Canberra’s big, fat fail for architecture

We should adjust our expectations of the City Renewal Authority and get ready for its version of low-level, world-class architecture. Photo: Paul Costigan

EARLIER this month, at a Woden Valley Community Council meeting, people spoke of how the main roads around the Woden centre are being dominated by an enormous number of towers and that the chances are diminishing of having greenery along street frontages.

Paul Costigan.

Canberra is soon to be no longer the bush capital. While the reference was to street/landscape design, there is also the accumulated effect of the many towers proposed for Woden. Each is assessed with no realistic reference to how many other similarly designed structures will be in the neighbourhood.

Across Canberra the story is repeated. It is not a case of one machine architecture building among good ones, it is more that all these ordinary apartment blocks and towers are not making the city streets architecturally appealing. Our main streets are becoming harsh environments of tower blocks.

When community groups meet or go online to discuss the many new developments being proposed for the inner north, including in Civic, residents are not getting excited about the quality of the architecture. More likely they let fly with frustration at yet another missed opportunity for good architecture.

People agree that when it comes to architecture, Canberra has a mixed record as a city of good design. But with so much development being pushed on to the population, now is the time for the government to insist on good design both for landscape design in open spaces and for the architecture of apartments and towers that are now popping up everywhere.

Which brings me to a statement made in recent times by the City Renewal Authority. Apparently, we are to expect that they will oversee world-class architecture along Northbourne Avenue and in Civic. So far none has appeared. So maybe we should think carefully about the use of that term “world-class architecture”.

Looking around the world, the standards of metropolitan architecture are pretty ordinary. So to be accurate, we should adjust our expectations of the City Renewal Authority and get ready for its version of low-level, world-class architecture. Given what is being built and proposed recently, that is one outcome the government is going to deliver on.

There are several ACT ministers making a mess of planning and the delivery of urban renewal, and all of them speak of the improvement that will happen one day due to the use of a design review panel. The message is that we are to expect major changes to architecture and landscape design and the provision of better green spaces. Not happening.

The design panel is a committee and, like all worthy panels set up to comment on design, it gets it right sometimes and other times other agendas get in the way. The government’s design review panel is no different. It remains an interim advisory committee only and, as such, is not linked to any mandatory requirements. That is, its recommendations to the developers can be and are being ignored.

Yet the politicians speak so positively about their role in bringing about change. A complete furphy! It is yet again an example of a good idea in the hands of a government not wanting to do anything to improve Canberra’s landscape design and architecture.

At two meetings recently I have heard residents bring up the derogatory term NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) in the context of why is it that residents get called this?

When it comes to the levels of design and architecture now being presented through the development processes as overseen by the ACT planning agencies, NIMBY is an accurate term to use for Canberra residents. Residents definitely do not want any more of that boring, bland and unappealing stuff built in their neighbourhoods. Enough is enough.

If there are any ACT politicians with a passion for and who understand the benefits of well-designed landscapes and engaging architecture, now is the time for them to show some leadership.

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