The city of Canberra is located in the Australian Capital Territory, a 2,356 square kilometre area of land handed over by the NSW government in 1911 for the site of Australia’s new capital. The Territory is a hilly environment containing much natural bushland, while the tree-clad, landscaped city itself has been described by Jennifer Taylor in Australian Architecture Since 1960 as:
a vast garden containing buildings as individual objects.
Canberra’s planned beginnings
Canberra’s beginnings as a planned city established conditions that were different from Australia’s other major cities. Early development came in fits and starts, with government indecision, World Wars and the Great Depression severely limiting the amount of public building undertaken before 1950. Despite this, and the fact that modernism came relatively late to Australia, there are some very good examples of inter-war functionalist architecture in Canberra, including one of Australia’s earliest modernist houses, designed by Malcolm Moir.
The development of modern Canberra
Following the establishment of the Australian National University in 1946 and the gradual transfer of government departments from Melbourne, some public building took place during the 1950s. Growth accelerated with the establishment of the National Capital Development Commission in 1957, and during the 1960s and 1970s Canberra was transformed.
During this period many important national buildings were constructed, such as the National Library, High Court, National Gallery and New Parliament House. Significant office complexes like the Cameron and Barton Offices were built for the public service. Notable buildings completed for national and community institutions include the Academy of Science (Roy Grounds, 1958), the School of Music (Daryl Jackson, 1976), Woden TAFE (John Andrews, 1981) and the National Indoor Sports Centre (Phillip Cox, 1981).
Canberra’s residential architecture
These public achievements were paralleled, on a smaller scale but just as notably, in the post-war boom in Canberra’s housing industry. This examination of modern residential architecture in Canberra highlights the work of many prominent architects, whose significant work can be viewed within our own neighbourhoods.
Incidentally, Federal Capital Commission architecture from the 1920s and 1930s is unique to Canberra—but is not examined on this site. The best coverage of FCC architecture can be found in The Early Canberra House 1911-1933, edited by Peter Freeman.
The presence of work in Canberra by leading Melbourne and Sydney architects is unusual and the major developments in Australian post-war architecture are well represented in Canberra’s residential architecture:
- The post-war Melbourne regional architecture of Roy Grounds and Robin Boyd.
- Harry Seidler’s Bowden House shows the Bauhaus influence that figured strongly in developments in post-war Sydney.
- There are numerous examples of the post-war international style from Seidler, Sydney Ancher and Alex Jelinek.
- Sydney regional architecture of the late 1960s is well represented. Ian McKay, Allen, Jack and Cottier, Roger Pegrum, Michael Dysart and Ken Woolley have all designed houses here.
- The organic architecture of Enrico Taglietti.
There are many distinguished and interesting houses in Canberra. Most of Australia’s leading post-war architects have designed houses here—often while working in Canberra on larger building projects. Roy Grounds, for example, who designed the Australian Academy of Science building formed relationships here with prominent academics such as Sir Otto Frankel, and later designed Frankel’s house in Campbell. The firm Grounds, Romberg and Boyd established an office in Canberra, located in one of the Forrest Townhouses designed by Grounds.
Other architects worked on a private commission basis as a result of referrals from people of similar background. For example, Robin Boyd was recommended to Professor Frank Fenner by Professor Brian Lewis, who was designing University House and was briefly Chief Planner at the ANU in the early 1950s. Lewis was Professor of Architecture at Melbourne University in 1948 when he recruited Robin Boyd to teach there part time. The Fenner House is profiled on this site.