An Emerald City ?

Water and the Colonial Picturesque at the National Capital, 1901-1964

by Christopher Vernon

© all rights reserved


The transformation of an obscure, arid plateau into Australia’s national capital began in 1913. Now, less than a century later, Canberra has grown to a population of over 300,000 people and become Australia’s largest inland metropolis. Encountering the city today, however, is an ethereal experience. Traditionally, the civic grandeur associated with national capitals is derived from concentrations of architectural magnificence. Canberra’s grandeur or monumentality, however, emanates from the omnipresence of the city’s landscape -especially its luminous Lake Burley Griffin centrepiece. The capital’s distinctive landscape pre-eminence is not accidental. In fact, mediated by a nationalistic fascination with landscape -both native and recollected- design visions for Australia’s capital were securely in place before the city had a site, a plan or even a name. Although often competing, these early visions for the national capital shared ‘memories of green’ and an inter-related preoccupation with water.

 A New National Capital

On 1st January 1901, six of Great Britain’s antipodean colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia. Ambition to build a national capital quickly followed. Convened that May in Melbourne, the temporary capital, a ‘Congress of Engineers, Architects, Surveyors and Others Interested in the Building of the Federal Capital of Australia’ galvanised interest in the enterprise.1 In harsh contrast to the ’emerald green’ and comparatively lush landscape of its colonial origins, the Australian nation occupies a brown, arid continent. Unsurprisingly, the role water would play at the new capital pervaded the Congress’ wide-ranging deliberations. Delegates resolved, for instance, that water and its supply should be considered not only for ‘sanitary services’ but also ‘the creation of artificial lakes, maintenance of public gardens, [and] fountains.’ Discussion, however, was not confined to water’s utility; the resolution also had aesthetic implication. Use of the term ‘lakes’ -in lieu of ‘reflecting pools’ or ‘basins’- suggests not only water bodies of considerable scale, but also ones irregular in outline and ‘nature-like’ in appearance.

A congress delegate, Mr A Evans, made this aesthetic dimension explicit in his paper ‘A Waterside Federal Capital’. For him, water was ‘the most important factor in affording a grand perspective to a noble city’, adding that ‘the close proximity of a large sheet of water to palatial buildings enhances their appearance immeasurably’.2 Illustrating his point, Evans cited the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition as an object-lesson. At the Chicago fair, he asserted, ‘magnificent’ architectural effects were ‘produced by the presence of fine sheets of water’. ‘Imagine’, Evans speculated, ‘the same design spread over a waterless landscape’?

‘A Waterside Federal Capital’ also underscores water’s prominence within debates as to the future city’s site. Although thinly veiled by its title, Evans’ essay was actually a propaganda piece; it advocated less the generic concept of a waterside capital and more the banks of Lake George in New South Wales (NSW) as its ideal location. Indeed, the Congress proceedings featured Sydney architect Robert C G Coulter’s graphic representation of Evans’ urban vision for the naturally-occurring lake as its frontispiece.3 Evans rhapsodised:

The view is taken from the Governor-General’s residence, shewing his water-gate entrance in the left foreground. On the sloping hillsides and down to the water’s edge are the palatial buildings of State and learning, whilst dotted amongst the foliage appear the villas of the residents and the spires of churches and public buildings. Along the shores would be handsome promenades and jetties. In the water appear picturesque boating sheds, whilst the white wings of yachts on the Lake fill in the picture, alike beautiful in the full blaze of day, or in the purple twilight’.4

Coulter’s rendering was both an artwork in itself as well as a purposeful representation of a spatial design proposition. Considering this dualism, Evans’ descriptive use of the term ‘picture’ is telling. Here, ‘picture’ refers not so much to the drawing as it does to the configuration and visual effect of the city it depicted. Along with ‘picture’, phrases such as ‘dotted amongst the foliage’ suggest that Evans scenographically conceptualised and, in turn, advocated the capital itself be like a ‘picture’ or ‘picturesque’. Originating in Renaissance England, picturesque landscapes take the natural world as their model and rely upon irregular expanses of water and sylvan luxuriance for their effect. At best, these considerable environmental requisites render the Australian application of picturesque technique problematic. Given this, Evans’ view also attests to the potency of nostalgia, if not imperialism. Indeed, even Coulter’s image was literally and metaphorically Eurocentric. Although the city’s architecture and symbolic content might be ‘Australian’ and its trees of local species, the twentieth-century nation’s landscape taste -at least for Evans- remained colonial, rooted in eighteenth-century Britain. 5

In Australia, the picturesque was introduced with the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788. ‘Almost Phillip’s first act on land in a Sydney Cove’, Paul Carter assessed, ‘was to mark a line on the ground’. ‘The line’, he explains, ‘had a double function: it created an enclosure, and it also defined what lay outside it as no longer a continuum of gloomy woods but as a newly picturesque backdrop, a theatrical setting for the first act of the great colonial drama’.6 The picturesque, however, was not simply a benign matter of optics. Along with bringing the unfamiliar, newly-encountered Australian landscape into scenographic focus, colonists physically remoulded the terrain into picturesque conformity. ‘New landowners’, Carter enlarges, ’employed gardeners to create landscapes that looked antique, wilderness-like, picturesque’. These landscapes of artifice featured ‘clumps of trees, intersecting slopes, [and] glimpsed sheets of water [which] were fitted together like a jigsaw until it was hard to imagine it looking any other way’.7 This metamorphosis, Carter argues, was motivated by the colonists’ desire to ‘disguise the artificiality of their usurpation’.8 Similarly, a picturesque Australian capital would obscure the nation’s youth and, through aesthetic and stylistic continuity, visually evoke its political status as a member of the larger Empire. If the Sydney Cove settlement was the colonial drama’s first act, then the construction of a new national capital would be its last.

Evans’ Lake George campaign furthered the protracted ‘battle of the sites’ begun earlier in the debates surrounding Federation itself.9 Having adopted American precedent, Australia’s constitution required the national capital to be positioned within a larger federal territory. Seven contested years later in 1908, the ‘Yass-Canberra’ district of New South Wales was selected.10 With the federal territory finally identified, surveyor Charles Scrivener was now entrusted to determine the city’s specific site. Scrivener’s official instructions confirm that the national capital enterprise was as much a landscape design proposition as it was an engineering concern. As such, the site’s selection criteria codified and embedded a picturesque approach from the outset. Potential locations were to be evaluated, for instance, from a ‘scenic standpoint, with a view to securing picturesqueness, and with the object of beautification’.11 The city itself was to be ‘beautiful’ and occupy ‘a commanding position with extensive views’ and ‘distinctive features’. In 1909, the surveyor selected the ‘Limestone Plains’ -an open, largely pastoral site in the broad valley of the Molonglo River- as fulfilling these considerable criteria. T he new capital’s site now fixed, the Commonwealth launched an international competition to secure the city’s design in 1911. However, its choice of a dry inland site-a variant of the ‘waterless landscape’ that Evans urged be avoided- made the need for artificial water bodies acute. Consequently, amongst its myriad of requirements, the competition brief encouraged participants to consider damming the Molonglo to create ‘ornamental waters’.12

The Griffins’ Canberra

In May 1912, American landscape architect Walter Burley Griffin’s (1876-1937) design was selected as the competition’s winner.13 Although submitted in Walter’s name, the plan was actually conceived collaboratively with his wife and professional partner, Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961). Unlike others’, the Griffins’ submission was distinguished by its sensitive response to the site’s physical features, especially its rugged landforms and watercourse. This attribute proved paramount to their design’s success. Organised on a cross-axial scheme, the Griffins’ plan fused geometric reason with picturesque naturalism.14 When negotiating the fit of their geometric template with the actual site, the couple opted to venerate existing landforms. Hills, for instance, were not design impediments to be erased, but ‘opportunities to be made the most of’. Discerning a linear correspondence between the summits of four local mounts, the couple inscribed and accentuated the alignment with a ‘Land Axis’.15 Anchored by Mt Ainslie at one end, the Land Axis extends some twenty-five kilometres to its other terminus, Mt Bimberi. By using its topographical features as axial determinants and visual foci, the Griffins ‘sacralised’ the future city’s physical site.

For the Griffins, the Molonglo valley posed no less a design opportunity than did the site’s landforms. Accordingly, the couple delineated a ‘Water Axis’ across its ‘Land’ counterpart at a right angle, aligning it with the river course. Answering the competition brief’s call to establish ‘ornamental waters’, the Griffins reconfigured the river to form a continuous chain of basins and lakes which stylistically reconciled ‘formal’ with ‘natural’. As one moves out from its centre, the water body’s outline and spatial character metamorphoses; the central basins’ geometry gives way to the irregular margins of the terminal ‘East’ and ‘West’ lakes. Here, the banks take on the character of a naturally-occurring wetland, a visual and spatial quality perhaps more compatible with Australian anticipation of the picturesque. Scenographically, when considering the city from its inner summits, these ‘ornamental waters’ punctuate the middle-ground view. The Griffins’ waterway, however, served more than static ‘ornamental’ purposes; it was also a functioning, hydraulic system.

 The Griffins’ Aqueous Design Sources

A multiplicity of American sources informed the aqueous dimension of the Griffins’ design for the Australian capital. Amongst these, the work of pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) looms large. In 1893, the Griffins’ native Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, providing Walter and Marion with opportunity to experience Olmsted’s artistry at first-hand. In fact, Walter -then still in high school- made excursions to the fair during its construction and after its official opening. Its layout largely Olmsted’s creation, the exposition realised, if only ephemerally, an ideal city in miniature on the shores of Lake Michigan. Juxtaposed against the chaos of nearby Chicago, the exposition’s ‘Court of Honor’ centrepiece was a unified cross-axial composition of ‘white’, classically-inspired buildings. Demarcated by reflecting basins, the axes gained spatial dimension from the fair’s historicist architecture. Through their linear alignment and vertical mass, buildings enclosed and contained lateral views and established spatial corridors. One axis took the exposition’s Administration building as its western terminus; the multi-storied structure also serving as a viewing platform. From here, the eye looked east and travelled down the aqueous corridor’s trajectory, past a monolithic statue of the ‘Republic’, through the backdrop ‘Peristyle’ and across the lake to rest at the distant horizon; the nexus between the water’s shimmering surface and the blue dome of the prairie sky. This was one of the ‘magnificent’ effects Evans later praised at Australia’s 1901 federal capital congress. North of the ‘Court of Honor’, one encountered Olmsted’s ‘Wooded Isle’ and its irregular lagoon surrounds -a serene, green oasis set amidst the intense animation of the ‘ White City ‘. This ensemble foiled the regular geometry and classical ambience which otherwise typified the exposition. Here, the planting was alluringly tropical in its effect, synthesising local wetland prototypes with the exotic luxury of Panamanian rainforests. On the island itself, a Japanese temple and garden heightened the precinct’s ethereal atmosphere. Overall, at the World’s Columbian Exposition, architecture and landscape were continuous and intimately linked. Griffin later adapted Olmsted’s compositional strategies and planting typologies in his own work, most prominently at the Australian capital. The Griffins’ use of water as Canberra’s urban nucleus and an axial focus, for instance, took the Court of Honor as its precedent; the ‘Wooded Isle’ similarly provided an object lesson for the city’s lakes.

Olmsted’s 1887 design of a park system for metropolitan Boston was also of great import to the Griffins. Here, Olmsted linked the city to the coast with a parkland armature known as the ‘Emerald Necklace’.16 When delimiting the integrated network’s extent, Olmsted innovatively sought to replace political with natural boundaries. Along with local river catchments, the parkland’s limits -otherwise seemingly amorphous- actually expanded and contracted as necessary to conserve examples of regionally-distinctive landscape types. These sites included not only botanical, geological and other natural features, but also cultural landscape vignettes such as rural scenery threatened by the burgeoning city. At the finer scale, Olmsted’s 1879 ‘Back Bay Fens’ park design, the necklace’s most important ‘jewel’, challenged convention. Eschewing more familiar, cultivated imagery, the landscape architect took the locale’s indigenous salt marshes as his alternative aesthetic source. Along with his radical aesthetic, Olmsted envisaged the Fens as a hydraulic system, functionally analogous to its naturally-occurring counterparts. Tidal fluctuations, for instance, were accommodated by means of flood gates. Functionality similarly underpinned the Griffins’ design vision for Canberra’s waters.

Canberra was the Griffins’ crucible for design ideas derived not only from precedents set by others -such as Olmsted’s visionary projects- but also their own work. When conceiving their Australian capital design, the couple enlarged approaches and techniques tested earlier in Walter’s landscape architecture. Within this context, his 1906 campus design for the Northern Illinois State Normal School is one of Canberra’s direct precursors. His most extensive to date, the project included not only considerable planting but also composing an array of new buildings, a ‘sports field’ and ‘grandstand’, a playground and a thoroughfare network.17 Unlike Chicago’s level, undistinguished tracts, the rural school’s expansive property -some twenty-seven hectares in extent- undulated and was bisected by a tree-lined river meander and stream. Taking the river and stream as emphatic cues, Griffin manipulated the watercourses to form an integrated network of artificial cascades, pools and lagoons. Mirroring the school’s main building on their surface, the chain of water bodies became the campus’ luminous focus.

The design prominence Griffin awarded the river and lagoons expressed his special mystique for water and its distinctive position within the regional landscape. Although comparatively abundant with respect to rainfall, water’s physical presence in the landscape -save for the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River- is almost as rare a phenomenon in America’s vast inland prairies as it is in Australia. Consequently, features such as rivers were spatially precious. Unlike in ‘Atlantic coast cities’, a contemporary professional journal explained to its largely Eastern readership, only roads ‘that follow the course of the rivers or the shore of lakes’ dispelled the ‘chess-board monotony’ of the Middle West’s otherwise ubiquitous grid.18 Water was a genuine relief of geometry as well as a reflector of sky. Canberra’s centrepiece basins and lakes, designed five years after the Illinois campus, confirm that Griffin’s mystique for the aqueous was abiding.

In its seamless fusion of crystalline geometry with picturesque naturalism, Canberra displays another debt to Griffin’s Illinois campus. Along with its water bodies, the campus featured a series of formal terrace gardens, enveloping the school’s principal building. Here, the gardens’ plan geometry reconciled the ‘octagonal battlements’ of the building’s castellated architecture with the wider landscape.19 As the composition’s set piece or fulcrum, the gardens provided an elevated platform from which to view the lagoons in the middle distance and the sylvan landscape beyond. Assessing Griffin’s synthesis of the ‘formal’ with the ‘natural’, the school’s gardener observed that ‘no abrupt or startling transition from one to the other style is discernible’.20 For Griffin, however, ‘formal’ and ‘natural’ were not merely stylistic issues. More profoundly, Griffin’s resolution expressed his conception of the natural world itself. For him, nature’s form vocabulary or ‘language’, as for instance expressed in botanical reproduction or crystal formation, was an essentially geometric one.

A Competing Vision

Initially, the Griffins’ American-born design for the Australian capital appeared to be compatible with local aesthetic sensibilities, especially notions of landscape beauty. Unlike Chicago’s increasingly urbanised hinterland, Australia remained the place where, as novelist D H Lawrence asserted, ‘people mattered so little’.21 Partly owing to the spatial insignificance of human occupation, the native landscape was pre-eminent. By the 1912 Canberra competition, fuelled by domestic sources such as Heidelberg School landscape paintings, an idealised image of ‘the Bush’ had already gained potency as a symbol of an inextricably ‘grounded’ national identity. The competition judges possibly saw the Griffins’ design as a celebration of the national landscape; owing to the significance it awarded their capital’s physical site. The two American designers, however, were unaware of the local landscape’s increasingly nationalistic connotations.22 Marion Griffin compellingly conveyed their design’s landscape imagery in a series of exquisite renderings, in themselves works of art.23

The decision to award the Griffins’ design first prize, however, was not unanimous. In fact, a dissenting judge had given first place to a local design by Sydney architects Griffiths, Coulter and Caswell. This consortium’s ‘Coulter’ was the same architect who had prepared the ‘Waterside Capital’ rendering for the 1901 federal capital congress. Now, a decade later, his group’s submission similarly featured a watercolour perspective ‘view of the lake at sunset’.24 Despite the dimly lit view, the ground’s surface is nonetheless visibly awash in green and, unlike in the Griffins’ scheme of geometric containment, the margins of this group’s ‘ornamental waters’ meander. This was, arguably, the imagery of a city more at home in the Northern hemisphere; one evidently more compatible with local anticipation. Ultimately, however, Minister for Home Affairs King O’Malley’s final decision endorsed the Griffins’ victory.25

The Griffins Endorsed

Vital to their design’s success, Marion Mahony Griffin’s renderings contrasted dramatically with Griffiths, Coulter and Caswell’s submission. Infused with sepia, gold and other luminescent tonalities, her alluring graphic ensemble evoked the site’s more authentic landscape coloration. Apparently under the drawings’ spell, an English critic, for instance, rhapsodised that ‘the buildings are spread so thinly on the ground, are so masked with trees, and are so small relative to the majestic roll of the terrain, that you see, not them, but Australia’.26 Despite its laudatory intent, this assessment also reveals that the drawings were potentially deceptive in their persuasiveness; the images were easily misread by lay people. Save for her ‘City and Environs’ plan view, the visual impact of the proposed city’s geometry and Chicago-like density was diminished, if not camouflaged, by Marion’s portrayals of the site’s vegetation and landforms. This phenomenon is exemplified in her ‘View from summit of Mount Ainslie ‘; therein, an elevated foreground of delicate, layered foliage veils the rigid street geometry of the city below. Some, perhaps, appreciated the irregular, picturesque imagery of the Griffins’ city at the expense of its regular, highly-structured reality.

Newly-appointed ‘Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction’, Walter Burley Griffin, along with Marion, moved to Australia in 1914. Beginning Canberra’s detailed design, he awarded priority to road layout and planting with local species. Buildings were to be constructed afterwards, carefully inserted within this structural template. Griffin’s Canberra tenure, however, proved short-lived. Political antagonisms and the financial restraints posed by the World War conspired against the complete realisation of the couple’s design.27 Walter’s official association with Canberra ended controversially with the abolition of his position in 1920. Afterwards, his singular role was usurped by a succession of advisory bodies. Nonetheless, a version of the Griffins’ design was officially gazetted -enshrined in Commonwealth law- in 1925. The gazetted plan, however, reproduced only the couple’s street layout, omitting the design’s land-use and other structural elements.

Post-War Canberra

By the 1950s, some three decades after Griffin’s departure, the national capital was languishing. More a disparate assemblage of garden suburbs than a city, Canberra still lacked a palpable urban fabric.28 The capital, however, found a champion in Prime Minister Robert Menzies. With his support, a Senate Select Committee was appointed to investigate the city’s development in 1954. The committee found, somewhat predictably, that administrators saw Canberra not ‘as a national capital’, but ‘as an expensive housing scheme for public servants’.29 The inquiry also had a more unanticipated outcome. Sydney town planning academic Peter Harrison reported that realisation of the Griffins’ design was not contingent upon the ‘construction of grand buildings’; arguing instead that buildings were ‘made important’ by ‘their setting’. For Harrison and the Senate Committee, Canberra was ‘not an architectural composition but a landscape composition’.30 Although he accurately identified landscape’s pre-eminent position within the Griffins’ scheme, Harrison’s conception of it as simply architectural setting conveys the contemporary power of the Modernist viewpoint. Such a vision sees architecture in rational opposition to the chaotic natural world. Architecture, in turn, is held as the only means by which to order and structure that chaos. Landscape, instead of as a formal entity in its own right, is regarded as merely setting or the space in-between buildings. Nonetheless, Harrison’s close study of the original plan amounted to a rediscovery and, at first, it appeared to resurrect the Griffins’ vision for the capital.

Bolstered by the Senate Committee’s bipartisan support, Prime Minister Menzies acted decisively and sought expert advice to restart the city’s development. Again, the Commonwealth looked overseas. This time, however, the gaze -influenced by Menzies- was to London, not Chicago, and British town planning authority William (later Lord) Holford (1907-75) was solicited for design recommendations. Accepting the Commonwealth’s invitation, Holford travelled to Canberra in June 1957 -fresh from adjudicating Brazil’s design competition for its new national capital.

Brazilian Parallels and Inspiration.

Contemporaneous with the Australian government’s enquiry into Canberra’s development, elsewhere in the Southern hemisphere, its Brazilian counterpart renewed a long-standing initiative to build a new national capital -Brasilia- in 1955. Abandoning coastal Rio de Janeiro for an inland site, the Brazilian government elected to stage a national design competition for Brasilia and retained William Holford as one of its international adjudicators. As such, he was instrumental in selecting the winning design.

Lúcio Costa (1902-98) won the Brasilia contest in March 1957. For him -and opposition to the Griffins’ approach- Brasilia was ‘a deliberate act of conquest’ and its site a wilderness tabula rasa. As his first design manoeuvre, Costa inscribed the site, a plateau devoid of topographical incident, with a grand cross-axis. The primary spine of the cross, the ‘Monumental Axis’, is an expansive turf mall lined with governmental buildings. The cross armature ‘Motor Axis’, literally an automobile thoroughfare, follows a broad arc; its curvature a pragmatic concession to the plateau’s sloping edge. Whereas Canberra’s landforms dictated the Griffins’ axial alignments, Brasilia’s axes were the assertive products of Costa’s adherence to Modernism’s functionalist, geometric ideals. Lacking the spatial and visual containment afforded by rugged landforms, Costa’s axes risked vacuousness. In remedy, he relied upon monumental architecture for axial accentuation.

Brasilia’s most comprehensive landscape design project was the creation of an expansive artificial lake, Lake Paranoá. Approximating the broad arc of the ‘Motor Axis’, the lake is sinuous and irregular in outline; a rare violation of the city’s geometric order. In Costa’s plan, the juncture between the Monumental Axis and the lake became a nodal location for the ‘Place of the Three Powers’, a concentration of executive, judicial and other governmental buildings. Unlike Canberra, Brasilia ultimately derived its identity not from landscape, but from architecture. Nonetheless, Holford would extend Brasilia’s influence to the antipodes through his design proposals for Canberra’s artificial lake.

The Triumph of the Picturesque.

In June 1957, only three month’s after Costa’s Brasilia victory, Holford travelled to Canberra. After but a fortnight, Holford returned to London and completed his Observations on the Future Development of Canberra, ACT that December. The next year, Menzies established the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) to implement the report’s initiatives. Although charged with effectively ‘re’- planning the entire city, Holford also developed two inter-related, more detailed physical design proposals which nested within his overall plan for the capital.

Like Peter Harrison and the Senate Select Committee, Holford also saw Canberra more as a landscape design than an architectural proposition. Indeed, the most dramatic built outcome of Holford’s consultancy would not be a new government edifice, but the capital’s much-anticipated lake. With Lake Burley Griffin’s completion in 1964, the city at last was unified in a manner compatible with the couple’s vision. At the same time, however, the lake encapsulated prominent departures from its namesake’s original design.

Unlike the freedom afforded Lúcio Costa when configuring Brasilia’s lake, Holford -and his successors to this day- was constrained, if not haunted, by the Griffin’s original design for Canberra’s water body. Despite the significance the Harrison and the Senate Committee awarded the Griffins’ design approach, Holford’s diverged considerably from the couples’ and he was no less determined to evince his own hand in the city’s design. British Modernism, paradoxically, was historicist in its landscape expression; drawing upon and re-vivifying the Eighteenth century picturesque. Believing it necessary ‘to amend [its] formal symmetry’, Holford dramatically revised the couple’s design in its belated execution. Holford now sought a ‘frankly picturesque treatment’ as, for him, it ostensibly ‘would be more in keeping’ with the city’s ‘beautiful background of hill and valley’.31 Consequently, instead of the precise, geometric clarity the Griffins originally envisaged for the central basins, the new lake’s margins were alternatively executed with an irregular edge and cloaked with picturesque parklands. Although this result was, to a lesser degree, an economic concession to the steep topography at the lake’s edge, the new lake’s configuration and its parklands was, more prominently, the product of Modernism’s benign landscape imagery.

When re-conceptualising Canberra’s lake, Holford’s design concern extended beyond the water body’s outline. In fact, he saw its banks as the ideal locus for Australia’s still yet to be constructed permanent Parliament buildings. This was a view informed not by the Griffins’ thinking but by his own Brazilian experiences. Taking Brasilia’s ‘Place of the Three Powers’ as his precedent, Holford now proposed to similarly position the government at the lake’s edge. Set amidst the lake’s wider parkland surrounds, when viewed at a distance Australia’s Parliamentary buildings would resemble follies in an English landscape garden. Like the lake’s new configuration, Holford’s ‘Lakeside Parliament’ was also a dramatic departure from the Griffins’ vision. Abandoning the Griffins’ elevated hilltop site, Holford shifted the buildings further down the Land Axis to the lakeshore. At long last, Canberra was now poised to realise a Modern variant of Coulter’s half-century old visions of a picturesque waterside capital. Implementation of the scheme began in 1958. After a decade as the city plan’s status quo, however, Holford’s ‘Lakeside Parliament’ was abandoned in 1968.

Although its Parliamentary nucleus was later deleted, the 1964 completion of Lake Burley Griffin and its parkland margins began the transformation of Canberra’s landscape into a Modernist ‘setting’. For Holford, Canberra was also to be, like Brasilia, a ‘City of the Automobile’; the NCDC embarked upon an extensive motorway building program. The capital’s modernist landscape would now be increasingly experienced visually through an automobile windscreen frame. Holford’s expansive new lake and ‘Lakeside Parliament’ ambition gave impetus to the NCDC’s institutional view that ‘ Griffin was history’.

Holford’s re-assertion of the picturesque at the Australian national capital was not without political dimension. By the 1960s, some came to see the Griffins’ geometry as ‘American’; that is, ‘un-Australian’, if only by virtue of its authors’ nationality. With the realisation of Holford’s ideals, the picturesque re-colonised the Australian capital and re-cast Canberra’s die as British. The Griffins, for instance, reserved the summit of the inner city’s highest hill for a ‘Capitol’, a ceremonial building to commemorate the achievements of the Australian people.32 Holford, however, thought the elevated site ideal for a residential ‘Royal Pavilion’; the British monarch would gaze down upon not only the lakeside Parliament, but also ‘the people’. When introducing this proposal, Holford reminded the government that ‘Her Majesty the Queen is also Queen of Australia’.33 Menzies, of course, needed no reminder. In fact, an imminent visit by Queen Elizabeth II initially galvanised Menzies’ commitment to Canberra in 1953; the next year the Queen was to dedicate the capital’s Australian-American Memorial. Acutely aware of the episode’s symbolically political resonances, the Anglophile Prime Minister went so far as to shift the memorial’s original Land Axis location to a less prominent position. Holford’s Royal Pavilion, however, was never seriously pursued and, in 1988, Parliament House was constructed atop ‘Capitol Hill’.

If the Griffins sought to bring the Australian bush to the foreground, to give it primacy, then throughout the Post War era it was relegated to the background in lieu of deciduous trees, and memories of green. By the Twentieth century’s close, Canberra landscape could be characterised as an expansive parkland derivative of picturesque tradition. Indeed, American travel author Bill Bryson, writing in 2000, observed that Canberra is ‘a very strange city, in that it’s not really a city at all, but rather an extremely large park with a city hidden in it’.34 This is not to diminish Holford and the NCDC’s achievement. An epiphany near his visit’s end led Bryson to realise that, until then, he had ‘scorned’ Canberra ‘for what was in fact its most admirable achievement’. ‘Without a twitch of evident stress’, he explained, the city’s population had swelled ‘by a factor of ten since the late 1950s and yet was still a park’.35

Today, ’emerald green’ pervades Canberra and the picturesque reigns triumphant. To view the city from Mt Ainslie, for instance, is to see it set against a green backdrop mosaic of parklands, commercial timber plantations and phosphate-saturated hillside paddocks, occasionally tempered by vestigial bush. The sea of manicured turf emanating from Parliament House, cascading down its earthen ramps and pulsing throughout the city’s ceremonial centre accentuates this chromatic effect. As the city approaches its centenary, twenty-first century Canberra uncannily resembles more the emerald green picturesque imagery of Coulter’s 1901 and 1911 ‘waterside capitals’ than it does the Griffins’ city. Yet, perhaps, it is through departures from the Griffins’ vision, whether by intent or default, that the city becomes ‘Australianised’. As water becomes increasingly scarce, however, the triumph of the picturesque may prove to be short-lived.


Christopher Vernon is a Senior Lecturer in Landscape Architecture at theUniversity of Western Australia.


The author expresses his appreciation to Dr Robert Freestone for his comments on an earlier version of this essay. This paper owes its origins to stimulating conversations with Dr Dianne Firth, the authority on Lake Burley Griffin. See her outstanding PhD dissertation ‘Behind the Landscape of Lake Burley Griffin: Landscape, Water, Politics and the National Capital 1899-1964’ ( University of Canberra, 2000).


1. See Proceedings of the Congress of Engineers, Architects, Surveyors and Others Interested in the Building of the Federal Capital of Australia, Held in Melbourne, in May 1901 (Melbourne: J C Stephens, Printer, 1901).

2. Ibid, p 35.

3. Coulter, Charles, ‘An Ideal Federal City, Lake George, N.S.W.’, 1901, National Library of Australia, PIC R134 LOC 2596.

4. Proceedings of the Congress of Engineers, Architects, Surveyors and Others Interested in the Building of the Federal Capital of Australia, Held in Melbourne, in May 1901, p 36.

5. Elsewhere in the Proceedings, for instance, architect G Sydney Jones argued that the capital’s architecture should ‘be essentially Australian’. Horticulturist C Bogue Luffmann advocated the planting of native species and urged that ‘if we must have symbols, let us typify our own’.

6. Paul Carter, ‘Landscapes of Disappearance’, World Heritage Convention and Cultural Landscapes / Sydney Opera House (Australia ICOMOS: 27 April 1995): 6; also see his seminal text The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History(London: Faber and Faber, 1987). Also helpful on the picturesque in Australia is Ken Taylor, ‘Colonial Picturesque: An Antipodean Claude Glass’, in Ann Hamblin (ed), Visions of Future Landscapes: Proceedings of the Australian Academy of Science 1999, Fenner Conference on the Environment, 2-5 May 1999, Canberra (Kingston, ACT: Bureau of Rural Sciences, 2000): 58-66.

7. Ibid, p 4.

8. Idid, p 6.

9. On the site selection process and related political battles, see Roger Pegrum’s excellent study, The Bush Capital: How Australia Chose Canberra as Its Federal City (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger Pty Ltd, 1983).

10. After debate concerning the territory’s extent, NSW officially ‘surrendered’ it to the Commonwealth on 1 January 1911. See Jim Gibbney, Canberra : 1913-1953 (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1988): 1-2. The national government would continue to own the land within the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and control its development through leases until the advent of a local government in 1989.

11. Instructions from Minister for Home Affairs in ‘Yass-Canberra Site for Federal Capital General (1908-09) Federal Capital Site — Surrender of Territory for Seat of Government of the Commonwealth’, National Archives of Australia (NAA: A110, FC1911/738 Part 1).

12. Information, conditions and particulars for guidance in the preparation of competitive designs for the Federal Capital City of the Commonwealth of Australia ([Melbourne]: Printed and published for the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia by J. Kemp, Government Printer for the State of Victoria, 1911).

13. On the competition see John W Reps, Canberra 1912: Plans and Planners of the Australian Capital Competition (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1997). For the Australian planning history context, see Robert Freestone, Model Communities: the Garden City movement in Australia (Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1989) and Stephen Hamnett and Robert Freestone (eds), The Australian Metropolis: A Planning History ( Sydney : Allen & Unwin, 2000).

14. For Walter’s own explanation of their design see his The Federal Capital: Report Explanatory of the Preliminary General Plan (Melbourne: Albert J Mullett, Government Printer, 1914). This report is largely derived from his original typescript explanation included with the competition submission. On Griffin as a landscape architect and town planner see Christopher Vernon, ‘”Expressing natural conditions with maximum possibility”: the American landscape art (1901-c 1912) of Walter Burley Griffin’, Journal of Garden History 15, no 1 (1995):19-47. Also see Jeff Turnbull and Peter Navaretti (eds), The Griffins in Australia and India: the complete works and projects of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin (Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press of the Melbourne University Press, 1998) and Anne Watson (ed), Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, America, Australia, India (Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 1998).

15. [Walter Burley Griffin], ‘The Plans for Australia’s New Capital City ‘, American City 7 (July 1912): 9.

16. For a definitive treatment of this Olmsted masterpiece see Walter L Creese, ‘The Boston Fens’, Chapter in The Crowning of the American Landscape: Eight Great Spaces and Their Buildings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987): 167-204.

17. On this project see, for instance, Frank Keffer Balthis, ‘An Illinois school campus’, The American Botanist, 21 (1915), pp 1-8.

18. Anthony Hunt, ‘Landscape architecture in and about Chicago ‘, The Architectural Record, 32 (1912), p 53.

19. Balthis, ‘An Illinois school campus’, pp 2-3. The plan geometry also disguised the ‘incongruity’ manifested by the convergence of two [extant] driveways approaching the building at right angles.’

20. Ibid, p 3.

21. D H Lawrence, Kangaroo (Pymble: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995 [original 1923]): 402.

22. See, for instance, Ken Taylor, ‘Picturesque Visions of a Nation: Capital City in the Garden’, The New Federalist: Journal of Australian Federation History, no 3 (June 1999): 74-80.

23. The Griffins’ submission included the following renderings: plan of ‘City and Environs’; a triptych ‘View from Summit of Mount Ainslie’ and sections of the ‘Northerly Side of Water Axis’ (4 panels), ‘Easterly Side of Land Axis’ (4 panels) and a detail of the ‘Government Group’ on the ‘Southerly Side of Water Axis’. These were accompanied by another plan drafted on the contour map supplied to competitors and a typescript report.

24. ‘Competitor number 10 WS Griffiths, RCG Coulter and CH Caswell. Perspective – view of the lake at sunset, also showing the continuation of avenue over the railway line with stairways etc’, National Archives of Australia (Item no 4185410, Series A710, Series accession A710/1).

25. Nonetheless, the Government later set aside the Griffins’ design and next appointed a ‘Departmental Board’ to formulate a new plan derived from various competition submissions. Profoundly disappointed, Walter resolved to have their plan reinstated. In an impassioned January 1913 letter to the Australian government, he offered to explain the design in person. Delayed by a change of government, the Commonwealth belatedly responded in July with an invitation for Walter to visit. In the interim, however, construction of the now officially-named Canberra had begun to the Departmental Board’s hybrid design. Arriving in August 1913, Walter toured the Canberra site and consulted with the Departmental Board and other officials, including the new Prime Minister. Many local architects and building professionals were also uneasy about the displacement of the winning entry and began a campaign to have his design reinstated. This campaign, together with Griffin’s lobbying, met with success. In October, the Board was disbanded and Walter accepted an official position as ‘Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction’.

26. L. W., ‘ Canberra ‘, unknown periodical [newspaper cutting] ( London ): 151. (Mitchell Library collections, State Library of New South Wales).

27. Political antagonisms led to a 1916 Royal Commission investigating the performance of his contract and the implementation of the city plan. Griffin was exonerated.

28. For a more comprehensive overview of Canberra’s administration and design evolution see Paul Reid, Canberra following Griffin: a design history of Australia’s national capital (Canberra: National Archives of Australia, 2002) and K F Fischer’s classic Canberra: Myths and Models, Forces at work in the formation of the Australian capital (Hamburg: Institute of Asian Affairs, 1984).

29. Report of the Senate Select Committee Appointed to Inquire into and Report upon the Development of Canberra (Government Printer, 1955).

30. Ibid. Also see Harrison’s own monograph on Griffin, Peter Harrison (Robert Freestone, ed), Walter Burley Griffin : Landscape Architect (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1995).

31. William Holford, Observations on the Future Development of Canberra, ACT (Government Printer, Canberra, 1957): p 6.

32. For an excellent exposition of the political symbolism underpinning the Griffins’ Canberra design, see James Weirick, ‘The Griffins and Modernism’, Transition ( Melbourne ) 24 (Autumn 1988): pp 5-13.

33. William Holford, Observations on the Future Development of Canberra, ACT (Government Printer, Canberra, 1957): p 10.

34. Bryson, Bill. Down Under ( London : Doubleday, 2000), p 120.

35. Ibid, p. 135

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