Lectures to take fresh look at first visions for Canberra

There are many ways in which Canberra could have been different – 137 ways, to be precise. That’s the number of official entries submitted for the international design competition for Australia’s new capital city 100 years ago.

While a large proportion of entries were from Australia, there were also designs from South Africa, Great Britain, India and Mexico. The winner, of course, was an American, Walter Burley Griffin, who was closely followed by a Finn and a Frenchman.

A century after the Australian government received this rush of contributions to the future of a brave young nation, Canberra historian and centenary adviser to the ACT Government David Headon thinks it’s worth taking a look at some of the countries that weighed into the debate. He has organised a series of nine lectures to be held over the next several months at various embassies examining some of the historical and design connections to the original competition.

Dr Headon said while there were actually up to 400 entries, many weren’t ultimately endorsed because they didn’t adhere to the competition guidelines or were submitted by people without the right qualifications. Interestingly, one country that wasn’t represented in the entries was Germany, although the first lecture in the series will be held tonight at the German Embassy and will be delivered by German town planner Karl Fischer.

Professor Fischer, who has an enduring interest in Canberra and published a book about the city in 1984, maintains that the German influence is visible in Canberra’s genesis if only because Griffin studied in Chicago in a time when the city’s population was 30 per cent German. He also studied alongside fellow architect Nathan Ricker, who had received part of his education in Germany. ”It was basically a German perspective with a German structure of education that Griffin received,” Professor Fischer said.

He also said the reason for Germany’s absence from the Canberra design competition was probably that the country was too busy undergoing monumental political and economic development of its own. Dr Headon said this was exactly the sort of detail he wanted from the lecture series, which continues next Thursday night at the Finnish Embassy, and is set to conclude next May on the anniversary of the announcement of the competition winner.

BY SALLY PRYOR, CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS REPORTER 28 Jul, 2011

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