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Tuesday 26 March 2013

Canberra memories

The 100th birthday of Australia's capital Canberra has seen a lot of debate about the place. Not least on the BBC, after an article called it "dull and devoid of soul".

It's also seen a lot of history discussed, such as where its pronunciation came from (the Lady who pronounced it Can-berra at the opening ceremony), what the name means (much amusement about alleged 'tits' reference to local aboriginal names for mountains), how it was built for trams but, like most places of the era, got cars instead, how the building of it really only started in the 1960s and Malcolm Farr in Punch, who says it lacks "flesh and blood" because the humanity of those who built it has been deliberately removed:
There is a strange belief elsewhere in Australia that Canberra simply happened, as if it fell from the sky in final form, complete with clipped hedges and pampered inhabitants.

Thousands of people bent their backs to the task of carving Canberra from a group of farms. These people should be recognised because without them there would not be a centenary to celebrate.
Argues Martin McKenzie-Murray in The Age:
What was splendid in the vision was sterile in the living. [Canberra architect Walter Burley] Griffin had designed a city that pre-empted the primacy of the car, which was both prophetic and pathetic. Instead of a tightly knit centre, six (now seven) small districts emerged, separated by vast space and ill-connected by public transport. Between these centres lies mandated green space, which is pretty for tourists but pushes locals apart, limits land availability and drives up property prices.

All of which demonstrates the cruel irony of Griffin's vision of a ''humanised'' city - a vision that demands some of the lowest density living among our capital cities. Griffin applied to his canvas a vision that sought splendour in empty roads and monuments, rather than in the people that would inhabit it.

It's as if Griffin had unwittingly designed Superman's Fortress of Solitude for wonks and staffers.
My memories of Canberra are of a place exactly with humanity removed. There is not only no roadside advertising but shops and petrol stations are behind hedges, like something which needs to disguised. Everything is zoned to within an inch, Sim City on steroids. At that time it was the only place porn could be legally purchased in the country, but you had to go to the industrial zone near the airport, Fyshwick. The train station was nowhere near the city centre.

Getting around by car from my memory was stunningly quick, all the way across town in thirty minutes (though I read locals complaints now of traffic jams) and then there was the utter un-walkability of the central area where all the attractions lie. But also how amazing many of those attractions are, with particularly fond memories of the National Gallery.

The Gallery has Nolan, Streeton, Boyd, Roberts, Drysdale and Pollack, Matisse, Warhol, Rothko. But for my money its most striking work is the first thing you see as you walk in, the Aboriginal Memorial, a beautiful installation of 200 hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land. It was installed in the bicentennial year of 1988, a time of great anger and sorrow. 'Reconciliation' wasn't an idea then, Aboriginal art itself had yet to make much of a mark on the art world.

The Memorial was created by an Aboriginal man who was in part inspired by John Pilger's 1985 documentary 'The Secret Country', which covers the wars and massacres which came with the invasion. That history still lies largely buried, both in actuality as well as in the Australian psyche.

Canberra has a huge War Memorial and museum, Australia in general has almost nothing memorialising the tens of thousands who perished as their country was taken over.

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