Tony Trobe talks to Architect Phillip Cox about Canberra


TT: Given you are a frequent visitor and significant contributor to Canberra’s architectural landscape what is your external perspective?

PC: It’s hard to imagine that Canberra is one hundred years old.  It does not bear the patina or the scars of antiquity. It does not give signs of ageing. It remains a city in adolescence with great expectations, a city where in the future, maturity will give character of age and elegance in aging.  


To the Australians who do not live here and jet in for specific purpose of government and business, the Bush Capital is fresh, green, pristine, low scale and suburban, not an urban experience, not really a city as most 20th and 21st Century cities are seen with their high rise CBD strongly emphasised, but a grand landscape of unsurpassed beauty.  It represents all that is good in Australia and the Australian Felix.


TT: Are Canberrans justified in their own satisfaction with their city?

PC: I tread warily on the subject of Canberra.  For those who live here there is admiration for its many qualities and then there are those who live in other capital cities in Australia where Canberra’s qualities escape the traveller from traditional cities and see it as a government manifestation; a symbol of nation, an abstraction of city, a city in infancy, a city of an aggregation of suburban settlement loosely linked by highways and bi-ways within landscape corridors.


TT: How does Canberra compare with other planned cities?

PC: There have been several attempts in creating capital cities in the world as centres for government of nations and I have chosen four such capital cities which have been designed specifically as such to draw some comparisons of why Canberra represents us best.


There are four most recent examples, which are interesting and bear common features:


  • Washington, USA (1791) (1788 Sydney)
  • Delhi, India (1911)
  • Brasilia (1960) (41 months to build 1956 – 1960)
  • Canberra, Australia (1901 – 1912 – 1913 Canberra)


All these cities have been created by the vision and the decree of governments. No city was there before, they were sites selected away from trade routes, rivers and harbours and all were greenfield sites.  They were all established for the centralisation of government.  They are not natural cities by aggregation of people for trade or defence purposes or commerce, but rather the product of political intervention. They are inherently unnatural in phenomena.



TT: What are the linking themes in these man-made capitals?

PC: :They have many things in common:

  • They all have been artificially created by government  
  • They are not commercially viable, as staid, not being on trade routes or harbours, or rivers
  • Their expression is pride of nation
  • They generally adopt neo-classical architectural forms as the expression of authority and control  
  • They are generally low rise, low density cities
  • They were generally planned without public transport systems  
  • They are heavily reliant on the motor vehicle
  • They are open space dominated


TT: You seem to know Washington reasonably well, how do you compare this with Canberra?

PC: The L’Enfant Plan (1791) for Washington set the pace for Capital Cities based upon American admiration of French planning and grand landscape statements such as Versailles and Haussmannian Paris, hence the commissioning of the French L’Enfant to carry out the plan.  


Certainly Washington incorporates the grand axes with architectural terminals,  Malls, open space networks and bosquette essential features of  French landscape planning. It is the antithesis of Georgetown, the 18th Century settlement, romantic and small in scale village character, which it borders in the same way that Queanbeyan had no planning or vernacular influence on Canberra. Washington is grand, but lacks human scale; it is undemocratic, imperialist in its planning assuming most of the planning dictums of a European heritage.  It is essentially an orthogonal plan slashed by diagonal avenues on intervention.


Washington like Canberra locates its cultural elements in the forefront of the network proudly displaying cultural wealth and value.  Canberra sports in the same way its museums, galleries and courts on prominent waterfront positions as does Washington.


TT: Brasilia has a different configuration do you think it handles the relationship to its suburbs better than Canberra?

PC: Brasilia too adopts the positioning of its cultural buildings along a centralised mall.  Lúcio Costa encouraged the use of the grand axis as the central spine for Brasilia, again using architectural elements to define space. The plan of Brasilia like a winged bird assumes such importance to the body of the central area for its meaning. Unlike Canberra the wings or the residential neighbourhoods are the most interesting and work better in my opinion than Canberra where residential neighbourhoods lack focus identity and definition.


The problem I see in Brasilia is that the central axis is far too long and the government buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer do not read as well from a distance as they do close up. The spaces contained in the first phase around the courts and the parliament is more successful now that additional water elements and earthworks define the spaces more succinctly. It is the most recent of capital cities.


TT: You seem to have a strong admiration for some of the ‘imperial’ outcomes in Dehli.

PC: Out of all capital cities, Delhi, the creation of Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker must be, from the symbolic and imperialist view, the most impressive. The power and the splendour of the British Empire mixed so successfully with the colour, architecture and the intrigue of India.


To stand in the Durbar Hall within the Viceroy Palace at the apex of the mall looking for several kilometres towards the gateway of India is truly a most memorable and spectacular sight. The spatial succession of buildings and monuments has been one of the great feats of the planning.  The waxing and waning of space driving along the mall as the President’s Palace is seen, disappears and reappears larger each time more impressive, empathic – the statement of intimidation and power is impressive.


This is unlike Canberra, which is democratic by comparison. The central axis from Parliament to the War Memorial is not the avenue of spectacular buildings and parade, rather it is a landscape gesture defined by roads and trees to give the effect of monumentality. It succeeds in this, unlike the triangulation between Civic, Defence and Parliament, which do not act visually in a way that is interpreted from the plan.


TT: Was Canberra design visionary or a throwback to the past?

PC: Canberra is a mixture of Beaux Arts Planning and the new found landscape geometries excited by natural features and topography. It is very contemporary in its design and the observance of preserving the integrity of the landscape within sustainable.  The same principles are used in planning dictums today. It was well ahead of its time.  No doubt Griffin’s theosophy, interest in Buddhist and Hindu religions and culture, contributed a great deal to this thinking.  His association with Frank Lloyd Wright and his anti-city philosophy manifested in Broadacre City; was an influence.


TT: What if anything has been lost form the original Griffin concept?

One only hankers for buildings in Canberra that reflect the interpretation of the Marilyn Mahoney drawings which have an Oriental sublimity, her drawings suggest the terraces of an Angkor Wat in the Australian landscape where buildings are integrated and not hidden, but part of an urban landscape. But this did not happen, instead the Canberra plan lacks the spatial elation of Delhi or Brasilia, instead it substitutes urban space with landscape spaces with the lake, definitions to ridges and valleys by landscape with government buildings are merely dotted within. There are no malls, streets, avenues of architectural definition.


The development of Government buildings and Ministries that define the spaces and the main avenues of the Griffin Plan are also missing and it is hoped that this will be addressed in the future. 


TT::Canberra has often been derisively described as “several suburbs in search of a city”. What is your take on its urban character?

PC: As much as I admire Canberra, the element which it lacks is city climax. The creation of a poly-nuclear plan instead of making a nuclear determined commercial area is a mistake. The national triangle barely reads.   There is no true heart or soul to urban Canberra – it celebrates emptiness rather than built form.


I cannot fall in love with the satellites, Woden, Belconnen or Tuggeranong. They will always remain adjuncts to the central area of Canberra robbing it of vitality, which may have been possible had they been aggregated. 


The argument that it was necessary for such urban and residential distribution to avoid congestion of traffic is spurious.  Grand suburbia continued the pattern of suburban sprawl of other cities within Australia. Ignoring the opportunity of creating a denser and more liveable city by higher densities.  The creation of satellite suburbs was an abdication of establishing a network of public transportation that effectively took people from home to work place efficiently.  Instead the motor car remained the primary means of transport with subsequent environmental impacts.


TT: Do you have any favourite buildings in Canberra

PC: There is much salvation in Parliament House and we have to thank Romaldo Giurgola for creating the only possible solution by crowning the hill and creating the finial on the centred axis. The building has  neo-classical elements, such as the colonnades and reference to authority. It is equally remarkable that it satisfied the organic nature of the architecture that Walter Burley Griffin suggested in his plan. It has more to do with the Angkor Wat element in the Mahoney drawings than any other. It is a great building to which we all should be thankful. Like the Sydney Opera House it is a lucky and rare experience.  Canberra is most fortunate. 


TT: What changes have you noticed during your years of association with the Capital?

PC::Canberra is growing up and becoming more human. There is more activity in Civic – more joy, relaxation and pleasure than there has been for a long time.  There still remains the issue of regional government being expressed on Camp Hill to articulate the nodes of the Parliamentary Triangle.  There is a lack of planning and architecture relating to circular sites and geometries and timidness for intervention. The great circular Parliament building of Delhi could well inspire the opportunities of circular difficult sites.


In the end, Canberra is a great place to live and possibly to work. It has a population comprehenable of 400,000 which is realisable; it has art galleries, museums and many institutions that other state cities envy. It has a landscape that is pristine and yet controlled and it has access to the South Coast beaches and the snow fields of New South Wales. It has all things for all people and maintains an egalitarian society despite the hierarchy of Governments


TT::How would you like to see the Capital developing?

PC::The next generation of architects and planners I hope, will not increase the sprawl of Canberra, but rather see new solutions in greater densities within the existing development.  There is much opportunity in developing residential accommodation of all types for the age groups and social circumstance of people who need it. Families with children will always opt for greener suburbia; however the young and the elderly most probably would opt for closer living and access to amenity and entertainment.

There is urgent need for proper transportation systems and railways to be introduced to cut down on the reliance of motor vehicles and there is the much needed fast rail between Sydney and Melbourne to reduce air traffic and the stimulation of growth between the three centres, which is now a hot topic in today’s media.


Both Sydney and Melbourne have benefited from inner city living and I suspect in time this will be the case in Canberra and this will result in better urban spaces . Linking the three cities in a more physical way could prove interesting.


TT::The Capital has two distinct Planning Authorities, what effect does think this has had in its evolution?

PC::The question is has the Canberra plan led by Griffin been improved by subsequent planners?  The answer must be yes, but it has been successfully interpreted by the National Capital Development Commission (NCPC) under a series of Commissioners, such as Sir John Overall and Tony Powell to bring Canberra into reality.  There was some intervention by Empire Planners such as Lord Holdford, but in general the NCDC doggedly determined the dream and we thank them for it.  In my opinion, the introduction of local government has not had the same determination of planning impact as NCDC good as it appears.  It has often been said that planning requires singular determination and design.

TT: Is there anything quintessential Australian about Canberra?

PC: Canberra remains simple, severe, sublime, a landscape beyond the dreams of Repton, Capability Brown or Le Vau. It is the grandest urban landscapes of the 20th Century and has no comparison or peer especially when we again look at the three other cities I have mentioned it has an Australian distinction of endless space.  It is truly an expression of our democracy and the Australian way of living.


It has the languor of the Australia psyche, rolling and subtle, its palate of grey greens and dusky blue hills are like no other in the world.


TT: The Capital has been criticised for its lack of walkability.

PC: The tyranny of the Australian distance is perhaps part of the character and perhaps the downfall of Canberra. It is not a walking city as the distances are too vast, particularly the national triangle.


To me, most great cities of the world are essentially walking cities like London, Paris and Barcelona. Canberra has walking nodes, however these require attention in the future development to ensure the integrity of the landscape and the vision of the Griffin Plan. 


TT: Overall as an experiment in urban design do you think Canberra has been successful?

PC: Canberra will remain one of the great urban creations of the 20th Century and proudly stands alongside with the other four great cities of the world as a great feat and experiment in urbanisation.


Happy Birthday Canberra. Its future is assured as it enters into the second century.


Philip Cox