National Archives of Australia

Issue 9 January 2013

Design 29 and the making of Australia’s national capital

Imagine an annual show of cherry and peach blossoms, with different coloured blooms on Canberra’s hills. Or an ‘Avenue of the Sun’ leading from Parliament House with expansive views of the sun rising over Lake Burley Griffin. Picture a national archive sitting high on Vernon Circle in the city and completing a triangular axis with the nation’s parliament.

Design 29: creating a capital, a new National Archives exhibition to mark Canberra’s centenary, will explore the making of our capital. Drawings from the finalists in the Federal Capital City Design Competition of 1911 will be on display, some for the first time in 100 years. Using augmented reality technology, Design 29 will enable visitors to not just imagine but to experience alternative visions of Canberra, and to explore the much-loved designs of the Griffins in a new way.

Walter Burley Griffin, entry no. 29, Sections through the City, Axis – BA Central Basin Government Group. NAA: A710, 52

Choosing a site

The story behind the making of our capital is a tumultuous one. Agreement upon a site for the federal capital territory took a decade as various interests battled for the favoured location. In 1908, the federal government passed the Seat of Government Act, which established that the federal capital territory would be in the district of Yass–Canberra, of not less than 900 square miles and with sea access, in the state of New South Wales.

In order to create the Australian Capital Territory we know today, the federal government had to formally identify the boundaries of the territory and a site for the capital city. Charles Robert Scrivener, NSW District Surveyor, was appointed to survey the proposed territory and identify an appropriate city site. In 1911, the territory and city site were formally proclaimed. The agreed city site straddled the Molonglo River, with its northern boundaries sitting between Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie and expanding south to the vicinity of Red Hill.

The government was then faced with a new problem – how to go about building a capital city worthy of the lofty ideals of the new nation, given that the chosen site was remote, relatively inaccessible even from the closest cities of Sydney and Melbourne, and largely undeveloped grazing country in private ownership.

In 1911 the federal government proposed the Federal Capital City Design Competition. Competitors were asked to design their visions for Australia’s capital, quite literally upon the topographical map of the city site prepared by Scrivener.

Entry no. 29

‘City and Environs’, part of the Griffin plan for Canberra. NAA: A710, 38

The winning design was, of course, by American Walter Burley Griffin. It was entry no. 29, accompanied by the beautifully executed drawings of Marion Mahony Griffin.

It was not a decision without controversy, however, and the way forward was fraught. The government, led by King O’Malley as Minister for Home Affairs, was determined to have considerable input into the final design of Canberra. O’Malley appointed a board to second guess the designs of the finalists.

Even after capitulating to public pressure and appointing Griffin as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction in October 1913, the government continued to promote its pragmatic view of the new capital city. This approach gained support as World War I cast its shadow across the idealist vision of Australia’s capital.

A rare opportunity

The National Archives holds the plans and artworks of the finalists of the Federal Capital City Design Competition of 1911. The most well known are those of the Griffins, and Walter and Marion are, as curator Jane Macknight puts it, ‘the stars of the show’.

But Design 29 will also feature the designs and drawings of the other finalists – Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen and Donat-Alfred Agache – as well as the Australian trio of Walter Scott Griffiths, Charles Caswell and Robert Charles Coulter and the design later proposed by the federal department board. Some of these designs have not been on public display for a century.

General perspective view from Eliel Saarinen’s entry. NAA: A710, 33

Visitors can also see the original survey maps produced by Scrivener. A selection of original government records will help tell the stories behind the site selection process, the design competition, and the people and politics that shaped Canberra’s development in the first two decades following Federation.

A new dimension

Design 29 also features augmented reality (AR) on customised iPads so that visitors can uncover alternative visions, close-up details and lesser-known stories about the designs and Canberra’s history.

Curator Jane Macknight explains what AR technology brings to this exhibition: ‘Augmented reality uses a digital interface to project an alternative vision or visual plane in front of the viewer. So while standing in front of the Griffin plan, for example, you will be able to view it through an aerial photograph of modern Canberra.’

It will enable visitors to see, in a tangible way, how the designs of the finalists differed. The Griffiths Coulter Caswell entry included an ‘Avenue of the Sun’ and, as Jane explains, ‘visitors will be able to view a film of the sun rising over Lake Burley Griffin’. One of the lesser-known aspects of Griffin’s design was a planting scheme with different blooms on Canberra’s hills. This spectacle never eventuated but the AR will project an animated sequence in front of the plan ‘City and Environs’, showing how Griffin imagined it would look.

Griffiths, Coulter and Caswell’s ‘Avenue of the Sun’ – a view of the lake at sunset. NAA: A710, 20

‘The augmented reality technology gives visitors a different way of engaging with the material’, says Jane. ‘It offers visitors the potential to explore the designs of the Griffins and the other finalists in a very real way, and to imagine themselves in a different place and time.’

Design 29 is ultimately an exhibition about place – a place that represents Australia. Cutting-edge AR technology, underpinned by the designs and documents from the Archives’ collection, will inspire visitors to think about why we have a national capital, and how true it has remained to Griffin’s vision and to the dreams and hopes of a nation born at the beginning of the last century.

Design 29: creating a capital opens to the public at the National Archives in Canberra on 1 March.

The exhibition is part of a year-long festival Canberra 100, celebrating the centenary of the naming of Canberra as Australia’s national capital.

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