Sunday, March 19, 2017

Canberra: The Palm Springs of Australia?

Benjamin Residence
The Benjamin Residence, or "Round House" as the locals call it, was designed by Alex Jelinek in 1956. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Yes, yes. I know. On the face of it, it seems like an absurd claim. Australia's sleepy little capital city has been called a lot of things over the years, but "Palm Springs-like" is not generally one of them. 
The city was essentially invented in the early 20th century as a compromise between rivals Sydney and Melbourne, who were both vying for the right to be the nation's capital. It's an administrative city, full of bureaucrats, technocrats, and diplomats. It's a staid, conservative place full of monuments, trying hard to convey both a sense of civic identity and national gravitas. It's very much like a smaller version of Washington, DC in that respect. It was not invented for leisure. 



high court
Nothing conveys 'gravitas' like towering, brutalist forms, right? This is the High Court building in Canberra, designed by Colin Madigan, with Chris Kringas, Feiko Bouman, and Hans Marelli and completed in 1980. Photo ©Darren Bradley

And yet... the comparison to Southern California's desert playground is not entirely ridiculous.


canberra butterfly house
This perfectly restored little butterfly roof ranch in Canberra's northern suburbs is typical of the sort of home that was built there in the post-war period. Photo ©Darren Bradley


I've actually seen several mentions of Canberra in the press comparing the city favorably to Palm Springs, recently, and I've also had this conversation with a few friends in Australia. Admittedly, there are some similarities worth mentioning. For one, both cities were largely developed during the post-war period (1950s through 1970s). 


canberra civic
Vintage photo of Canberra Civic in the the 1950s. This is Petrie Street, looking west. This is now part of the pedestrian mall. None of the buildings pictured here exist today in this condition. All have been either demolished or modified beyond recognition. That's now a Westpac bank on the corner, but the building was modified significantly. 
canberra building 2
Here's the West Civic area of Canberra City as it looks today. Still a fair number of great modernist buildings... but for how much longer? Photo ©Darren Bradley

As a result, there is a large stock of mid-century modern housing in Canberra, designed and built in very similar style to what you'd find in Palm Springs - mostly post & beam construction with glass windows and clerestories... 


tract home canberra
Vintage photo of a typical tract home in a Canberra suburb. Note the similarities to what you'd find anywhere in Southern California at the time. 

In fact, early on, there was a concerted effort to convince people to come to Canberra by conveying a modern, sophisticated vision of the city's housing. 


birch house bikini
The Birch House, designed by Noel Potter of Bunning and Madden in 1962, was built for an ANU professor of chemistry and his family. It was later occupied by the architect Romaldo Giurgola during the design and construction of the new Parliament House in Canberra in the mid-1980s. This vintage photo is by Wolfgang Sievers, I believe. 

birch house canberra
Early rendering of the Birch House, showing it was clearly designed for entertaining. 

It made sense. When you consider that the population is generally well educated, well cultivated, and well paid - and with a lot of land available at the time - the city flourished as an experiment in Modernist architecture. 


canberra suburb house
Vintage photo of a house in Canberra designed by Neville Ward. 

Enrico Taglietti is probably Canberra's best known Modernist architect. 


taglietti
The architect, Enrico Taglietti, in front of a design for the 1964 Cinema Center. 

This Italian-born architect arrived in Canberra from Milan as part of an exhibition on Italian architecture that was held by a local department store chain. He quickly decided to stay on beyond the three weeks originally planned. He still there and still active. 


What attracted Taglietti to Canberra was its lack of history. 
vintage canberra
View of Canberra overlooking Commonwealth Avenue in the 1960s.
The National Library is visible on the far side of Lake Burley Griffin, on the left. Photo from the National Archives. 

As the architect puts it himself: 

"As a young architect in Italy I felt the heavy burden of history. It was an enormous burden. In Italy, everything that you do they referred back to what has been done before or said you cannot do that because of something and the burden is getting heavier and heavier and heavier. Finally you feel suffocated.
Arriving in Canberra I said finally a city without history, a city without golden domes. I said this is a proper void. Remembering Rogers saying you have to fall into the void and start designing, I said this is the place – I won’t have difficulty to go into the void, because it was practically empty, but empty in a pleasant way."
What I find interesting about Taglietti is that although he's from Europe and there is some element of Corbusian form in his work, his own unique style appears mostly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and Organic architecture as a whole. 


mckeown residence
Vintage photo of the McKeown Residence, designed by Enrico Taglietti. Note the bold geometric forms and the low, horizontal roof planes that would be typical of his work throughout his career. 

taglietti house north canberra
Like most vintage houses in Australia, the McKeown Residence is a lot more difficult to photograph today because it's completely hidden by vegetation. Photo ©Darren Bradley

taglietti house famous one
The Dingle House (1965) is another Taglietti design that appears very Wrightian to me, with strong horizontal planes. Considering the connection of original Canberra designer Walter Burley Griffin to Frank Lloyd Wright, it seems appropriate that the most well-known Canberra architect would also evoke Wright's design principles. 
war memorial annex taglietti
Australian War Memorial Annex by Enrico Taglietti (1977). Photo ©Darren Bradley


white eagle lodge
Polish White Eagle Club by Enrico Taglietti (1970) in Canberra. Note the similarities to the building above. Taglietti did several buildings that are variations on this theme throughout the 1970s. Photo ©Darren Bradley


Dickson Library
Taglietti's design for this municipal library in the community of Dickson in Canberra dates to 1968. Note again the use of strong horizontal planes with those roof overhangs.
Photo ©Darren Bradley
ultra modern by enrico taglietti
"Ultra Modern", a rendering of an interior design by Enrico Taglietti. 
But Taglietti wasn't the only one to push the boundaries and do innovative work in Canberra in the Post-WWII period. Nearly all of Australia's Modernist architects from Melbourne and Sydney, including Yuncken Freeman, Roy Grounds, Robin Boyd, and Harry Seidler all contributed significant works. 


canberra boyd house
Vintage photo of the Fenner House by Robin Boyd (1952). Vintage photo. 

boyd house 6
Verge Residence by Robin Boyd (1963) The house is accessed through a central atrium stairwell. Photo ©Darren Bradley

boyd house 5
Main living area at the Verge House. Note the block work on the fireplace, which is very evocative of Albert Frey's work in Palm Springs. Photo ©Darren Bradley

boyd house 4
Den at the Verge House by Robin Boyd. Photo ©Darren Bradley

seidler canberra apartments 2
Campbell Group Housing by Harry Seidler (1964). Photo ©Darren Bradley

bowden-01
Bowden House by Harry Seidler (1951). Vintage photo. 
In addition to the houses and apartments, many of the of the religious, civic and commercial buildings are also mid-century modern, or late modern - and also often designed by some of Australia's best architects of the time (as well as others you may have never heard of, but who are equally deserving of recognition).  


roy grounds church
Designed in 1961 as the Holy Trinity Lutheran National Church by Grounds, Romberg, and Boyd, this is now known as the Finnish Lutheran Church. Photo ©Darren Bradley


The Shine Dome
The Australian Academy of Science was designed by Sir Roy Grounds in 1959. It's now referred to as the Shine Dome, and also as the "Martian Embassy". Photo ©Darren Bradley
Churchill House
The Churchill House in on Northbourne in Canberra is one of Robin Boyd's last projects, and is a significant departure from his usual work. He passed away before it was completed in 1972. Architect Neil Clerehan completed the work. 

Because Canberra is a relatively new city, and Australians as a rule are a progressive lot, they didn't feel the need to create faux classical architecture to represent their government institutions. New Formalism is about as close as they get to that, in most cases: 


Law Courts of the Australian Capital Territory
The Law Courts of the Australian Capital Territory, by Roy Simpson for Yuncken Freeman Architects (1958). Photo ©Darren Bradley


national library 2
National Library by Walter Bunning of Bunning & Madden, in association with TE O'Mahony (1968). Prime Minister Robert Menzies, who is fondly remembered for his numerous contributions to Canberra, took a personal interest in this building expressed his opposition to anything modern - preferring instead "something with columns".
Well, he got the columns, anyway. 


New Formalism reigns in Canberra... @davidjonesstore @canberracentre
The Monaro Shopping was designed by Whitehead and Payne in 1962. It's now a David Jones department store on the pedestrian mall. Photo ©Darren Bradley

One interesting point about Canberra and Australia as a whole is that they didn't widely embrace post-Modernist architecture until much later than the US. So it's sometimes difficult to date buildings in Australia because they are much later than you might guess. That's the case for the High Court and the National Gallery of Australia, which were both designed primarily by Colin Matigan in the late 70s and into the 80s. 



High Court of Australia
Contemplating the High Court of Australia, by Colin Matigan. (1980). Photo ©Darren Bradley


high court canberra
Interior of the High Court of Australia, by Colin Matigan (1980). Photo ©Darren Bradley

national gallery of australia
National Gallery of Australia by Colin Matigan (1982)
national gallery australia 3
Interior space in the National Gallery of Australia. 

The National Carillon, which was designed and built in 1970, is in a similar brutalist vein that foreshadows the designs of the High Court and the National Gallery.

National Carillon
National Carillon in the late afternoon. It was designed by Don Ho (presumably not the crooner) in 1968 for the Perth-based firm of Cameron Chisholm Nicol. Photo ©Darren Bradley


Admittedly, though, the offices and commercial buildings feel more heavy, solemn East Coast or European modern than the West Coast, breezy, or fantastical California style you'd find in Palm Springs or LA (or San Diego!). 



Brutalism. Canberra.
Canberra School of Music by Daryl Jackson and Evan Walker for the NCDC (1976). Photo ©Darren Bradley


Canberra, Modernist Heaven.
View of the MLC Building by Bates, Smart & McCutcheon (1964), as seen from Civic Square. Moir & Slater were the local architects in Canberra for the MLC Building. This is the first multi-storey office building in Canberra. Its spandrels used to light up. I've never seen it do that, however. Must have been quite a sight. On the left is a corner of one of the original Civic Square buildings, designed by Roy Simpson for Melbourne-based Miesians, Yuncken Freeman (1966). The statue in the foreground is Ethos, by Tom Bass, of course. A personal favorite. But Canberrans don't seem to notice or appreciate it much, so perhaps I'll be able to buy it at an estate sale sometime... Photo ©Darren Bradley


And of course, even the places of worship got into the spirit of things and so there's a nice little collection of Modernist churches in the city. 
o'connor uniting church
We don't have "Uniting" Churches 
north canberra modernist church
St. Joseph's Catholic Church, designed by Kevin Curtin (1971). Photo ©Darren Bradley
catholic university canberra 2
Australian Catholic University in Canberra, main entrance. Photo ©Darren Bradley
catholic university
Australian Catholic University interior foyer in front of sanctuary. 
Yarralumla Methodist (now Uniting) Church
Yarralumla Uniting Church by Geoff Harrison (1959). Photo ©Darren Bradley





St. Margaret's Church
St. Margaret's Uniting Church by Luker, Thompson, and Goldsmith (1967)

After the initial bursts of development in the 30s and then the post-war period, like Palm Springs, the city then languished a bit and few new commercial or residential buildings were completed. Up until a few years ago, the city appeared caught in a bit of a time warp. There was little or no growth or new development. 


Good morning, Canberra!
Civic Centre by Roy Simpson for Yuncken Freeman (1966). Photo ©Darren Bradley


university street canberra uni pub
Former ANZ Bank Building designed by Stuart McIntosh in 1963. Photo ©Darren Bradley


canberra city centre
West Civic Canberra classic modernism. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Now, for better and for worse, that's changed. In the past 6 years or so that I've been visiting Canberra regularly, the city has been transformed. There are whole new neighborhoods like the Kingston Foreshore and New Acton, full of gleaming new office buildings and apartments, and trendy restaurants and bars and art galleries and hipster barber shops. But the classic modernist buildings of the civic area and around Parliament Hill are disappearing, one by one... 


canberra building 1
This appears to be the next Modernist building in Civic to go soon. It's slated to be torn down for a large apartment tower to be built in its place. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Alas, the trade off is that many of the beautiful Modernist buildings are disappearing at a fast rate. Every time I visit, more are disappearing. In California, developers and city planners like to use seismic codes as the most convenient excuse to demolish old buildings - even ones that are heritage-listed. 


taglietti ACMA
Taglietti's Associated Chambers of Manufacturers of Australia (1966) used to be in the Parliamentary Zone. Now gone. 

In Australia, earthquakes aren't really much of a thing, so they instead rely on asbestos abatement and non-compliance with current building and safety codes (such as railings, bannisters, fire codes, emergency exits, etc.). 


Bruce Hall
Not even a pedigree from Bunning & Madden (same firm who designed the National Library) could save Bruce Hall on the campus of ANU. When the university decided to build a new residence hall, asbestos and other code compliance issues were cited as justification for tearing it down. It's been fenced off and will be demolished soon. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Developers aren't bad people. But asbestos mitigation and other repairs are expensive. Often, when you do the math, it's easier to recoup your costs by just tearing down the building instead, and putting up something that is higher density. 

This view is extremely short-sighted, but there doesn't seem to be much of an organized resistance. There are a few people who do care (most of whom follow me on Instagram, I think...). But the general population is largely oblivious or ambivalent about these buildings, or their importance. Some are even excited to get rid of them. Even on the campuses of the local universities (Australian National University and University of Canberra), I am seeing evidence of this (note the imminent demolition of Bruce Hall, above).


cameron offices 2
The Cameron Offices are usually cited as one of the most significant examples of Australian architecture of all time. But when the Commonwealth decided to vacate them for newer digs and they were sold to developers, two-thirds of them were demolished after being denied a heritage listing. Three of the original nine buildings that were part of the complex remain. Photo ©Darren Bradley


Callam Offices
How wonderful is this place?!? Can you imagine ever building something like this again? This was the Woden TAFE College (Now Callam Offices) by John Andrews (1973-1981). This building is mostly occupied by the ACT Government, who has vacated most of it. I can't help but wonder if it is also threatened now, considering the trend. Also, very little upkeep on the building has been done. Photo ©Darren Bradley

At this rate, Canberra will soon be rid of most of its significant Modernist educational, administrative, commercial and residential buildings, in the rush to replace them with gleaming, contemporary glass boxes and flashy, colorful (but cheap) post-Modern stuff. 


anu dorms
Student accommodation at ANU is now apparently being built with Legos. 

canberra apartments
All of the unique, sculptural architecture that has defined Canberra and made it so special is now being torn down and replaced with these bland, anonymous sorts of things.

Canberra has always taken a lot of flack (especially from Sydney-siders) for not having a sense of identity or a soul. The irony is that now that the city has finally acquired one through its unique architecture, it is on the verge of destroying it. In this way, too, it is similar to Palm Springs... 

5 comments:

IDpropdotcom said...
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Jade Cantwell said...

Great post - I didn't get to quite as many buildings as you on my 2 days in Canberra!

I was also dismayed at seeing the state of most buildings from that era - falling apart, no repairs or upkeep done in years - and I'll be sad to see so many great looking and sculptural buildings disappear. All the Taglietti's were my favourites!

michaljohn said...
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Dezignare India said...

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amaryllis at home said...

Hi, I live in Canberra. I reckon there is an untouched Taglietti house just 10 minutes walk from me in the suburb of Cook which is adjacent to Aranda and Weetangera/Hawker both with many modernist houses still in their original paint.