In the late 1880s, after 100 years of British settlement, the people of the six Australian colonies began to be influenced by a developing sense of nationalism. Gradual implementation of the railway system and improved communications with the introduction of the telegraph were bringing people closer together, despite inter-colonial rivalry and disputes over free trade and protection.
At a Federal Convention in 1898, delegates agreed on the need for a new capital, but couldn’t agree on the location. In 1899 Colonial Premiers reached agreement that the Federal Capital would be in New South Wales, but no closer than 160km from Sydney. Until a site was chosen, Federal Parliament would meet in Melbourne.
The Commonwealth of Australia was established by an Act of British Parliament on 1 January 1901—Federation. The first meeting of Federal Cabinet discussed the problem of finding a new capital city for Australia.
The early years of the century saw various disagreements about possible sites for the new capital. In 1902 Federal Parliamentarians had begun making their own inspections of possible sites. In 1903 a Royal Commission was established but it couldn’t agree on a site, instead recommending that Parliament decide. Initially, it couldn’t agree either, but by 1904 decided that a site near Dalgety should be the seat of government. The New South Wales Government was unimpressed and the issue didn’t progress any further until 1906, when the State Government indicated that it was willing to hand over an area of land in the Canberra area for the Federal Capital Territory.
Federal Parliamentarians inspected the area and were enthusiastic about Canberra as a site. The New South Wales Government agreed to release its district surveyor, Charles Scrivener, to survey the actual site for the capital. He selected a fine site and wrote:
the capital would properly lie in an amphitheatre of hills with an outlook towards the north and north-east, well sheltered from both southerly and westerly winds.— Charles Scrivener
Scrivener and his team established their base camp below what is now known as Capital Hill, just under the New Parliament House. The site is marked by their concrete plan storeroom, now a heritage site.
The Federal Capital Territory of 2356 square kilometres finally came into being on 1 January 1911.
Canberra is one of those few cities whose design was the result of an international competition and the city has been developed to a plan since its establishment.
The design competition for the capital was launched on 24 May 1911. Given Australia’s isolation in the days before air travel and modern communications, contestants were not able to visit the site. Instead, they were sent detailed information kits, which included hand coloured reproductions of paintings of the area and a contour map. Large scale models of the site were exhibited in major cities throughout North America, Europe and South Africa. 137 entries were received and put on display in Government House, Melbourne.
The selection of the winning design was plagued by indecision. The designs of three finalists were announced on 23 May 1912: Alfred Agache, Eliel Saarinen and the 36 year old Chicago architect, Walter Burley Griffin. Most of the selection panel preferred Griffin’s design but initially couldn’t decide. Eventually, they chose his design as the winner but it was soon criticised for being ‘extravagant’. In the tradition of fine Government, the three entries were referred to a Departmental Committee who prepared their own design incorporating elements of all three. This was the official plan when the city was formally named Canberra on 12 March 1913.
In 1913 there was a change of government and Griffin was invited to Australia to help develop the city. The Board (and its hybrid plan) was disbanded soon after and Griffin appointed as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction to implement his design.
Griffin’s design symbolically placed Capital Hill at the centre of Canberra, with wide avenues radiating outward, each named after a capital city and pointing in the direction of that city. The land axis linked Mt Ainslie to Capital Hill. The water axis ran from Black Mountain through a lake (which would be created by damming the Molonglo River) and the municipal axis ran parallel to the water axis from the city to Russell Hill. A triangle is formed by running lines through these points and Capital Hill. Griffin proposed that government buildings ought to be built on each side of the land axis on the south side of a proposed lake, rising up in a hierarchical manner towards a focal point on Capital Hill.
Griffin had a background in landscape architecture and worked with the American architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. He was influenced by ‘prairie school’ vernacular and landscape architecture and was thus able to visualise Canberra’s surrounding ranges and hills as providing a frame for the city, which was an important part of his design.
With indecision about site selection, lack of funds due to the 1914-18 War and antagonism between Griffin and some bureaucrats, little progress was made on the capital in the years to 1921. Work on the Cotter Dam commenced in 1912 and by 1913 the brickyards at Yarralumla were up and running. The Power House at Kingston was completed in 1914 and was the first reinforced concrete building constructed in the Federal period. Work on the main intercepting sewer commenced in 1914.
By the early 1920s housing construction commenced to provide accommodation for workmen and the first public servants. In 1921-1922 brick, Lithgow-style cottages were erected at No 1. Neighbourhood Civic Centre (now Braddon), Section 64 Brickyards/Westridge and Power House cottages (now the Barton Conservation Area). These latter cottages were finished in white render, while the the others were red brick. In 1923 a further fifteen houses were built at Blandfordia (in Ducane and Franklin Streets, now Forrest).
How did the people who built Canberra during this period live? The majority of construction workers (if single) lived under canvas, in camps provided for them near worksites. Married men either built their own humpies in the early period or lived in one of the major temporary settlements: Westlake (including Howie’s settlement), Acton, Causeway, Molonglo, Riverbourne, Russell Hill and Oaks Estate.
Single white collar workers lived in the Bachelors’ Quarters at Acton and the female typists, when they arrived in 1925, were moved into the Hotel Ainslie (later renamed Gorman House 1927). The first half of the Hotel Canberra was opened in December 1924 and completed in 1925.
In 1921, the Government chose not to renew Griffin’s contract and appointed a new Federal Capital Advisory Committee under John Sulman. In 1923 the Government agreed that after the 1926 Federal election, Parliament would move permanently from Melbourne and sit in Canberra. Construction of a provisional Parliament House began, but not where Griffin had originally intended: it was moved to a flatter site further down the hill to save money, much to Griffin’s disgust.
Development in Canberra gained pace during this period, with the construction of the Prime Minister’s residence, two government office buildings (East and West Block), numerous other buildings (a dam, powerhouse, brickworks) and the beginnings of several suburbs. Public servants also began to be transferred (compulsorily) from Melbourne to live and work in Canberra.
Residential architecture of the 1920s and 1930s contains a mixture of elements from the Arts and Crafts movement, Mediterranean and Georgian styles. The result is known as the FCC style and is unique to Canberra. Suburbs such as Braddon, Reid, Forrest and Barton offer good examples of these houses. These characteristics are also reflected in the public building of this period, best seen in the Sydney and Melbourne buildings, Old Parliament House and the CSIRO Forestry School in Yarralumla.
Unfortunately the Great Depression knocked construction on the head, although by 1931 the Federal highway linking Canberra to Goulburn had been completed. Projects were halted, hotels closed and the Federal Capital Commission abolished. Canberra—with a population of around 7,000—went into hibernation for a few years. For a brief period in the mid 1930s some funds were found to commence construction of the Australian War Memorial and the National Library in Kings Avenue (demolished in the late 1960s). Some air services began in 1936. However, the outbreak of war in 1939 had an immediate effect and highlighted how little Canberra had developed as the centre of government in the 26 years since its formal establishment.
Canberra’s population was 10,000 in 1939, with only a small number of public buildings and a very basic transport and communications network with Sydney and Melbourne, where the wartime economy would be concentrated. The war effort had to be directed from the three cities, with members of the government and the administration having to move back and forth between the cities by train, sometimes several times a week. Some growth took place, due mainly to the extra 3,000 public servants and their families brought to Canberra along with military personnel and diplomats.
The Australian government was committed to post-war reconstruction and money for the development of the national capital was scarce in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The population had grown to over 13,000 during the war, but with very little infrastructure to support the growth. Canberra was essentially a small country town, spread out either side of the Molonglo River. Residents preferred to shop in Queanbeyan or Goulburn and people cycled to work and school.
Housing shortages and a lack of office accommodation plagued Canberra in the years immediately following World War II. In 1948 a plan to transfer 7,000 public servants and their families from Melbourne was deferred when it became obvious that there was no housing for them. Temporary office accommodation was provided for public servants in Barton and construction workers were housed in fairly primitive temporary housing at Capital Hill, Civic and Ainslie. There was a severe shortage of skilled tradespeople and the construction firm A V Jennings was forced to recruit Germans and Finns to help build urgently needed government housing. Various prefabricated housing forms were also tested.
The government finally lost patience with repeated delays in the transfer of administration from Melbourne and in 1954 a Senate Select Committee was established to inquire into the development of the capital. The Committee report, released in September 1955, slammed Canberra’s development, saying that there had been no positive determination to complete the development of the capital according to Griffin’s scheme in 40 years.
National Capital Development Commission
The establishment of the Committee was the turning point in Canberra’s development. It recommended the establishment of a National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) to plan, develop and construct Canberra with the funds to implement a coordinated plan. This would replace the unworkable situation where responsibility for the city was spread across several government departments. The immediate task for the NCDC, under town planner and architect John Overall, was to supply infrastructure for the city, whose population at the time was 39,000. Griffin’s plan was reviewed and work began on the creation of Lake Burley Griffin—within 15 years Canberra was totally transformed.
The Molonglo River was dammed to create the lake, inaugurated in 1964 with the completion of the Scrivener Dam. With the completion of Kings Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue Bridges radiating outward from Capital Hill, Griffin’s concept of the Parliamentary Triangle was beginning to be realised. Office development accelerated rapidly in Civic during the 1960s:
- Civic Square and Civic Offices, 1961
- MLC Building, 1959, 1964
- Hobart Place, 1962
- Law Courts of the ACT, 1962
- Reserve Bank, 1963
- ANZ Bank, 1964
- Canberra Theatre Centre, 1965
- Center Cinema, 1966
- Ethos House, 1970
New town centres were started to the north and southwest of the city as the concept of the ‘Y Plan’ was implemented. Residents began moving into the Woden suburb of Hughes in late 1963, Belconnen in 1967, Weston Creek in 1969 and Tuggeranong in 1973. As more public servants were transferred to Canberra the population grew rapidly—an astonishing increase of over 150,000 from 1960-1976, when the population had topped 200,000.
Large scale office development accompanied this residential expansion. A Defence office complex was developed at Russell Hill, at one of the corners of the National Triangle and the Treasury Building was completed in1970. The Royal Australian Mint (1964), the National Library (1968) and the Carillon (1970) were also built. Harry Seidler’s Barton Offices followed in 1973. Other government offices were built in the town centres, including the controversial Cameron Offices at Belconnen, to generate retail development and services as the population continued to rise. Many new embassies were also established during the 1960s and 1970s.
However, the Australian economy went into recession in 1975 and in 1976 the construction industry in Canberra collapsed.
The importance of Canberra as a national symbol was further enhanced by the NCDC. A number of major construction projects were completed in the Parliamentary Triangle during the 1980s, including the High Court of Australia (1981), the National Gallery of Australia (1982), the National Science and Technology Centre (1988) and New Parliament House (1988). The most important of these was undoubtedly the new and permanent Parliament House.
A two stage international competition was held for the design of the building in 1979-80, attracting 329 entries. On 19 June 1980 it was announced that the New York firm Mitchell, Giurgola and Thorp had won the competition from four other finalists. After nearly a decade of construction, at a cost of $1.1b, the New Parliament House opened on 9 May 1988, in the Bicentenary of European settlement in Australia. The building was recently nominated by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) to the International Union of Architects’ (UIA) World Register of Significant Twentieth Century Australian Architecture.
Meanwhile, residential development picked up again with the construction of Tuggeranong and its town centre (1987) and the planning of a new town centre at Gungahlin, to the north of Canberra. By the mid 1980s the average cost of a residential lease in Canberra was $34,000, making ACT land some of the most expensive of any Australian capital. A building boom saw further office development in Civic and the construction of the Australian Institute of Sport Complex at Bruce, in Belconnen. By 1988 Canberra’s population had reached 270,000.
The NCDC was abolished in January 1989 and replaced by the National Capital Planning Authority. Self government was then introduced for the ACT with the creation of a Legislative Assembly.
Today, the national areas of the city such as the Parliamentary Triangle and Lake Burley Griffin are under Commonwealth control through the National Capital Authority. The remainder is administered through the ACT Government. By the year 2000 Canberra’s population had topped 300,000; today it approaches 320,000.