Last time I visited Canberra was some time back in the 1980s, when there was only one Parliament House. My recent visit coincided fortuitously with the hundredth birthday of the capital, which was founded on 12th March 1913. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that almost as much has changed in the intervening time since my last visit as in the hundred years since Canberra’s founding.
Of course on that day one hundred years ago when Lady Denman, wife of then Governor-General Lord Denman, announced the new city would be called Canberra, it was little more than sheep paddocks, dreams and visions. Dignitaries at the original founding ceremony would no doubt have been stunned if they’d returned to earth to attend the modern day re-enactment of the founding ceremony to see that it was presided over by not only a female Prime Minister but a female Governor General.
The vision which shaped the city was of course that of Walter Burley-Griffin whose design won the Federal Capital Design Competition in May 1911. Lesser known is the fact that his wife Marion collaborated closely with him on the project and deserves equal credit. Speaking of his design, Burley-Griffin said, “I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expected any government authorities in the world would accept. I have planned an ideal city – a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future.”
It is stunning to see how well his ideal city has been realised in today’s Canberra. My 1980s memories are of a sterile, bare looking place, lacking in any sense of its own identity, let alone style. Now, it is a place where graceful sweeps of open space, mature trees, gardens, wide avenues, sweeping views across the magnificent lake and modern, architecturally striking buildings combine to create an elegant city that would rival any of the world’s best.
Home to the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, Australian National University, National Library of Australia, National War Memorial, National Museum of Australia, Old Parliament House (now the Museum of Australian Democracy), Parliament House, the Australian Institute of Sport and many more icons, Canberra is a microcosm of Australian history and culture of which all Australians should be very proud. For anyone like me, who is interested in history, politics, and art in all its forms, it is a kaleidoscope of treasures, many of which I was fortunate enough to visit, even though I was barely scratching the surface.
Highlights included the iconic National War Memorial, a remarkable tribute to those who served in all Australian conflicts and one of the most comprehensive museums of its type in the world, Old Parliament House – a literal step back in time, new Parliament House where witnessing question time was rather like watching the performing animals at the zoo and the brilliant Toulouse Lautrec Exhibition at the National Gallery. Catching up on my emails in the vast Reading Room at the National Library of Australia seemed a far more absorbing and important process than it normally is, thanks to the atmosphere.
Although the focal point for much of Australia’s important history and events, there’s nothing self-important about Canberra. It’s a fresh and vibrant place, with lots of young families and legions of fitness fanatics. I was lucky enough to stay in leafy Yarralumla (not chez the GG’s but close). My accommodation was just minutes from the lake, which is surrounded by immaculately maintained walking and cycling trails, all of which seemed to constantly thrum to the sound of pounding feet or speeding bike wheels. Canberra is obviously the place to be if you’re keen to join the ranks of the seriously fit. If not, best stay where you are.
Also fortuitously, my visit coincided with the Lifeline Autumn Book Fair, a sale of second-hand books held to raise funds for Lifeline. Housed in a vast auditorium at the showgrounds, the fair is a mecca for booklovers and of course was a must-visit for me.
Being greeted at the door by an endless vista of tables groaning under good quality, cheaply priced books, all catalogued and sorted was a bit like arriving at the doors to paradise and even though I knew I’d have to lug them home, I managed to score a bag full for the grand price of $15. Even a textbook on Literary Theory from my uni reading list which at $2 was possibly the best bargain, People are encouraged to buy up big, read their books and then bring them along to the next fair as donations. For those literary retentives like me, this wouldn’t work, as the concept of giving books away is one I’ve not yet rationalised.
My ability to catalogue one hundred things to like about Canberra is curtailed only because of lack of space and time. There are in fact many more, and anyone with even a passing interest in this nation of ours and the rich panorama of characters that shaped it couldn’t fail to be rewarded by a visit.