Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Book review: Canberra, Paul Daley (2012)

This book is part of a series on Australia's capital cities produced by University of New South Wales Press. I decided to write about it because of the talk in recent days about Canberra's centenary. There is plenty of colour in the book with stories about people and places, so it's quite accessible for the general reader. People who've been exposed to stories about Canberra's foundation can certainly enjoy reading the book.

One of the main reasons I came to do this review is because there has been almost no discussion in the press about the contributions of Walter Burley Griffin and of his wife Marion to Canberra, and probably it's an omission due to embarrassment because of the struggles the two endured in the face of official intransigence stemming from differing views of how the new city should develop. Griffin, from Illinois, won the prize for designing the city but when he arrived here things started to unravel and the stolid personalities in charge of the construction projects began to whittle away at the plan and water down its impact. Daley does a decent job of describing this part of Canberra's history. What he does not say is how similar the case of the Griffins is to that of Jorn Utzon, the designer of the Sydney Opera House, especially once the Liberals won government in New South Wales. And I think it's a point that has to be made, because it tells us something about who we are. Practical compromise instead of visionary purity; this is the kind of clash that we see in both of these architectural sob stories. It's a wonder that Canberra's new Parliament House ever got built.

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