideal city.
It is evident that there were many Chicago design influences in Griffins’ plan for Canberra: the aesthetic concepts of the city beautiful with its monumental edifices and sweeping vistas, and the very practical elements of Daniel Burnham’s inspiring 1909 plan for Chicago. These had obviously made a lasting impression on the Griffins. This audience will be familiar with Griffins’ utopian and aesthetic ideals. And those of you who live here experience every day what the Griffins’ plan understood better than any other competition entry - and that was landscape. The power of topography, the essentials of a permanent water supply and the recognition of an erratic Australian climate cycle had all informed the Griffin’ design. These very factors underlie its success today as a city in the landscape, planned with a magnificent central urban space, Lake Burley Griffin, a formal segmental lake with two adjacent - at that point circular - basins of quite differing character, detailed by individual landscape edge treatments. This was no mean feat to conceptualise this from wintery Chicago, let alone practically achieve it in the driest inhabited continent on earth.
Canberra’s early landscape planting was a very high priority. By 1911 an experimental nursery at Acton had been established, and by 1913 the visionary horticulturalist Thomas Charles Weston had been appointed as the officer in charge of afforestation for Canberra. He recognised the need for extensive scientific testing and acclimatising of exotic trees on the windswept limestone plains ,and he established the arboretum at Yarralumla in 1914. Weston experimented with hybridising eucalypts and selected exotics. He wanted to swiftly create a sense of a mature cityscape with a reflection of Englishness - memories of a landscape still regarded as home by many Australians. Weston’s enduring legacy was to create a tree-dominated landscaped urban character for the city, oversighting between 1921 and 1924 the planting of almost 1.2 million trees in what are now Canberra’s inner city suburbs.
But the new city was also essentially a political dream, and that dream had to become a reality and its swift accomplishment was an administrative priority. Even before the national capital competition prizes had been announced and the premiums awarded, the Department of Home Affairs had begun to prepare its own plan for Canberra, incorporating all the elements and ideas from various entries, just as it had always intended. The Melbourne Argus quoted King O’Malley as saying:
… as Minister for Home Affairs, [I] would be justified in using all the designs if necessary in order to produce the working design on which the capital would be built. A park might be taken from one, a boulevard from another, and a public square from a third.
You get the picture that the seeds for future problems were being sown quite early.
Meanwhile, in Chicago the Griffins were assiduously collecting press clippings about the Canberra design competition and about site development. They compiled a very impressive scrapbook of carefully curated articles clipped from a huge array of newspapers: The Dublin Evening Post, various African, German and French newspapers, The London Illustrated News and the Manchester Guardian as well as all the Australian and major American papers. It’s an extraordinary range of reviews and reportage that was being gathered in Chicago which kept the Griffins abreast of all the Australian happenings and the international commentary on the plan.
Within the National Library manuscript collection today there is a rather non-descript looseleaf falling apart sort of folder that just sits there quietly, but it’s an extraordinary treasure trove of the popular and technical press of the time. Every one of the clippings is painstakingly cut out, dated and inscribed with its source - and occasionally they are underlined for good measure. When he won the competition, Griffin thought he would be coming to Australia immediately. He felt that he would be invited to Canberra to direct the site works, but nothing came in the post:
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 have planned a city like no other in the world.
This is a repeating motive. Fortuitously, in 1913 there was a change of government which meant a new Minister for Home Affairs, William Kelly, was appointed, and at last Griffin was taken up on his offer to act as a consultant to the Australian government for the new capital.
Thus Walter Burley Griffin arrived in Australia in August 1913 only to find that his planning concepts were already being re-interpreted. They were being adapted and changed, respected not so much as a city blueprint but simply a sketch plan to which all the attractive things, the bright glittery things from other entries could be attached. Moreover, Griffin was not going to be employed to implement his own plan but rather he had to advise on the very unpopular departmental board’s plan and to answer a myriad of questions from politicians all of whom were worried about expenditures.
Professional and public outcry against the departmental plan - you see here an illustration of it - was loud and sustained. Eventually Minister Kelly dismissed the departmental board and its plan was abandoned. Following some modest amendments by Griffin to his 1912 competition entry, he was at last engaged as the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction in October 1913.
Griffin now had executive control to led the city implementation works. His staff, however, included the very board officers who had just been dismissed, and bitterness and recriminations would eventually thwart his progress. Walter returned to America to wind up his practice and arrived back in Australia with Marion on 15 May 1914.
At first, the Griffins established practices in Melbourne and Sydney, and Walter’s time was in theory divided between implementing the Canberra plan and several local architectural commissions and town plans. By 1918, Griffin’s ‘Plan of the City and Environs’ for Canberra had been developed, with very practical amendments to the geometry and the original lake concepts but it had been a struggle every inch of the way for the Griffin’s departmental adversaries were many and the delays, inquiries and questions really prevented effective work practices.
By 1919 Walter was being employed only on a month-by-month contract, and by 1920 he felt he could no longer work with what he considered to be an obstructive Canberra bureaucracy. He felt forced to resign as the Director of Design and Construction ‘under protest and with great regret’, refused to join the proposed Federal Capital Advisory Committee and adjourned to Melbourne, self-publishing explanatory correspondence about the termination of his employment - it would be a very interesting thing to contemplate doing that today. Marion was bitter. She was angry about all Canberra bureaucrats and remained so all her life.
By 1923 the Griffins were resident in Sydney, designing the inspiring harbourside suburb of Castlecrag before departing to India in 1935, where sadly Walter died in 1937. But the essential elements of the Griffins’ ideal city plan: the geometric avenues, the axes and the now modified form of the central lake had been firmly established although, as Professor [James] Weirick has frequently expounded, the symbolism of Griffin’s Canberra plan was still very poorly understood.
Following Griffin’s departure, a second conceptual layer of urban design was added to the Canberra plan by the visionary English architect John Sulman. Sulman had published his own ‘radial plan’ for Canberra in 1909. Although he had been a support of Griffin, during Sulman’s years a chair of the newly established Federal Capital Advisory Committee (FCAC) from 1921 to 1924, he successfully advocated serious departures from Griffins’ concepts. The FCAC fundamentally converted the city development concept away from Griffins’ idea of a city of consistent streets of imposing, but narrow, two-three storey terraces with rear lane access to a much lower-density model of garden city suburbs of detached single-storey cottages set in gardens. Without the consolidating avenues of denser mixed development to support the civic and commercial nodes planned by Griffin, the essential railway and market centre did not proceed. The timing wasn’t great either. The Great Depression and World War II abruptly halted Canberra’s city construction from 1929, but fortunately the landscape planting citywide continued after 1936 led by the distinguished botanist Lindsay Pryor, with a gradual change from Weston’s often exotic preferences to Pryor’s increasing selections of Indigenous species.
But in terms of city planning and national capital development, little else was achieved for more than two decades beyond administrative frustration, as financial stringency and external preoccupations naturally dominated. In 1938, the National Capital Planning and Development Committee (NCPDC) was established. It was responsible for territory planning to 1957. Although Canberra’s population rose to 36,000 by 1958, more than 70 per cent of the city appeared to be vacant sheep paddocks.
Preparation for Canberra’s post-war era started with the establishment of the Australian National University site in 1946, a wise and pre-emptive bid to halt the brain drain to Europe by Australia’s new Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Today, the ANU Acton campus has matured into one of the city’s finest cultural landscapes, its heritage precircuits the setting for a great national educational institution.
By 1949, Menzies was proactively refocussing the nation on Canberra’s development, stepping up the transfer of public servants from Melbourne to the capital and establishing this time the National Capital Development and Planning Commission (NCDC) in 1957, which lasted until 1989 - another in the long succession of departments responsible for planning and developing Canberra.
City construction was spurred by a Senate inquiry into the development of Canberra held in 1955, which considered evidence that the realisation of Griffins’ design did not require the construction of grand buildings, but that buildings could be made important by their setting - a distinct budgetary positive for any public inquiry outcome. Prime Minister Menzies also firmly encouraged the NCDC to consult with English-based planner William Holford. Holford had recently been an adjudicator for the 1955 design competition for Brazil’s new national capital, Brasilia, which is today considered a landmark in town planning history by UNESCO. Holford’s Canberra era was to become the third major contributor to the city plan, but in many ways this period too was to see the denial of Griffins’ vision as nothing more than symbolism and aesthetics.
The competition winning entry for Brazil’s new national capital was by urban planner Lucia Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer. It was a very assertive modernist response to a flat greenfields site in the centre of the country. This was a plan defined by functionalist geometry with a monumental grassed mall edged by Niemeyers’s extraordinary architectural accents and Lake Paranoa, the other major landscape element, created as an irregular ornamental lake to the east of the city.
Visiting Australia immediately after he had been in Brasilia in 1957, William Holford’s report to the Australian government had recommendations that were based on his belief in the future of Canberra as a city of car-based suburbs. He converted the Griffins’ avenues of intensive city activities to multi-lane thoroughfares that would accommodate modern traffic needs rather than community development.
Holford also amended Griffin’s formal lake design, favouring informal shorelines and edges, similar to Brasilia’s Lake Paranoa, rather than the Griffins’ formal city beautiful urban terraces and promenades. Holford’s 1961 report designated the two major lake bridges and associated lakeside motorways which he considered:
… provided an overall balance between the traditional order of Griffin’s geometry and the freer elegance of modern road engineering.
In contrast to Griffin’s railway route serving the city, Holford’s recommendations gave primacy to movement by automobile and located the major independent buildings in park-like open spaces, and car parks, with the lake as a neutral and informal contribution to their setting, rather than being the central organising landscape feature that Griffin had designed.
Whilst the maturing plantings of Charles Weston and Lindsay Pryor were providing a city landscape of shade, colour and sheltering beauty, work on that central unifying water body really only began in 1960, when earthworks, dams and bridges were being constructed. NCDC landscape architects Richard Clough and later Margaret Hendry worked with the prescient advice of influential Englishwoman Sylvia Crowe. They began landscaping the shoreline and creating the islands so that, when the 1963 impounding of the waters began, there would be facilities for recreation, boating, fishing and swimming.
Despite the drought, by 1964 the lake had filled. It was the largest artificial ornamental lake in Australia, and its shoreline was ornamented by a series of wonderful buildings. With the design of Commonwealth Park by Sylvia Crowe commencing in 1966, the lake was first becoming the picturesque parkland in the heart of a suburban city.
The 1980 decision to locate the new Parliament House on the crown of Capital Hill, instead of on the slope of Camp Hill facing the lakeshore, also challenged an original Griffin concept. But Aldo Giurgola’s inspired design to construct the new building actually within the hill responded very well to that risk. The site change for Parliament House also provided an opportunity to create a foreshore terrace envisioned in Griffin’s original lakeshore with the design of Commonwealth Place, centred on Griffin’s water axis, and in 2005 the Commonwealth Place forecourt also provided an interpretation of Griffin’s original water gate with the crossing of the land axis.
So Lake Burley Griffin had indeed become the link which unifies the axes and the vistas that Griffin had planned, and as it had been prophesised:
… the city was not divided, but became one. The vistas, avenues and mountains became one, united by the locus of the lake; it became a sensitive and monumental landscaping achievement.
Cultural landscape historian Professor Ken Taylor has always emphasised the extraordinary urban vision of Canberra’s planned landscape, speaking particularly about the form:
… of the physical landscape - natural and created - is a palpable, tangible presence defining the city; but, equally so, its content or intangible symbolic meaning is important. Places like Zurich or Kyoto are similar in the way in which landscape open spaces surrounds and penetrates the city, but not to the comprehensively planned extent or with the same founding visions as Canberra.
But how are we managing these founding visions for the future? And Sulman’s contribution, Holford’s input and the many talented planners and landscape designers who have followed? Since 1988, when the ACT became self-governing, the responsibility for planning the city of Canberra has fallen to two planning agencies, with the airport area being somewhat separately managed, and it is they now who have dual responsibilities for the current phase of Canberra’s design and development.
The ACT government’s Planning and Land Authority (ACTPLA) controls the development of territory land, planning Canberra’s future growth with the community through the Territory Plan, with advice from the ACT Heritage Council. The Commonwealth planning agency, the National Capital Authority (NCA), is responsible for the public interests of the national capital dealing with designated land, and the National Capital Plan is the strategic plan.
In 2004, the NCA boldly set out its vision for the future planning of the CAN (Central National Area) of Canberra in the Griffin Legacy. It promotes conserving significant elements of the Griffin plan and seeks, in its eight propositions, to revitalise and intensify developments within the CNA into a more compact, sustainable urban form. The Griffin Legacy framework seeks to reduce the barriers between the city and the CNA, extending the city to the lake through continuous waterfront promenades, reinstating Griffin’s connection of the city with the lake and the National Triangle. It retains the essential geometry of the city beautiful vistas of the original Griffin plan and aims to reinforce the intended form and function of the municipal axis, re-establishing City Hill as the heart of the city. But its implementation will no doubt continue to be controversial, just as its announcement was.
Very careful resolution of the interface of the city with the lake and the scale of intensified residential development are fundamentally important - the devil is always in such details - but a new planning framework and a sense of reflection on the founding visions of the Griffin plan have now been officially set out in the Legacy document. The role of ACTPLA in relation to the Griffin Legacy and NCA initiatives is fundamental to the success of these bold approaches - redefining areas of an established city will always challenge some community concepts of amenity and the low-scale garden city that now such a characteristic of Canberra.
I would suggest that coordinated heritage conservation guidelines, perhaps similar to the conservation principles which have recently been prepared for the ANU as part of the preliminary studies for its campus master plan, are really important for the successful handling of the legacy related development impacts. Supporting technical studies and sustainability principles are also necessary.
Lake Burley Griffin plays a central role in linking the Griffin Legacy framework. For many people, the lake and its landscape setting of parks and open spaces come to symbolise the city, just as the Opera House is Sydney’s icon. Its proactive management is therefore a nationally significant issue and, as a nationally significant heritage place, the NCA commissioned a heritage assessment and heritage management plans for Lake Burley Griffin and adjacent lands in 2009. This suite of documents has delivered conservation management guidance, via extensive historical research and physical analysis and through multiple rounds of consultation and engagement with the many communities for whom the lake is a very special place.
It is abundantly evident that Canberra has many, many admirers, both locally and internationally. Urbanist Edmund Bacon wrote in 1968:
Canberra confirms, beyond anything else I know of, the dominant importance of space design. Here is a network of sweeping vistas, vast gulps of fresh air, superbly exciting and dynamic interaction between the peaks of the hills and mountains and the movement of people.
More locally, Sydney author, architect and historian Peter Proudfoot writes:
Canberra is the only really modern city in the world … its history from the beginning is the history of Town Planning or Land Planning in modern times.
As a town planner by training, I have followed Canberra’s planning history with great interest and I have really admired the steadily increasing documentation and analysis of its planning history and heritage. Donald Johnson, Peter Harrison, James Weirick, Christopher Vernon, David Headon, Diane Firth, Robert Freestone, Juliet Ramsay, Ken Taylor and a host of others have all written keystone works, mining the rich vein of historical planning and architectural material available. The preparatory work for the celebration of Canberra’s forthcoming centenary has also been exemplary, as has the persistent commitment and publications of the Walter Burley Griffin Society.
As a heritage consultant by profession though, the future conservation and management of Canberra’s resulting wealth of cultural landscapes is a challenge and an opportunity on a day-by-day basis. It is one thing to know a lot about it; it’s another thing to actually plan and manage it into the future.
As president of the ICOMOS Twentieth Century International Scientific Committee, I also have had the privilege and honour of reviewing the significance and management of many places of twentieth-century heritage significance internationally, when they are proposed for world heritage listing or when they are threatened by loss or damage through demolition or poorly managed redevelopment.
Tonight, in the second part of the Marion Mahony Griffin lecture, I would like to explore the intersection of those interests and look particularly, perhaps speculatively, at the potential world heritage significance of Canberra.
In June 2012, the Federal Government announced the proposed National Heritage Listing of Canberra under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation ACT (EPBC Act) with the statement:
Canberra is vital to all Australians as the heart of our democracy and the pinnacle of our justice system. Born of the utopian ideals of the founders of Australian Federation and grounded in the Griffins’ visionary town plan, Canberra has grown to become one of the world’s great twentieth century cities.
The proposed heritage listing of Canberra at a national level will capture those outstanding elements of Canberra that contribute to its historical and symbolic significance; its role in facilitating public engagement in the political process; and seeing it as a showcase of cutting-edge twentieth-century town planning ideas.
The National Heritage Listing proposal is currently on exhibition - I hope people are all making comments on it. As the ACT Chief Minister Katie Gallagher recently said:
[listing] could enhance the city’s profile, and improve the awareness and appreciation of the nation’s capital in the Australian community [more generally].
Clarification of development processes and separation of planning and management responsibilities will of course be necessary, but that need not be onerous. As the Chief Minister went on to say:
… Canberra is one of the few places in the world where the original intent, design and plan of the city has been held true to form, and we have the opportunity to support the protection of that.
I would suggest that the responsibilities can no doubt be resolved, just as they have been for the other some 120 nationally heritage listed sites, which already have been identified as contributing to our national identity. It’s a great opportunity to move towards National Heritage Listing, and an announcement is anticipated next year when the centenary commemoration is actually on.
Being on that national list is also an essential prerequisite for consideration for World Heritage Listing. I would now like to consider that kind of context. Of course, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that either the Federal Government would wish to make such a nomination; or that the World Heritage Committee would agree that the city has the required outstanding universal value needed to inscribe it on that list.
But let us just look at it for a moment. The actions of our Federal Government are of course dictated by the will of the Australian people - all of us - but those of the World Heritage Committee are perhaps less open to our influence. I would like to look quickly at what might be involved.
The World Heritage Convention was initiated by UNESCO, as Professor Mulvaney said, and started in 1975. It was created a little earlier. It was stimulated by threats and significant losses of cultural and natural heritage places. It was born out of threats to the following: the Aswan Dam inundation of the Abu Simbel temples in 1959; the massive recovery efforts that had been necessary after the flooding of Venice in 1966; and the international efforts for the restoration of the Borobodur temples in Indonesia. As national governments sign up to the World Heritage Convention they are asked to pledge that they will look after these places. They are encouraged to integrate the protection of the cultural and natural heritage into regional heritage planning, to set up staff and services at their sites and to undertake research.
Today there are 189 nations signed up to the convention and since July 2012, when they had their annual meeting, there are 962 properties listed. The World Heritage Committee is made up of 21 members, often including Australia but not presently. It’s serviced by the World Heritage Centre based in Paris, and there is a very modest World Heritage Fund to help it. But unfortunately there is also a growing list of endangered properties, and a huge budget shortfall.
Australia now has 19 sites on the World Heritage List. The ones we see on the screen at the present time [slide shown] ranging from Uluru Kata Tjuta to the Sydney Opera House, but again there is a bit of an imbalance of sites: 12 are categorised as natural sites, four as mixed sites and just three are cultural heritage sites. Proportionate to our size, Australia is relatively low in terms of total listings. Spain has 44 properties; Italy, 47; and China, 43 is catching up very fast.
The issue of the balance within the World Heritage List is quite a problem on a geopolitical basis. In 1994, the World Heritage Committee launched a global strategy to try to create a more balanced and representative World Heritage List. I want to draw your attention quickly to these graphs [slide shown] because they are telling us that the vast majority of the listed sites at that point in time were in the developed regions of the world. They were notably in Europe and in North America; and they were generally speaking historic towns, religious monuments, monuments to Christianity and elitist architecture. It was recognised that this wasn’t a good thing and that we needed to change the way in which that was happening.
In 2005, that review was looked at again by ICOMOS, but again it found that much the same sort of thing was happening. Some things were over-represented and other things were under-represented. It really wasn’t improving, even though they had had a policy in place for ten years to try to change that balance. I don’t think we can resolve that issue tonight. But I want to make the point that one of the things that was poorly identified across the board was modern heritage. Modern heritage monuments and sites were seriously under-represented. In fact, they were only about one per cent of the total.
Analysis of the existing World Heritage List suggests that in the first decade of the convention, what was going on was ‘the best of the best’ with the sorts of sites we see listed here [slide shown]: the cathedrals, the Taj Mahal and the major cities of the world. It wasn’t until the first sort of modern architecture started to come on board - the selected works of Antonio Gaudi were the first modern architecture properties to come on to the list [in 1984], after the 1979 inscription of Auschwitz and Birkenau [concentration and extermination camps]. Brasilia was the first modern city to be listed in 1987, followed by the white city of Tel Aviv in 2003. But in the first 30 years of the convention, only 14 modern heritage sites were listed.
In the late 1980s, World Heritage Listings started to move from being ‘the best of the best’ towards being ‘representative of the best’ and comparative studies of sites and monument types were increasingly needed, but they were very difficult. When we were preparing the dossier for the Sydney Opera House, we tried to look at categories such as: iconic buildings, opera houses, architectural masterworks, geographic and chronological comparisons – it was an enormous matrix of things to try to see where these buildings actually sit within world heritage criteria. It’s clear now that the sheer number of nominations for modern sites are growing. In the last ten years 13 properties have been listed, and there are lots more in the tentative lists ahead.
But to get on to the World Heritage List you have to go through this little process [slide shown]: First of all, you have to be on your nation’s tentative list, and that is submitted to the World Heritage Centre. Then there is the development of a very detailed dossier which presents the case for inscription using the guidelines to the convention and the criteria that are in it. That dossier is then reviewed by various advisory bodies, including ICOMOS, for cultural heritage. Then it goes to the World Heritage Committee and they effectively make the decision. The decision can be to inscribe it; to refer it back for more information and more advice; to defer it, which really means to say no; or to not inscribe, which is another form of no. It’s interesting to look at the way these statistics are changing over time as the increasing politicisation of the whole world heritage process really takes hold.
That process can take several years, but the ones that I have observed to be successful are where the criteria are very clearly articulated and where I have to say a fair bit of lobbying has gone on - a fair bit of celebration, a fair bit of talking it up that needs to be part of the process.
What constitutes the outstanding universal value of a place? Many, many meetings have gone down about this kind of issue, and the World Heritage Committee has the unenviable task in such determinations. Despite using and continually enhancing guideline documents, the committee is still being criticised for getting it wrong, and the list is still felt to lack the balance despite those repeated efforts we have talked about.
The World Heritage Committee meeting itself is an absolute marathon. It lasts for two weeks with very long hours and hundreds of delegates lobbying and debating respective sites and decisions. Interestingly, the meetings are now being streamed live on the Internet. So if you want to have a look at them, it is quite instructive to watch what actually goes on.
Ten criteria are used to assess values, six specifically allude to cultural sites, and obviously they are quite similar to the things that we use at a local, state and national level to assess heritage significance. To think a little bit about modern heritage again, at a national level Australia hasn’t looked at its modern heritage. We haven’t yet developed any national inventory or overview of the sorts of places from the twentieth century that we might want to list and protect nationally or locally. We rely on a more reactive methodology, which of course is to do with the resources that Professor Mulvaney alluded to. The exception to this is South Australia, where they have actually done a survey and have a very good picture of what they have in the way of twentieth-century places. The problem with us not doing it, and repeatedly not doing it, is that this numerically is the type of heritage that we have most of, and because we have most of it we tend to think it’s probably not that important and we are losing it. So it’s really important that we start to look at this as a national issue.
The only real thematic study of modern places that has been done on an international basis was done quite some time ago by Docomomo in 1997. They did a seminal report called The Modern Movement and the World Heritage List. But because they are very European and American architectural focused - given their membership strength at that time; it has changed now – almost all of the sites they nominated were again from Europe or North America. The sites they felt were important for World Heritage Listing at that time were Zin in Slovakia, a Bata factory town; Sunila in Finland, a factory town designed by Alvar Aalto; Chandigarh in India, laid out by Le Corbusier; Stockholm in Sweden; Nagele in The Netherlands; Letchworth Garden city and Hampstead Garden suburb in the UK; and August Perret’s section of Le Havre, which is now world heritage listed.
They also identified housing estates like Narkomfin in Moscow or here the Berlin housing estates, which have been recently world heritage listed, as well as Moshe Safdie’s remarkable 1967 habitat in Montreal. Certainly the Docomomo study needs to be reviewed and updated quite urgently now. Despite a lot of good will and good work, there is as yet no comprehensive or broad thematic study of twentieth-century heritage places that moves beyond that Docomomo study. It is time that we started doing that, identifying things thematically and strategically, so that we can have an idea of what are the things that best represent the twentieth century locally and nationally.
If we look at how the science of town planning has been represented on the World Heritage List today, there aren’t too many modern city plans that have already been listed. Here we have a quick list of them [slide shown]: Brasilia, Tel Aviv, Sewell mining town; that part of Le Havre, just the section that was recreated after the war; and very recently the new town that was conceived outside Rabat. There have been a few unsuccessful nominations as well: La Plata was put up by Argentina in 2004, but it was felt to have had too much change and development pressure. The Americans have also considered putting up the city plan of Charleston but they haven’t proceeded with that.
There are several modern city areas already on national tentative lists elsewhere: Chandigarh is obviously on for India; in New Zealand a little art deco district in Napier has been suggested and still remains on their list; in Eritrea the extraordinary modernist city of Asmara is on for proposal; in France, Firminy-Vert, part of the Le Corbusier serial site nomination is presently under examination; and this year India has added to its tentative list parts of its capital city New Delhi, which has a particular relationship with Canberra.
So is Canberra a potential world heritage city? I would like to return to my initial speculation about that. I think we would probably all agree that Canberra is an extraordinary cultural landscape of twentieth-century significance. It well represents the combined works of nature and man. It illustrates the evolution of human society and settlement over time. The paragraph in italics on the left-hand side [slide shown] actually is the World Heritage definition just with Canberra put in front and it reads:
Canberra represents the combined works of nature and man, illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time, under the influence of the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by the natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces, both external and internal.
I think it sits very well within the definition. Canberra as a national capital has exhibited since its inception and early development these outstanding and unique achievements in city planning. The tests which would need to be met for World Heritage Listing are not very dissimilar to the national listing processes. They are about ensuring good management practice and conservation management. There needs to be adequate legal protection, clever boundaries and an adequate management system to maintain the site’s authenticity and integrity.
A question I would like to put to you tonight is: does the proposed National Heritage List area, which is the inner historic area of Canberra, already meet the criteria which are on the right of the screen there [slide shown]? I think an argument could be put for saying that it certainly represents a masterpiece of the human creative genius - the Griffins, Sulman, Holford and many of the departmental planners since. It exhibits that important interchange of cultural values that I have talked about this evening. It is certainly an outstanding example of twentieth-century town planning landscape design and indeed monument construction.
Yes, there would be work to do if it were to move towards World Heritage Listing. Preparing a nomination dossier takes time and takes energy. Comparing Canberra to other modern cities in the world would also be required.
In my role as the president of the twentieth-century committee, I have had the pleasure and the pain of looking at a lot of these dossiers. I would say that in Australia we undoubtedly have the skills for the work; we have the expertise and experience in world heritage circles that is quite legendary; and we have also recently been involved in the drafting of the 2011 guidelines in preparing world heritage nominations. The chair of the heritage council here in the ACT, Duncan Marshall, has been the coordinating author for that. So we have the know-how. We know how to draft good dossiers. We have the tools and the statutory processes in place to inform the management regime. But we do have a major bottleneck, and that is the loss of resources at a federal level that Professor Mulvaney also alluded to, specifically within SEWPaC, the Deparment of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. They need to be able to manage the processes through from national listing and then to consider whether it should move towards World Heritage Listing. As a concerned community we need to recognise that the erosion of staff from those positions and those resources will have a consequential adverse impact on Australia’s heritage resources. It will also have an impact on our international reputation for outstanding heritage management.
Perhaps my question initially is rather rhetorical: we have around us a mature twentieth-century city plan of outstanding heritage value in world heritage terms but do we have the community commitment and indeed the political will to actively either conserve or celebrate it? I would suggest that now is the time for that big vision.
Citizens, admirers and friends of Canberra, at present Australia has just two sites on our tentative list, and they are small extensions of existing sites. Once Canberra is on the National Heritage List, surely it’s time to take it onto the world stage. I will leave you tonight with Daniel Burnham’s words, which doubtless also inspired the Griffins:
Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realised. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.
But the last word must surely belong to the Griffins themselves, firstly to Walter Burley Griffin:
Australia, of most democratic tendencies and bold radical government, may well be expected to look upon her great future, and with it her Federal Capital, with characteristic big vision.
Do we still have that big vision? Can we really celebrate that and conserve Griffin’s heroic plan? However, I think the absolute last word tonight should be Marion’s:
What’s the use of thinking about a thing like this for ten years if when the time comes you don’t get it done in time! Mark my words and I’m not joking either, either you get busy on that this very day, this very minute or …
And the ‘or’ is up to you. Thank you. [applause]
ANNE WATSON: Thanks, Sheri. [inaudible] We have some time for questions.
QUESTION: Sheri, thank you for a lovely talk. New Delhi is in my mind for various reasons at the moment. Their interest has moved beyond the tentative list; they are well advanced in drafting a world heritage nomination. I wondered whether you wanted to chance your arm in a comparative analysis and give us the outcome of this great world heritage steeplechase, because in this race maybe only one horse can win.
SHERIDAN BURKE: Of course steeplechases are banned now, Duncan, so it is not actually going to be that kind of a race. I don’t think it’s a situation of only one horse can win; it’s the question of how you define what the significance is. We know that the plan for Canberra was influential on the plan for New Delhi at least, so there are influences that go back and forward.
The question about if New Delhi gets up and gets in there ahead of Canberra will Canberra ever be considered is one that is a political question as well as a technical question, I think. I would have to slightly slide out of it and say that’s part of the strategy of deciding whether Canberra should go forward and what the timing around that might be.
QUESTION: Early on in your presentation you mentioned all those difficulties with the bureaucrats in Canberra that the Griffins had. Have you considered in a world heritage listing answering the same sorts of questions that would occur again? How much will it cost and will it earn a profit? In these applications or in the process of preparing them, do you consider whether there will be benefits in terms of tourism and that sort of thing that might cover some of the bean counters’ concerns?
SHERIDAN BURKE: The consultation with community and stakeholders in putting up any world heritage listing is absolutely fundamental, and the answers to all those questions have to be up there, clear and promulgated through a whole range of different communication channels. To answer the question I will refer particularly to an example. I sit on the Conservation Council of the Sydney Opera House, which of course is world heritage listed. When the dossier was being prepared, the Opera House was very concerned about the fact that they are a constant live performing house and they need to change seats, carpets and parts of the building all the time, and they were concerned that being world heritage listed might prevent them from doing it.
The city fathers of Sydney were also very concerned that they had quite a range of development applications lined up along the foreshore and clearly they would have an influence. You probably remember the toaster incident in Sydney. They were concerned that there would also be impacts on development. What in fact has happened is that there is a range of management plans and a bilateral agreement between the states and the Federal Government about how development consents will be given. There is also a range of agreements and policy documents that say, ‘When you are proceeding with a development that might impact on the heritage values of the Sydney Opera House, think carefully,’ but that’s about as far as it goes.
The Sydney Opera House has its own conservation management plan - they look after it very carefully – and it has the Utzon design principles. So it has all the management regime pieces in place. It went through an enormous consultation process as the dossier was prepared in 2006-07. The outcome in terms of real constraints on development or difficulties in processing development has not been major from my experience on the Conservation Council.
QUESTION: So it might be that this might actually make the difficulties that we already have with two lots of government in Canberra worrying about the plan easier?
SHERIDAN BURKE: In Sydney we have to continually refer to the city council, the state council and the Federal Government in this particular case. There are processes by which it can be watered down, and by and large it has.
QUESTION: Could I make a frivolous suggestion and then a serious one. The frivolous one perhaps is that I would love to see if the nomination went forward - to use that awful post-modernistic expression - that the ‘B’ word be de-privileged, if that’s the right term. That is the ‘B’ in Burly Griffin. Marion never used, as far as I have ever seen, anything other than ‘Wal’ or ‘Mr G’. Most of his friends seemed to have referred to him as ‘Wal’. He signed most of his documents, although James might correct me, as ‘WB’. I would love to see the ‘B’ word taken out of Lake Burley Griffin and it go back to ‘Griffin’ or ‘Walter Griffin’ – ‘Wal’ would be nice too.
The serious suggestion is: I wonder whether it is possible to put forward a nomination to put Canberra on the World Heritage endangered list rather than the World Heritage List because I truly do believe it’s a city in danger. We had that awful expensive exercise of the Griffin Legacy, producing a lot of glossy books and stuff, and a lot of effort went into it. And then as someone who has lived here on and off for 40 years watching the place gradually rust away, with the final kick in the guts of allowing a huge hole to be punched in the side of it by the airport development so that the actual plans and the ideas are absolutely collapsing around our eyes now. I think it might be more expeditious to put Canberra forward as a World Heritage endangered site rather than the world heritage site.
SHERIDAN BURKE: Max, sadly, a lot of sites are nominated for World Heritage Listing and go straight onto the endangered list.
QUESTION: Just following up from that, what would be the practical ramifications for ACTPLA and NCA if we were world heritage listed? They would probably anticipate it would place some limits on what they can do, particularly for ACTPLA which is very busy bulldozing a lot of the city at the moment. I would like you to comment on that please.
SHERIDAN BURKE: Both parties would have to sit down around the table and establish how the management regime was going to work. That basically will have to happen for the National Heritage Listing anyway. Those kinds of things have to be sorted through. They are really practical issues. When a mission comes to look at a site to see whether it should be world heritage listed, they look exactly at that: how it’s being managed, is it being well managed, does it have the right plans going into the future - those are all issues that have to be considered. Yes, it is a vital part of the dossier.
QUESTION: We have had a lot of trouble trying to remind the Commonwealth that in fact they still own the ACT under section 125 of the Constitution and that under the Self-Government Act for the ACT and under the Planning and Development Act they have actually abrogated their responsibility by giving the territory responsibility for a lot of territory land. I have always been of the view that there are three levels of intervention by the Commonwealth in the Planning and Development Act, and in fact the last level is effectively a call-in power which they have never used. They don’t quite see it that way, but that has always been my interpretation.
With that as a background, my question to you though relates more to the review of the EPBC Act and the current negotiations under way between the Commonwealth, the states and the territories about delegating some of the referral matters under the EPBC Act back to the states and territories. That would be disastrous in the ACT under a National Heritage Listing for Canberra, because you are giving the responsibility back to the territory government which can’t be trusted. I have grave concerns.
I will also declare an interest here. I am one of the nominees of one of the nominations for Canberra listing on the National Heritage List. Our nomination deliberately went for the whole of the ACT, excluding the bits that are already listed in the National Alps and another list of exclusions in our nomination. We deliberately went for as much as we could possibly get on the list, because of many of us are pretty annoyed at the way the territory government is administering the national capital and we are pretty annoyed that the Commonwealth is not living up to its responsibilities of owning the capital for and behalf of the rest of the nation.
SHERIDAN BURKE: It’s pretty hard to respond to that, but I will reflect upon some experience we had when we were doing the consultation for the conservation management plan on Lake Burley Griffin. We did an Internet survey which was an opportunity for people to comment on how they felt about it and how it should be managed. I think Rachel can correct me if I am wrong but I think it was very close to universally positive that the heritage importance of the lake should be well managed. This was from people who sailed on it, who walked around it in the morning, who simply travelled over it on the way to work and from people who had never been there and never would be there. I think that the audience for a significant twentieth-century city is much broader than the people who live here. We are the ones who have to influence the politicians to make the right decisions about it, and that is the issue that is before us now. With the centenary coming up in the next year, now is the time to try to push this very hard.
QUESTION: Sheri, thank you for a wonderful balanced professional and also impassioned lecture, and a call to arms. Looking at the criteria for World Heritage Listing that you put up earlier, I was thinking that everything applied except perhaps the one about traditional societies. But perhaps the very fact that the vision of Canberra was to be as a democratic city and the fact that it stimulates debate and passionate opinions of one sort or another within the city and across Australia is very much part of its contribution to world culture. That is, it’s a city that has always garnered a reaction one way or another. I think there is another dimension beyond the physical in the cultural significance of Australian life that could be honoured and be seen to contribute to the twentieth-century ideal of freedom and democracy.
SHERIDAN BURKE: That’s very true, and I think that is one of the things that really distinguishes Canberra from the other city plans that I gave as examples.
QUESTION: Thank you, Sheri, that was a brilliant talk and fascinating. In regard to the National Heritage Listing, do you anticipate that as a fairly smooth process or should people here be putting in submissions and, if so, when is the deadline?
SHERIDAN BURKE: I never anticipate any government process as being smooth. I think everybody who is interested in Canberra and its future should be putting forward a submission. I think it’s very important, because it is constituents and voters that need to be seen to be supportive of this issue. The date as to when it closes, I am sorry, I don’t know – it has already closed. [inaudible discussion] I would take a leaf out of Walter’s book and say that if the government is serious about looking at the future of Canberra, then the odd late letter would be somehow slipped into the pile on Minister Burke’s - no relation - desk.
QUESTION: Thank you, Sheridan, for laying out the issues so clearly. There is a question that arose from Ed’s point and that is, if the ultimate national listing has a very confined view of Canberra - geographically and in terms of the cultural, democratic and other significance of Canberra - then this diminishes its chances of putting forward a case for a World Heritage Listing. So a lot rides on this National Heritage Listing.
For your money, and I am not asking you to make a prediction, but for those of us who might like to lobby directly to the Heritage Council itself, to Dr Carmen Lawrence, would you favour emphasising the Griffin plans - that is from 1912 through to 1918 that you flashed up on the screen? Would you say that this can be highlighted as something distinctively significant in the modernist town planning landscape architecture of the twentieth century?
SHERIDAN BURKE: I guess in my presentation tonight I was trying to demonstrate that it there is actually more than one layer and that the Griffins’ vision has been embroidered, changed and altered by other similar perhaps but not as great visions. The issue to consider is that, to move forward for World Heritage Listing, it has to be on the national list. Whether there could be a discrepancy between what is listed nationally and what goes forward internationally, that’s another question. That is really a very political and strategic question.
ANNE WATSON: We will stop there. Thank you for those questions and thank you, Sheri, for a really fantastic presentation. (Applause)
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Date published: 01 January 2018