Friday, August 31, 2012

World Heritage Listing for Canberra

In the fourth Marion Mahony Griffin Lecture last night, Professor Sheridan Burke, President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) International Scientific Committee on Twentieth Century Heritage, detailed the process for listing the city of Canberra on the World Heritage register. The presentation was entitled "Celebrating the Griffins: contribution to Canberra as a modern planned capital city", at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Professor Burke described Griffin's plan for Canberra as one of the great city plans of an idealist age, but asked what now. Canberra was designed for a a population of 25,000 and the city is now than more than 300,000.

Professor Burke recounted wife and fellow architect Marion's frustration with her husband Walter's delay in starting work on a submission for the design of Canberra. Once designed by Walter, the work had to be rendered by Marion and then transported from Chicago to Melbourne. The design was produced in 9 weeks, just in time to reach the judges in Australia and win the competition.

While designing the initial plan for Canberra, the implementation passed through and was modified by many hands, some in the Griffin's day and much to their frustration.

Griffin assumed he would be appointed to oversee the implementation of his plan for Canberra. However this took until 1913 and there was bureaucratic and political opposition. A revised plan was prepared in 1918 but Griffin resigned due to opposition in 1921.

John Suilman oversaw the second phase of Canberra's development, with detached suburbs, rather than denser terrace housing. As Sheridan explained, this made the provision of services difficult and remains an issue today.

The ANU was developed in 1946 next to Canberra's commercial centre ("Civic").

William Holford was the third architect to oversea Canberra, influenced by the design of Brazilla. Canberra main thoroughfares which had been intended for dense development and public transport were converted to parkways.

Canberra's new parliament house was located on, or in, Capital Hill, rather than down by the lake.

Professor Burke pointed out that with self government, Canberra now has two planning agencies: one of the ACT Government and one federal. The federal government released a "Griffin Legacy" plan, with building down to the lake shore from Civic. This plan did not envision high rise development. Sheridan suggested master-planning for Civic, similar to that at ANU (which has had several years of intensive building).

A national Heritage Listing Proposal for Canberra has been submitted to the Australian Government. A later step would be listing on the World Heritage list. Meetings of the committee are now streamed live on-line.

What Professor Burke did not make clear was what would be the benefits and costs of a listing. The Australian Institute of Architects May 2012 talk in Canberra featured designs for the Chinese city of Changchun, modelled on Canberra, but now growing rapidly upwards. Would World Heritage listing prevent such development happening in Canberra?

Sheridan pointed out that the processes for the heritage status of the Sydney Opera House and complex but work well in practice and so should be feasible for Canberra. It occurred to me that this might actually make resolving the ACT Government versus Federal planning issues less problematic by providing a better framework.

Sheridan expressed concern about a loss of staff resources to prepare a credible Would World Heritage proposal for Canberra and argued for the resources to do this. However, this seemed, perhaps appropriately, echo the difficulties which Griffin had in Canberra with public servants and politicians worrying about short term costs. I suggest that a grand vision therefore needs to be supported by a cost benefit analysis. The cost of the listing would be compared with the benefits ad preferably showing a net benefit.

One aspect of Canberra which is not sufficiently recognized is its role as a center for public administration. While the Parliament has prominence, the work of the public service implementing the machinery of democracy does not. Perhaps this aspect needs to be emphasized in any World Heritage listing.

Castlecrag section of the Landmarks

The presentation was preceded by a guided tour of the Castlecrag section of the Landmarks exhibition in the gallery, by curator Dr Daniel Oakmanwith. This features items from the Sydney suburb designed by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. The exhibition features a concrete tile-making machine used at Castlecrag, with a modular building system, patented by Griffin. The museum 3D laser scanned a number of the interlocking blocks and reproduced these in rubber for children to use as giant building blocks. I suggested to Dr Oakmanwith that a miniature set of the blocks would be a popular item in the gift shop. Also it would also be interesting to have engineers research the features of the knitlock system, to see if with modern materials and techniques it could be used for building in less developed countries.

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