Australia’s Fledgling Capital Comes of Age
COMPARED with many countries, Australia itself is only a fledgling nation. That is, as far as European settlement of the continent is concerned. Her first two centuries of European presence were only recently completed, with nationwide bicentennial celebrations for the whole of 1988 marking this milestone.
But if two hundred years is not really a very long time, then by comparison, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, has barely “left the nest,” for its site was named officially only in March 1913. Yet, despite its tender age of 76 years, the picturesque national capital has finally come of age many feel. In 1901 a bill was passed stipulating that the seat of future government “shall be in the State of New South Wales, and be distant not less than one hundred miles [160 km] from Sydney.” Six years later, a section of pastoral land almost 2,000 feet [600 m] above sea level and measuring 911 square miles [2,360 sq km] was taken from the Monaro district of New South Wales, now known as the Australian Capital Territory.
The name finally decided on for the national capital city was Canberra (pronounced Canʹbra, with the first syllable accented). Many thought it fitting that this name resembled the Aboriginal word for “meeting place,” as it was to be the place where future national parliaments and world dignitaries would meet.
City With a Unique Design
The new national capital was envisioned as a city with a difference. From among 137 entries submitted from all over the world, a winning design was chosen that called for a system of avenues radiating from a central point to be known as Capital Hill. It also required constructing a large man-made lake to enhance the beauty of the city. This would flow through the center of the city and future suburbs, providing parklands, foreshore beautification, water sports, and other aquatic facilities.
This attractive idea was no doubt prompted by the meandering Molonglo River, which conveniently flowed through the elevated plains of that pastoral area and could easily be dammed up. Half a century later, a delightful five-and-a-half-mile-long [9 km] lake was constructed and named Lake Burley Griffin, after the young Chicago landscape architect whose design for Canberra won the worldwide competition back in 1911.
Now that a design had been approved, work quickly got under way to develop Canberra into a capital that would blend the beauty of country and city into one attractive metropolis. The results were so successful that the developing city was affectionately dubbed Australia’s Bush Capital.
The original design for a garden capital resulted in masses of native and exotic trees and shrubs, a wooded panorama that ornaments the well-spaced suburbs and satellite towns. Its population now stands at about 270,000, and it claims an almost pollution-free atmosphere as it nestles among more than six million trees of seemingly infinite variety. Parks and recreation areas are abundant in its garden landscape, softening the features of the buildings and avenues with a crown of trees producing a continuous kaleidoscope of changing colors from spring to autumn.
The bush setting has attracted countless native and exotic birds and animals. There are 250 species of birds in the territory, and more than 90 of these live within less than a mile [1 km] of the city center. Gaily colored parrots and cockatoos nest and feed in trees in the heart of the business center. Native animals, such as kangaroos and wallabies, live in proximity to the city. In fact, a family of kangaroos lives on the grounds of the governor-general’s residence.
Additionally, Lake Burley Griffin provides a natural habitat not only for a variety of water birds but also for the unusual Australian platypus, the little furred animal with webbed feet and large duckbill.
“Coming of Age”
To many minds, the maturity of this fledgling capital is directly related to its Parliament House, which in a representative way is really the central reason for the city’s existence. It was back in 1914 that an international competition was launched for the design of a national parliament house, but World War I caused this whole venture to be canceled. Then, early in the postwar years, it was decided to build a temporary parliament house to serve until a more permanent structure could be built. This provisional parliament house was officially opened in May 1927 by Britain’s Duke of York (who later became King George VI).
In 1965, however, a select committee was formed to plan a new permanent house of parliament. Almost ten years rolled by, and eventually a decision was made that Capital Hill would be the site. A few years later, in 1980, the prime minister turned the first sod, and the building got under way. Since then, another eight years have sped by. But now, at long last and with much fanfare, a striking new Parliament House on Capital Hill was officially opened on May 9, 1988, by the daughter of the late King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II.
The new Parliament House has been hailed as an outstanding architectural achievement. The design competition launched in 1979 drew entries from 28 countries. The building is uniquely designed to complement Walter Burley Griffin’s Canberra plan. Of course, such imposing structures do not come without an equally imposing expenditure of money. The cost of the flag mast alone is estimated at 4.4 million Australian dollars.
Judged by all outward appearances, it can now be said that Australia’s fledgling bush capital—picturesque Canberra—has finally come of age.
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
The new Parliament House—temporary one in right foreground
[Picture on page 17]
Lake Burley Griffin, high court in background