Centenary of Canberra 1913-2013

Centenary Celebration Logo

The Centenary of Canberra (1913-2013) is being celebrated throughout 2013 with a series of projects and events which acknowledge the unique nature of this planned capital.

The prime goal of the Centenary was set in 2006 and seeks ‘to instil pride in the national capital’.
Core to this celebration is the recognition that one hundred years ago the desire for a new capital for a new nation was bred of a genuinely altruistic nation-building spirit. It was not, as many believe, a stoush between Sydney and Melbourne. The passionate public conversation which eventually led to the search, survey and international competition for Canberra represents a rich, complex and very entertaining episode in our national history. It also shows that courage and innovation sat at the heart of the idea for a new capital: the country’s leaders at that time were optimistic about the new nation’s future and brave in their adoption of an international competition for the design of its new capital.

The Centenary of Canberra is every bit as much about the present and the future as it is about the past, and there are some projects which cleverly manage to combine all those perspectives. CAPITheticAL is one such project. This is a classic hypothetical which asks participants to put themselves in a hypothetical position and see how they respond. This will apply to the competition’s audiences as much as to the entrants. We ask everyone to look at the quality of the conversation, the heat of the debate, to absorb the wide range of considerations at that time (from climate conditions to the Russian threat) and then give themselves the same hypothetical challenge now. If you had to plan and build a new capital now, how would you go about it?

Designers, architects, city-planners, engineers, landscapers and other creative thinkers, young and emerging or highly experienced, students or professionals, in teams or going it alone, will have a feel for this. Many of the things they will have to take into consideration will be different from those one hundred years ago: climate change will be at the top of that list, but so will the digital and communications revolution. What will remain the same are the universal questions that the original international competitors faced: what does a capital mean, of what should it consist, is it more than just a seat of government? Walter Burley Griffin’s winning designs responded clearly to these challenges.

The answers and the ideas generated by the CAPITheticAL will no doubt be of enormous interest to any number of twenty-first century cities, including Canberra’s fellow-members in the Planned Capitals Alliance. Brasilia, for instance, had its 50th birthday last year and will soon think about its next steps. But other capitals are currently being planned, in Abu Dhabi for example, and they may take an interest. Canberra is here to stay. It is not only the best surviving example in the world of the City Beautiful or Garden City which the Griffins designed, but it has remained an innovator and incubator of bold ideas. The Canberra chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects wants to celebrate Canberra’s innovation in 2013, and looks forward to the next 100 years. Currently the national capital has the highest percentage of green buildings in any city in Australia and the national body Green Buildings Australia is supported by a local Canberra business. Canberra aims to have the first electric car network in the country. The city has recently conducted an extensive public conversation about how it faces the challenge of dwindling land availability and the need to make choices between its defining green spaces and the potential for inner city density.

Canberra faces its future intelligently. It manages the complex realms of local, national, regional and international in smart and highly energised ways. Along with its vital national role, Canberra happens to be a great place to live with some highly attractive features such as beautiful and varied natural environments close by, the highest percentage of participatory sport in the nation, and the most successful education system.

It’s our national capital, the host and incubator for our system of democracy, and the repository of our cultural heritage: we can be very proud of it. It’s also the kind of city not afraid of new ideas, and it regularly displays the kind of confidence that allows serious exercises of the mind.
That’s what a hypothetical is: an exciting exercise of the mind, and a safe place to explore dangerous ideas. A hypothetical is fun, a great challenge that puts us on our mental and professional metal, and in this case has the capacity to introduce us to a rich history – of which many still currently remain ignorant.

Have a look at the Centenary of Canberra website www.canberra100.com.au where you’ll find a lot of background to the original competition, including the 150 plus entries. It’s worth pointing out that all of them except that of Walter and Marion Mahony Griffin remained hypothetical designs.

This hypothetical hopes to elicit from the profession and its upcoming new generation of planners, designers, engineers and architects the very best of twenty-first century thinking. That’s why there are substantial prizes involved. And while CAPITheticAL will also no doubt produce some wild, wonderful and highly entertaining fantasies for the built or virtual environment, there will almost certainly arise fresh ideas for new philosophies and practical applications.

History timeline and more information

Article originally published in April 2011 on A word from the Creative Director