No one does sweet suburbia better

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Artist Hannah Quinlivan working on her installation ‘Desiderium’. Photo: Lean Timms.

LIKE it or loathe it, there’s something quintessentially Australian about suburbia, and no city does it better than Canberra. 

No wonder the National Museum of Australia gives pride of place to its holdings of prized artefacts like the hills hoist, the family caravan and the FJ Holden.

Now, with the creeping tendency towards townhouse and unit life seemingly more suited to cocktail-sipping than the outdoor life, Design Canberra is taking a sentimental journey to the world of lawns, lovingly-tended garden beds and the backyard.

This year’s festival, devoted to the covid-related theme of “care”, will run from November 9-29, with special attention to mid-century modernism, Canberra artists and suburbia.

It’s a good fit for a festival devoted to the idea of Canberra as a city of design as it looks at “the suburban identity of Canberra to see the beauty in the icons and share why we love where we live”.

In “This is Suburbia”, windows will open in exhibitions at Canberra Contemporary Art Space and Belconnen Arts Centre, a graphic intervention in Gungahlin, keynote talks and a photography competition called “Sweet Suburbia 2020”.

Keynote speaker, social commentator and demographer Bernard Salt.

On November 17 at the Shine Dome, social commentator and demographer Bernard Salt, famous for popularising the phrases “smashed avocado” and “seachange shift”, will give a keynote address, “Suburbia’s Time in the Sun”, where he’ll argue that the coming of the coronavirus has invigorated the suburbs via the work-from-home social experiment.

A new event, “Two Minutes to Midnight” at the Midnight Hotel on November 16, will see designer-influencers like architect Shelley Penn and urban designer Catherine Simpson, converse about the spaces, places and values, then identify two high-impact proposals to help build a future as yet unwritten.

At Gungahlin Place Park, Canberra designer Chelsea Lemon will make a graphic intervention based on the Namadgi bushfires, especially around the Yankee Hat trail, where a distinct line shows where the fire cut off.

But the festival is not all nostalgia and will also debunk myths about suburbia and look to lessons from 20th-century suburban experiments.

Straddling the subjects of suburbia and the festival’s all-time favourite subject, mid-century modernism, will be a look at the 1970s co-housing initiative, Wybalena Grove in Cook, with architect Michael Dysart delivering a keynote address on cooperative housing.

Frank Hinder’s ‘Star Ceiling’, Monaro Mall. Photo: Darren Bradley.

Roy Ground’s 1959 Shine Dome, public artworks like “Ethos” by Tom Bass and Frank Hinder’s 1963 glass ceiling mosaic at the entry to the Monaro Mall will also have pride of place, with the Hinder becoming the gateway to this year’s festival’s hub in the mall.

Artist Hannah Quinlivan has created a site-specific spatial drawing artwork, “Desiderium”, to be installed at the City Walk entry close to the building’s arched canopies, slim pillars and Hinder’s often-ignored art work.

Kirstie Rea’s folded glass blankets. Photo: Lean Timms.

But it’s not just a festival that looks at the past; it’s also looking to the present as the folded glass “blankets” by Kirstie Rea, 2020 designer-in-residence, crafted to the theme “with care”, demonstrate.

At a virtual briefing on September 29, project manager Kate Nixon, flanked by Rachael Coghlan, CEO of Craft ACT which manages the festival, outlined the 200 events that would make up the seventh consecutive Design Canberra.

It had been no mean feat, she said, to get sponsors and artists together this year, battling fire, hail storms and the pandemic to “re-imagine what a responsible creative festival would look like” for the 50-year-old membership-based organisation.

In “meet the makers”, there would be the physical opportunity to meet Canberra‘s artists and view films about design in 43 open studios, with 56 artists helping the public to get hands-on experience in workshops.

In bus tours, visitors can go behind closed doors to private homes and public buildings like the Shine Dome and the Australian Institute of Architects.

The Design Canberra-BMW car-wrap competition will see cars become canvases for young designers and artists, while the annual Rolfe Classic BMW Twilight Drive on November 17 and 24 will see revheads test-driving new BMW models to destinations like the “Three Peaks”, where UC architecture lecturer Ann Cleary will throw light on the axes created by Mt Ainslie, Red Hill and Black Mountain.

Finally, Nixon said, apart from the festival giving an opportunity to spend time together, the art itself would be “the silver lining to a difficult year”.

Design Canberra Festival, November 9-29, book at

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