Friday, 29 November 2013

Canberra as a Planned City - How Early Modernist and American Influences shaped Canberra

To what extent has early modernist and American influences shaped Canberra as the capital city we see today?
The 20th century oversaw many drastic changes as well as new inventions and technologies which would eventuate as pivotal tools and affluences in many western cultures. Along with these new elements came along a new page in urban and town planning. It was a century filled with change and a hungry desire for new directions and approach. It was during this period however where Australia witnessed a new birth of a city, a new capital in the name of Canberra. Canberra steadfastly evolved over a period of 100 years which oversaw new changes and philosophies in the approach of planning, with the likes of Le Corbusier leading the modernist charge, as well as rapidly growing American ‘Empire’ to which its cultural influences would spill across the Pacific. These influences would allow neighbourhood units to thrive, long transit freeways to connect place to place, employment to become a great possibility as well as the administrative centres which would house the Commonwealth government of Australia. Through this essay we will be assessing the modernist and American influences through plans, events, people as well as the competition which started it all.

Early Urban Planning - Pat WIlliams
There is no one definition of urban planning, but can be defined as a technical and political process concerned with the use of land and design of the urban environment, including transportation networks, to guide and ensure the orderly development of settlements and communities. It concerns itself with research and analysis, strategic thinking, architecture, urban design, public consultation, policy recommendations, implementation and management. (Taylor, 2007)Urban planning has been evident since the 5th century mainly in the Egyptian civilisations, but recent archaeological digs are showing planning in most civilisations with buildings and sewage systems being efficiently placed in a settlement. Planning In early Australia was very minimal with most cities being placed on the east coast for trade purposes like most cities. Much like America and early Britain, the lack of strict development regulations saw dense urban neighbourhoods quickly sprawl out of hand eventually turning to slums. (Stout, 1998). This was evident in early Sydney (figure 1) and Melbourne, although this type of early planning was basic, usually only about the placement of infrastructure with no population growth, economics or environmental studies. Planning today has moved from just placement to a range of areas to a range of areas outlined in the definition above such as design and consultation.

Figure 1. Sydney Harbour Bridge with HMAS Canberra in foreground taken from Farm Cove, 19 March 1932.

Between 1901-1930 Canberra offers the best example of ideas and events associated with the garden city movement. In the initial design and location of Canberra as the capital several criteria had to be followed, the most significant includes 100miles from Sydney and agricultural background. This shows that a garden city influence was evident from the beginning.
The beginning of the 20th century was the beginning of ‘city beautiful’ approach to town planning in Australia. (Freestone, 1986). This introduced the British Garden City movement developed in the early 20th century by Ebenezer Howard known for his publication ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ (1898). His strong dedication and advocacy to the Garden City model movement largely influenced the design of Canberra. During this time the garden city was accepted by most with George Taylor explaining in 1914 ‘We can build it as a model city and it’s sweetness will spread; for a garden city is a hundred times more useful, because of the inspiration it creates’ (Taylor, 1914)
Griffin’s design was mostly geometrical but took into account the topography of the site as well. This being an aspect of the garden city in his original plans, also including his tree lined streets and use of parks and gardens. (Freestone, 1986). The whole Manuka retail-complex was designed under the Garden City idea, each residence having open frontage to the street and having garden out the front. (Freestone, 1986).

Figure 2. Aerial View of Manuka Shops c1970s (Griffith, ACT).

The garden city idea later created satellite towns surrounded by green belts. This saw the city and its suburbs being separated by these green belts (open land), the original idea of it being to prevent the possibility of the city becoming congested.
The early planning of Canberra illustrates many aspects of the garden city outside of Australia including aspects of Washington D.C. Although Canberra was not initially designed as a garden city the geometrical contours and care for topography of Griffin’s plan and the Garden City advocacy from Howard saw the movement largely influence the way Canberra has been planned.
White immigration started as early as 1827 with blocks of land being used for farming and trade purposes. Later in 1901 the federation of states created the commonwealth of Australia, creating links to Britain, Which saw us join them in WW1 and the idea of Canberra as the Capital city. This saw many British immigrate to Australia due to freedom and work opportunities. Also during this time increased European migration was evident, this was because of the white Australia policy only allowed ‘similar skinned’ people into Australia. Skilled workers were also needed for the design and creation of Canberra and other major cities, attracting everyone from engineers, surveyors and architects all the way to labourers and farmers to Australia to start a new life. This diversity influenced Canberra’s future planning and the way Canberra functioned into the future.
Major immigration Australia began during WWII, during the abolishment of the white Australia policy, further diversifying and growing Australia and its need for planning.
Figure 3. Griffin’s Plan against Canberra in 2007.

Modernist Planning - Alex Troy Elsworth Adkins
Modernist planning is a relatively recent move in planning theory. Modernist planning theory began around the 1890’s in America (USA) when people started moving from rural and regional areas to urban areas and large cities. This shift from rural to urban areas saw populations of cities boom; between the 1860’s and 1910’s New York’s population went from 470,000 to 5 million people, Philadelphia’s population tripled to 1.5million and Chicago’s population went from 112,000 to 2.1million in the same time frame. This obviously put a lot of stress on infrastructure and planning. Modernist planning theory was put forward to solve these problems, a fundamental part of modernist planning is buildings and being able to build larger and taller buildings to house everything from people to business, (LeGates & Stout, 1998).This began with the birth of the skyscraper which happened in Chicago in 1885 with the world insurance building but since then skyscraper have grown to become taller and cover the landscape of large cities to create their identity, (History, 2013).
The skyscraper allowed modernist planning to house the large populations of cities. A large part of modernist planning is also transport and the motor car, with the automobile becoming more popular and affordable more and more people owned it, (Benevolo, 2013). Modernist planning set out to try and make commuting as easy as possible. The motorway and freeway were built, more roads and bigger roads were built basically in modernist planning theory getting from A-B should be as easy as possible so massive roads were built, (LeGates & Stout, 1998). Then physical and psychological problems started to emerge from environmental degradation, pollution, no areas of recreation or green spaces. People who could started moving out of the cities in to suburbia and then commuting in creating sprawl, more pollution and more need for roads, (Richard T LeGates, 2013). These were issues which planners had to address and Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement directly addressed but this also caused a shift in modernist planning. Modernist planning no longer just looked at building taller and making so called ‘megacities’ modernist planning shifted to try and become a sustainable form of planning theory. Modernist planning shifted its focus to the community and open spaces were included for recreation, 4-12 story developments, with shops and caf├ęs at the base, offices close by and everything within walking distances; New urbanism, (LeGates & Stout, 1998).
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New urbanism                                                                 Kingston foreshore Development
Canberra is a modernist city; it displays all aspects of modernism. Modernism didn’t really start in Australia to around the 1910’s when people relocated from the ‘bush’ to the cities, Canberra is a planned city and it came about in 1913 when modernist planning theory was really taking hold in Australia due to most of Australia’s planning being influenced by the US. Canberra began with a quick influx of people mainly public servants to build this capital with exciting plans put forward by Burley Griffin. What was not foreseen by the government or Canberra was the First world War and Second World War along with the depression had crippled Australia and strangled and enthusiasm for Canberra. Canberra’s future was uncertain but the National capital planning and development committee (NCPDC) wouldn’t let Canberra fail the lake was built, other government departments were moved to Canberra and built around Parkes and Barton. Civic centre was developed with shops and business by the NCPDC and they looked to the federal government for Canberra to have its own University and ANU was established in Acton in 1948, (Reid, 2002).
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Canberra from the 1940’s to plans for Canberra now
Canberra’s architecture then changed its landscape taking a much more modernist planning view from the 1950’s onwards building many more apartments and housing more people also new parliament house and other key landmarks like the high court, national gallery and national museum, (Gordon, 2006).while this encouraged people to come to Canberra and with apartments and taller building there was more room to house them, the people who came to the ‘bush capital’ to live wanted the bush life style so Belconnen, Woden, Tuggeranong areas were created to house people and with Canberra’s population reaching over 100,000 people and every household owning a car Canberra’s road system become front and centre. The national capital development commission (NCDC) came up with a solution the ‘Y plan’ this was based on the modernist planning theory of getting people from A-B as quick as possible. The plan was developing Canberra as a Y with Belconnen and Gungahlin as the top two point’s central Canberra around Civic and parliament in the middle and Woden to Tuggeranong at the base, (Reid, 2002).
The plan is based on sprawl and requires people to spend a lot of time in a vehicle and polluting a lot. With a shift for Canberra to have a viable public transport system and double in size over the next 50years sprawl isn’t seen as a viable option and new modernism is seen as the way to go for Canberra planning with developments like Kingston foreshore, city to the lake, south quay and more high-rise developments varying from 4-28stories with Belconnen and Woden planned to have the tallest building in Canberra in the coming years infill modernist planning a new urbanism styled planning is the future of Canberra’s planning, (ACT Government, 2013).

Americanization of Australian Planning – Joseph Sutton
Modernism has been a part of an Americanisation of planning that has influenced Australian cities. Canberra was designed during the early phases of urban planning models and Walter Burley Griffin’s plan was the start of American planning ideas being introduced to Canberra.

Griffin’s plan was influenced by the L’Enfant Plan that was used to design Washington DC. Both Canberra and Washington have been planned with major landmarks being on a certain angle and distance away from each other. The areas surrounding the centre of the city are noted for having low density buildings and many parks situated near a lake. The street layout is also arranged with hexagonal and triangular angles spiralling off each other, these main roads being major tree lined avenues lining up with the city’s landscape and topography with a grid layout of roads filling in between. The angles and shapes that the major landmarks of both cities have been designed on make for good scenery for residents and visitors. Griffin also took inspiration from the Burnham Plan which occurred in his home city of Chicago in 1909 which was based on having the city closely situated to lake. This concept is based on the City Beautiful movement and the ideas of the Garden City. The ideas are based on having a capital city that is aligned perfectly to make for a healthy city with beautiful environments and scenery. Having been designed by an American, there would always be an influence from American planning ideas in Canberra and that would develop as planning entered the Modernist period. (

Walter Burley Griffin had a very strong relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was a very influential planner in America who had strong designs for housing. His ideas were very architectural based which added more American influence to Australia’s capital. Added American influence came when the competition to design Parliament House was awarded to architect Romaldo Giurgola who had spent most of his career in America. Adding a further American influence to Canberra, this time it was the most important building in the country. (

The relationship between America and Australia was at its strongest around the 50’s and it was then that Canberra begun to fully develop into the city it is today. At the time American planning theories were introduced to Canberra. Heavy use of the car lead to highways being built in America and being introduced to Australia, they were used to connect the new town centres of Woden and Belconnen to the centre of Canberra and the city has continued to expand. This has altered the design of central Canberra with Parkes Way becoming a major road taking traffic away from Constitution Avenue, one of the main roads in Griffin’s plan. The major use of highways however has made Canberra’s heavy use of the use of car a problem with very little public transport causing congestion on roads. The first shopping mall was introduced to Australia during the 1950’s. They were a sign of American consumerism and were the centre part of Woden and Belconnen. The Shopping mall helped shape the way in which Civic works now, away from the original plan of having the major shopping complexes situated around the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings. (Freestone, 2004) (Legates Stout 1998)

The neighbourhood unit is an American planning theory that is very evident and noticeable and the majority of Canberra suburbs. Designed by Clarence Perry, the neighbourhood unit was introduced to Canberra during the 40’s and was a very popular model with Canberra planners. The idea was that the school and local shops are located in the centre of the suburb. The residential houses are located around the major complexes in the suburb. The main idea behind this is that everyone can find their daily needs within their own neighbourhood. The schools and shops are often surrounded by green spaces and parks adding to the Canberra theme of the garden city. This a major influence from America that is seen in all town centres and is the most influential American planning theory to have an impact on America. It serves as a low density version of New Urbanism which comes from the ideas of Modernism. (Freestone 2010)

All of these models and ideas came to Canberra during and part of the Modernist movement in urban planning. The design of Canberra today has been influenced by American ideas during the Modernist period and shapes the city that we now know today.

Canberra as a ‘planned’ city -  Boutros Hanna

Canberra is one of the very few cities around the world to be labelled a ‘planned’ city (others which include Washington and Brasilia). Its planning process since the founding of the nation’s capital has never gone unnoticed. Its finely-implemented neighbourhood units (inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright), its well-coordinated freeways which connect all parts of Canberra, and its approach to the Garden City concept all makes Canberra unique among the rest of the other major cities in Australia. Canberra’s story of how it came to being was indeed that of blood, sweat and toil. 
Australia had just become a nation in 1901 however a new nation needs a new capital city. Sydney and Melbourne fought intensely for the nations bragging rights to host the nation’s capital. However, a compromise was ultimately reached and recorded in section 125 of the Australian Constitution that Melbourne would temporarily host the nation’s capital until a new location (needed to at least 100 miles from Sydney) was discovered and built (Reid, 2002). Charles Scrivener, the surveyor responsible for an appropriate sight, had preference a horseshoe-shaped territory which needed to include a large water catchment. Canberra was ultimately chosen which then allowed competitors to begin work on their drafts to design the new capital city. The competition was announced in April 1911 and many competitors worldwide participated, not to a surprise that the majority of those entrants were from the United States. One entrant, Chicago-based Landscape Architect Walter Burley Griffin, would submit a draft heavily inspired by Washington DC’s planned elements and outlines (Griffin, 2008). Burley’s design of asymmetric elements were designated to accommodate public buildings. Griffin, in his writings says that “The prime object of the Capital City is not an intensive commerce of the throng but the housing of various specialized deliberative and educative activities demanding rather the quiet zones”. His winning design was an arrangement of axes which would place education in one zonal are opposite a variety of headquarters. The Executive, judiciary and legislative components would feature as the predominant elements of the proposal. Garden frontages were initially formed through these coordinated axes so that they did not primarily serve as thoroughfares for communication (Griffin, 2008). Another element of Griffins design proposal were the protection of surrounding hills. This ensured the pristine landscape of Canberra was well preserved (Reid, 2002).
There were no doubts about America’s influence on Canberra as a ‘planned city’. The freeways, housing, neighbourhood units as well as the axis that form the political circles of Canberra. Bear in mind that Canberra was built from a raw site as a result of a compromise – just like Washington. Griffin compares Washington’s geographical location to Canberra’s, asserting “Washington, located politically near the earliest settles coast of a continental area equivalent to Australia, was to represent the civic ideal of an autonomous nationality” (Griffin, 2008). Griffin had apparently worked with the famous Frank Lloyd Wright for a number of years leading up to the competition. It was his time at Wrights studio where he gained most of his influence for designing Canberra as the future capital of Australia. Organic architecture seemed to be the lesson of thought from Lloyd Wright’s studio that invoked Griffin’s future aspirations for Canberra. “Based on careful observation of nature, building not only should appear to grow easily from their site, but each part should conform to the patter of the whole of the design” (Griffin, 2008).
Canberra’s planning during the course of the 20th century oversaw the Federal Capital Commission (1925-1930) which its primary role was to construct and administer Canberra. Their proposals included the 1925 Gazette proposal which contrasted Griffins road plan as well a proposed government group which was designed to build an administrative centre which was again further entailing Griffins proposal. Canberra grew steadfastly during the course of the 20th century however 1966 oversaw a new proposal which further exacerbated America’s influence in Canberra alone. The National Capital Development Commission invited American transport consultants to assist in updating a transport plan which would accommodate a further 500,000 people. This plan would ultimately envisage the future growth in Canberra’s suburbs. This plan was called the Spatial Plan or simply the ‘Y’ Plan as proposal radiated from the city centre (Overall, 1995). Woden and Tuggeranong would form the tail of this plan while the northern suburbs of Belconnen, Gungahlin and Sutton would form the two branches which would ultimately form the ‘Y’ shape. This plan was designed on the assumption that Canberra would remain a car-reliant society where its citizens would use public transport to a minimal extent. This plan provided a development of ‘satellite’ towns in which town would have a major shopping centre, office blocks and entertainment facilities which would serve as a ‘magnet’ in drawing people away from the city centre. The freeways would serve as transit links which was aimed at attempting to avoid large numbers of vehicles through local neighbourhoods. School ovals, community facilities and churches were to be within walking distance from the home. These elements of implementation within the 1967 Spatial Plan reverberate strongly around local communities in the United States. Most neighbourhoods from the1950’s had implemented these proposals which were first evident during the post war era.

Overall, Canberra has been highly influenced by America alone. The Modernist movement began in American and would become a dominant force in planning throughout most of the 20th century. The movement successfully implemented transport in cities and towns to accommodate its citizens, especially the motor vehicle through the idea of the freeways. The New Urbanism, as mentioned by Robert Freestone, is the most influential aspect of the Modernist Movement in the United States as well as the neighbourhood unit. Through these elements, Canberra was able to transform into a capital which can be recognized with similarities to Washington D.C. Walter Burley Griffin, who was inspired by the new American planning theories has successfully managed to make Canberra an ever-evolving city with its sustainable and adjustable elements. Canberra will continue to grow as a capital city if the legacy of Walter Burley Griffin continues to live on through our planning and ideas. It is important that we understand that what we plan today in the nation’s capital may affect future generations yet unborn.

Peer Review: Our group consisted of Boutros Hanna, Alex Adkins, Pat Williams and Joseph Sutton. We had collaborated together on how the modernist movement and American influence played out in the planning process of Canberra. We were lucky enough to meet with a man who has overseen the expansion of Canberra throughout the decades, former chief planner Geoff Campbell. Through our meeting with him on the 28th November, 2013, he was able to elaborate on the Spatial Plan of 1967, the Federal Government and theNCDC’s role in Canberra’s planning and the neighbourhood units which are evident around Canberra today.  Alex Adkins did his research on the modernist movement and their influences in Canberra, Pat Williams pursued the earlier forms of planning which led to the coming of the modernist and American influences. Joseph Sutton explained America’s strong influence on Canberra during the many years of planning while Boutros assessed Canberra from within including the design competition and the Y plan of 1967.





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