Canberra Modern: Conservation through Participation

Canberra Modern: Conservation through Participation

As a twentieth-century planned city, Australia’s capital, Canberra, is modernism and democratic ideals writ large.

Canberra was a ‘design laboratory’ for burgeoning architects and design professionals, from the innovative vision of the Griffins to the postwar push for development by the National Capital Development Commission. A ‘city in the landscape’ dominated by sheep paddocks and pockets of native bush against a stunning backdrop of hills and mountains. The ‘bush capital’ has a distinctive natural and urban character, pattern and form that is not seen elsewhere in Australia, enriched by its collection of iconic modernist buildings.

Yet Canberra’s significant mid-century modern architecture is undervalued and under threat.

Already many of the city’s unique mid-century structures have been lost.

In the face of this threat, Canberra Modern was founded, using advocacy and community engagement to safeguard and celebrate the capital’s rich twentieth-century architecture.

Canberra’s Modern Heritage

In the postwar period, the intensity of the ‘modernism movement’ spread internationally as the world recovered from World War II and was driven by optimism and innovation. While the movement is not unique to Canberra, the city presents a particularly special case of mid-century modernist design as one of the world’s great twentieth-century designed cities.

 

Back in the 1910s, a completely new, ‘modern’ type of Australian city was envisioned for the national capital of Australia by the American husband and wife team of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin—both architects and landscape architects, who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. Their winning ‘City Beautiful’ vision was an ideal where buildings, roads, street trees, the natural environment and gardens worked together.

After difficult, protracted bureaucratic processes, with personality clashes and a lack of government funding, very little was actually built in Canberra, and the Griffins left the hostile political obstacles to continue in private practice in Melbourne, Sydney and India (Lucknow, where Burley Griffin died in 1937).

Canberra remained relatively undeveloped for three decades. However, there was a renewed push to intensively populate the national capital and lift Canberra out of the stagnation brought on by two world wars. The National Capital Development Commission (NCDC), a statutory Federal Government authority, was created in 1958.

The NCDC mandate was to develop and populate Canberra. Architects and landscape architects of the time used the city as a design laboratory. Many of these creatives are now considered pioneers of the modern movement in Australia. Some had celebrity status at the time, and many have enduring iconic status and names including Robin Boyd, Roy Grounds, Kenneth Oliphant, Sydney Ancher, Theo Bischoff, Dirk Bolt, Michael Dysart, John Andrews and Harry Seidler. The list includes migrants to Australia that made a name for themselves in Canberra including Romaldo Giurgola, Enrico Taglietti, and Malcolm Moir, Heather Sutherland and Alex Jelinek. There were many more individuals, including some women, that worked with the NCDC as part of the professional design and urban planning teams designing the city from the 1950s through to 1988.

 

As Canberra continues to grow today, some of its lesser-known twentieth-century architectural gems are at risk of being lost altogether or visually lost in the midst of misguided developments and inappropriate renovation.

Canberra Modern

The increasing threat to the mid-century modern in Canberra and its lack of recognition and formal heritage protection was the catalyst for the foundation of Canberra Modern. Through advocacy and an annual program of events, Canberra Modern aims to promote the protection and appreciation of mid-century modern places. Engagement with the community and Canberra’s historic urban and designed cultural landscape is at the heart of the program.

Surprisingly, there is no ‘local-level’ heritage protection in the ACT. Only Commonwealth-owned and Central National Areas in Canberra and those at ‘territory’ level on the ACT Register are afforded protection. This major gap in the legislation remains a concern for Canberra Modern and a strong driver for the community participation needed to engage with the heritage significance that makes a difference to the quality of the national capital.

Canberra’s urban fabric is transforming, at the same time as the city is beginning to understand and value its design credentials. Canberra Modern proves that conservation through participation is the future of heritage practice in Australia.

The Foundations of Canberra Modern

There are three founders of Canberra Modern: Rachel Jackson, GML Principal; Edwina Jans, Head of the Heritage, Communications and Development at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House; and Amy Jarvis, ANU Heritage Advisor and a former GML heritage consultant. The three of us are the creative directors, dedicated to the recognition of the mid-century modern heritage of Canberra and to engaging the Canberra community in understanding and appreciating their unique heritage.

Canberra Modern came about through being regularly involved in organising and leading heritage events for the Canberra and Region Heritage Festival, Australia ICOMOS and Design Canberra, including tours, talks and symposia. The focus of these talks and tours was to showcase various aspects of the importance of Canberra’s development as the national capital. Throughout these regular engagements, we often discussed our concerns about the threats facing Canberra’s mid-century modern heritage.

As  action-oriented women, with a strong desire to ‘do something’ about protecting and promoting Canberra’s exceptional heritage, it took only a couple of meetings after work over a glass of rosé (local, cold climate Canberra varieties, of course) to establish Canberra Modern. Our group formed in 2016 and we set about ‘changing the conversation’ about a significant period of Canberra’s development and heritage significance.

Surprisingly, there is no ‘local-level’ heritage protection in the ACT. Only Commonwealth-owned and Central National Areas in Canberra and those at ‘territory’ level on the ACT Register are afforded protection. This major gap in the legislation remains a concern for Canberra Modern and a strong driver for the community participation needed to engage with the heritage significance that makes a difference to the quality of the national capital.

Canberra’s urban fabric is transforming, at the same time as the city is beginning to understand and value its design credentials. Canberra Modern proves that conservation through participation is the future of heritage practice in Australia.

Our synergy with each other and the desire to have fun is part of the success of Canberra Modern so far. The three of us are like-minded, with different strengths drawn from our professional experience in the heritage industry, government and museum sectors. Ultimately, we work well together.

Since Canberra Modern began, we have achieved our goal in ways we couldn’t have imagined, with successful grant applications, a strong online presence and following, and industry awards under our belt, and a growing audience that includes those who come from out of town to experience our unique program showcasing Canberra’s modernist heritage.

Canberra Modern is making a difference

The advocacy mantra of Canberra Modern is ‘conservation through participation’. The past three years (and counting) since Canberra Modern’s establishment have been an organic process of trialling events that attract community participation and increase awareness of the city’s modernist heritage.

Key achievements include:

  • The 2017 Canberra Modern festival of events held at University House, ANU, through the Design Canberra Festival. There were nine events and over 1000 attendees. We won a National Trust Award for this festival.
  • The 2018 Canberra Modern held nine events over the year. Co-founder Amy Jarvis also received a Churchill Fellowship to travel internationally to investigate best-practice community advocacy and visitor engagement models to assist Canberra Modern in its future endeavours.
  • The 2019 Canberra Modern festival of events held at University House, ANU, and around Canberra, held in collaboration with the Canberra and Region Heritage Festival with the support of an ACT Heritage Grant. We held 14 events, with 1300 attendees and glowing feedback. Another National Trust Award was granted for our outstanding contribution to Canberra’s heritage.

Future Plans for Canberra Modern

On the global stage, Rachel presented at Modernism Week in Palm Springs, California, in February 2020, which was a great success. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, other Canberra Modern events originally planned for the ACT Heritage Festival in April/May 2020 have been postponed to 2021. In the meantime, we are holding virtual events, such as hosting live interviews on Instagram.

We are proud of our achievements as a small group, and continue to evolve and grow. Based on Amy’s Churchill Fellowship findings, partnerships with like-minded groups and individuals, and ongoing research, Canberra Modern continues to promote and protect Canberra’s heritage significance through community advocacy.