Monday, May 14, 2012

Lessons for Planning Canberra from Great Cities

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Professor James Weirick (UNSW) is speaking on The Art of City Design: Canberra and the planned capital’s movement. This followed last week's talk on "China’s Canberra: The past and future of Changchun". Professor Weirick started by pointing out it is almost 100 years since the design by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony was announced as the the winner for Canberra's plan.

Griffin's first action on being appointed was to select an eminent international panel of architects to select the design for the Australian Parliament House. But the competition was suspended on the outbreak of World War One. Later Griffin wanted Victor Laloux, architect of the Gare d'Orsay, to design the parliament building.
Musée d'OrsayMusée d'Orsay cafe in old clock towerProfessor Weirick argued Laloux's railway station design was revolutionary, as it integrated the platforms into the main building, instead of being out the back. This was possible as these were clean electric underground trains. The building is now the Musée d'Orsay (with an excellent cafe in old clock tower).

Professor Weirick pointed out the original plan for Canberra had a similar underground railway, which would have brought trains into the city centre.

Professor Weirick then pointed to the "Burnham Plan" of 1909, a "Plan of Chicago" by Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett. This clearly influenced Griffin's Canberra plan, with roads radiating out from a symbolic centre, with a land axis perpendicular to the shore of a body of water.

Burnham also produced a 1901 plan for Washington and San Francisco. The latter plan had the main axis ending with a casino and aligned with a prominent mountain, as Griffin later did with Canberra. Notably more of the Canberra plan was built than those of Burnham. Also Burnham proposed a large statue on the mountain overlooking the city, fortunately Griffin proposed noting so ostentatious.

The plans of Paris, Washington and San Francisco all have an echo in Canberra, just as the Chinese city of Changchun (长春) resembles Canberra. But as QINGHUA GUO pointed out in "Changchun: unfinished capital planning of Manzhouguo 1932–42" (2004), the plan is a Chinese grid with a Beaux-Arts overlay. The same could be said of other plans of the time, Canberra is distinguished not so much for its design, but it is one of the few cities built on a greenfield site and thus expressing the Beaux-Arts plan to the maximum.

A train of the Intramural Railway World's Columbian Exposition 1893Professor Weirick then returned to the role of transportation in planning, pointing out that the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was integrated into the Chicago's public transport system, with heavy steam railway and an electric railway (the "Intramural Railway").

Professor Weirick damed the National Capital Authority with faint praise by saying the analysis of Griffin's original transport plan for Canberra was the most useful part of "The Griffin Legacy". He pointed out that if implemented, Canberra would have an integrated public transport system (at last week it was noted that Changchun got a tram in the 1940s and now has light rail and a high speed train station).

Professor Weirick moved on to the "The Vienna Plan of 1860", with its ring road. Otto Wagner designed the stations for the metro, including Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station. Professor Weirick ended with Helsinki Central railway station, by Eliel Saarinen, who Griffin wanted to involve in the planning of Canberra. Professor Weirick joked that Saarinen design for Canberra, which came second, perhaps should have won (there are similarities to Griffin's design, but no lake).

This was a refreshing and relevant tour of designs realized and unbuilt, for great cities of the world. Professor Weirick combined a discussion of the design aesthetic elements of the planning and the practicalities of modern planning, as it was in the early 20th century. Canberra is to day grappling with the issues of where the city should go: out or up, where to put the public transport and how to resolve public good and private land ownership. The cities of the past which inspired Canberra still have much to tell us today.

No comments: