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A Secret Map Of Canberra

Chris Hammer

Chris Hammer talks about Canberra’s ‘turf wars’ and the mapping of power

I stand on the forecourt of Parliament House, gazing north along Walter Burley Griffin’s grand land axis. Clouds scuttle across the blue sky and tourists swirl across the brown paving, but I remain still, contemplating the vista. The ley lines of Canberra stretch out before me: real and imagined, visible and invisible, present and past, tracing the power shifts of the capital. They link the city’s monuments, the bureaucratic fiefdoms, the modern city to its past. The ley lines of Canberra weave a still life of power and intrigue. Know how to see them, know how to interpret them, and they reveal how power has manifested itself over the years, shifting this way and that, bending the airy ideals of Griffin to the will of more mundane men and women. The history of a hundred years of power plays is written into the cityscape.

From my vantage point the city’s main axis runs gun-barrel straight down Federation Mall, through the city’s repositioned foundation stone and across the roof of the Provisional Parliament House. Hidden from my view behind the old house, the axis runs directly through Reconciliation Place, Commonwealth Place and the lake beyond. Above the roof of the old parliament, I see it run up Anzac Parade, with its russet gravel, to the Australian War Memorial before climbing to the peak of Mount Ainslie. This is the land axis exactly as Griffin imagined it, precisely as his wife Marion Mahony Griffin drafted it, except for one thing: almost none of the buildings and monuments that line the axis conform to Griffin’s original plan. Some have been repositioned, some removed, some imposed. The Griffins provided a template, but later generations built the reality.

One quick example of the shifting landscape. When I was a small boy, there was an imposing monument to King George V sitting directly across the road from the entrance of the Provisional Parliament House, firmly astride the main land axis. It was an impressive thing: a stylised sandstone statue of St George on one side and a bronze of King George in full ceremonial regalia on the other, all mounted on a massive plinth, so that you could climb some stairs and circumnavigate the structure. As the Prince of Wales, George had opened Australia’s first federal parliament in Melbourne in 1901 and he’d been king during the First World War. The monument was erected in the late 1930s, following his death. In that era, when most Australians held the royalty in high esteem, what could have been more appropriate? It lasted thirty years, and then it was moved. In 1968 the two Georges were taken from their impressive plinth and, much diminished, placed at ground level off to one side in the shade of a row of trees, no longer straddling the land axis. What happened to the mighty plinth is a mystery to me; it is nowhere to be seen. King George now overlooks a shed from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, while St George looks forlornly across the rose bushes to lunchers bogging in at the Lobby restaurant.

Yet this is a footnote; there have been far more important shifts in the city’s design. Griffin was a pacifist; he placed the Defence Department across the lake, away from the parliamentary zone that he designated as the centre of bureaucratic power. It was a deft piece of town planning, echoed half a century later by the Americans themselves when they moved military headquarters from the mall in Washington, DC, across the Potomac to the Pentagon in Virginia. Griffin removed the military from the centre of power, yet gave it a prominent position on Russell Hill at the terminus of one of Canberra’s most important axes, Kings Avenue. Sited adjacent to the army’s staff college at Duntroon, it was a solution that apparently satisfied everyone. It’s what happened next that’s interesting.

Parliament moved from Melbourne to Canberra in 1927, but there was a delay of many decades before most public service departments made the move. Defence was among the laggards, still relocating thousands of bureaucrats during the 1970s and 1980s. And by the mid seventies, in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, pacifism was back in style. So when a huge new building was constructed to accommodate the influx of public servants, it wasn’t placed at Russell Hill or even in Canberra’s central valley. Instead it was hidden away behind Mount Ainslie. The Campbell Park offices are seven storeys high (above ground) and half a kilometre long, but they are all but invisible. You may catch a fleeting glimpse of them from your aeroplane window as you take off from or land at Canberra airport, but otherwise you’d be lucky to know they even existed.

But times change and the military has won new relevance and, with it, new territory. In a post-9/11 world, it and its allies have successfully occupied much of Lake Burley Griffin’s northern shores and infiltrated the centre of Canberra’s power structure. Let me describe more of the view as I stand outside the parliament. The stainless-steel flagpole rising behind me constitutes both the southern end of the main land axis and the apex of the parliamentary triangle, Canberra’s ceremonial heartland. The more easterly arm of the triangle runs down Kings Avenue, bridging the lake on its way up to Defence headquarters at Russell Hill. The more westerly arm runs along Commonwealth Avenue, across the other main bridge and up to City Hill and Canberra’s commercial centre known as Civic. The base of the triangle runs roughly parallel to the lake’s northern shore along Constitution Avenue between Civic and Russell Hill, intersecting the main land axis at Anzac Parade. Had I stood at this spot fifty years ago, I would have seen the Defence headquarters at Russell Hill, albeit with far fewer buildings than today, and the war memorial at the northern end of the land axis from Parliament House, but the two weren’t connected: the memorial was the sanctified past, Russell Hill the pragmatic present.

The war memorial was an early amendment to Griffin’s design. He had originally envisaged pleasure gardens, but following the carnage of the First World War, he had recognised the merit of a national shrine commemorating the war dead. It was opened in 1941, and for the first couple of decades, it stood in splendid isolation. Then in 1965 Anzac Parade’s central military parade ground of crushed red brick was opened, and national Anzac Day marches commenced. In the years since, more than a dozen memorials to various wars, campaigns, battles and services have been erected along the side of the parade until they have reached to the shores of the lake, where you can find memorials to the merchant navy and the crew of HMAS Canberra. A proposal to further militarise the axis by placing two massive obelisks on the edge the lake, one each for the two world wars, was first approved then vetoed at the last moment.

While the martial past has been creeping southwards down Anzac Parade, the Defence bureaucracy has extended its reach westward from Russell Hill down Constitution Avenue, the base of the parliamentary triangle. It has successfully gained the high ground where the two avenues meet, melding past with present, occupying two large heritage-listed office blocks, Anzac Parade East and Anzac Parade West, which mark the intersection. More controversially, a disproportionately large new building has been constructed on Constitution Avenue, linking the Russell Hill offices and Anzac Park East. This is the new ASIO headquarters, opposed by locals because of its size, its function and its location. Griffin had planned Constitution Avenue as a boulevard of community life; now the eastern half is an unbroken chain of Defence and security offices. The Americans were discreet enough to locate CIA headquarters outside Washington at Langley, Virginia, but not us. In the 1970s we hid Campbell Park behind Mount Ainslie, now we have placed the secret police prominently in the parliamentary triangle. The offices of the military and quasi-military now form a solid wall along the eastern base of the parliamentary triangle, mounting a challenge across the lake to the High Court, the National Gallery, the Museum of Democracy and, above them, the parliament.

While Defence itself remains contained behind the Maginot Line of the lake—Griffin’s water axis—other elements of the security and intelligence community have established beachheads in the parliamentary zone itself. In 2009 the Australian Federal Police, its numbers swollen by the war on terror, relocated from its headquarters in Civic and took possession of the huge Edmund Barton Building on Kings Avenue. And in 2011 Australia’s peak intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments, was air-lifted from the confines of Russell Hill and parachuted into the old Patent Office building a stone’s throw from parliament. The Patent Office, rebranded as IP Australia, has been banished from Canberra’s central valley all together and can now be found languishing in the neighbouring Woden Valley. Such are the shifts in Canberra’s bureaucratic landscape, such are the altering patterns of the city’s ley lines.


Ley lines are not real. They emerged in 1921 from the imaginings of Alfred Watkins, an amateur archaeologist who, rambling around southern England, came to believe that many ancient monuments—churches, henges, castles and the like—had been constructed in alignment. He wrote a book, The Old Straight Track. Come the 1960s, and Watkins’ theory was reinterpreted by hippiedom and imbued with mystic powers. Whereas dear old Alfred believed the straight lines grew out of nothing more magical than a desire for line-of-sight navigation, the New Agers believed the ley lines traced the very life force of the planet. Sceptical mathematicians pounced on the theory. They demonstrated that if enough random points are scattered about, then some will inevitably come into alignment. One inspired debunker mapped the public telephone boxes of England and declared that they too formed ley lines.

The Aboriginal people of the Limestone Plains certainly had no use for ley lines. Why impose straight lines on a natural landscape so conspicuously devoid of them? The Ngunnawal and the Ngambri had their own narratives to explain and interpret the landscape. They saw in the Molonglo Valley the shape of a woman. Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain formed two mighty breasts, while Capital Hill, site of the New Parliament House, was the womb. Griffin was almost certainly oblivious to this belief as he drafted his plans in far away Chicago and swung his compass from Capital Hill to Mount Aislie as he delineated his principal land axis; that is, from belly button to left tit.

In my youth, Capital Hill was still covered in scraggly bush, a place for the occasional barbecue and a couple of wild teenage parties. There was a road winding along its flank to Canberra’s isolated foundation stone, sitting on top of the womb like the distended navel of a pregnant woman. The circular stone was laid in 1913 and sat there for almost seventy years above the long, slow gestation of the national capital. It was there to look down upon the opening of the old parliament in 1927, there to witness the filling of the lake in 1964 and there to see the erection of the Telecom tower up on the right tit, Black Mountain, in 1980.

Then in the early eighties the stone was moved and put into temporary storage. Griffin had envisaged a people’s forum on Capital Hill, a democratic meeting place sitting above the permanent parliament and the bureaucratic offices. Instead the hill was excavated, the womb emptied, and the New Parliament House implanted, like something from a Ridley Scott movie. It now dominates the skyline, with its ‘look-at-me’ flagpole lording it over the plain below, like a medieval castle. Griffin’s nebulous ideal of placing the people above the politicians was never going to appeal to the self-importance of our political class.

Initially the new house was designed so that citizens could stroll on the lawns above it, a tip of the hat to Griffin’s democratic ideal. But Osama bin Laden and the Bali bombings put a stop to that; access to the roof is strictly controlled with metal detectors and X-ray machines and it’s impossible to stroll from the forecourt up and over the building as originally intended. And so the new parliament sits above the citizenry, circled by the moat of a three-lane freeway. The politicians remain reasonably well grounded: the triennial prospect of electoral oblivion, plus spending the majority of their time in their constituencies, sees to that. But it’s had a corrosive effect on some ministerial staffers—young, cocksure and inexperienced—who set themselves above the accumulated wisdom of the bureaucrats. It is a building and a location that says: ‘I’m here to rule you,’ not ‘I’m here to serve you.’

Gathered around the skirts of the new parliament are the central departments of the bureaucracy. It’s meant to be a figurative term, but central they are. Here you will find Treasury, Finance, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Attorney-General’s, all within a short stroll of parliament. Environment and Water has also snuck in to cohabitate the old administration building with Finance. But Griffin’s intention to have all the bureaucratic departments clustered within the triangle below parliament house has not eventuated. Instead, several national cultural institutions have found their homes there: the National Library, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Democracy in the Old Parliament House, the National Archives and the Science and Technology Museum. The National Museum is close by. And placed directly on the main land axis, Reconciliation Place was constructed by the Howard government at the beginning of the century as an expression of respect and settlement between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. This is an improvement on Griffin; how much better to have these cultural institutions near our heart than simply filling it with bureaucracy.

However, this has meant other departments are not so central, either geographically or in terms of influence. Several second-tier departments can be found clustered around Civic, including some such as the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry that once held pride of place within the parliamentary zone. Others that don’t quite make the grade include Education, Climate Change, Industry, Infrastructure and Transport and our overseas development agency, AusAID. Other, less sexy departments have been exiled from Canberra’s central valley all together. Tax, Immigration and the Bureau of Statistics are in Belconnen, Health and Ageing and Veteran’s Affairs are tucked away out of sight in the Woden Valley, while the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs is many kilometres away in the Tuggeranong Valley. Reconciliation Place may lie at the symbolic heart of Canberra, but the department that looks after indigenous Australians couldn’t be further removed and remain within the city limits. Medicare and Centrelink are also in Tuggeranong. Health, education and welfare: none of them crack the central valley, let alone the parliamentary triangle.


Australia is a Westminster democracy, a constitutional monarchy, with a division of power between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But the map of Canberra asserts that the division of power is not equal. We all know where the legislature sits: on top of its hill, with its flapping flag, like a used-car lot or a One Nation voter. The High Court has made it into the parliamentary zone, where it sits on the shores of the lake, below parliament and curiously twinned in design and location with the National Gallery. But what of the executive? Griffin originally placed government house in a prominent position, on one flank of his Capitol Hill. Yet by the time the capital moved to Canberra in 1927, the monarch’s representative had been removed from the symbolic heart of Australian democracy and put out to pasture at the old sheep station at Yarralumla, along the dusty road to the Cotter. This may seem appropriate today, but in the first decades of federation it was a stunning assertion of independence. After all, the Australian constitution, itself an act of the British parliament, placed the governor-general at the heart of government: he or she was to exercise executive power on the advice of the government and, then as now, was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. But forget the constitution, look at the landscape; from the very beginning, the governor-general, and his or her reserves powers, were put out on the periphery. In Old Parliament House, the prime minister’s suite was in the corner of the building, in the new one it sits directly upon the land axis, straddling the main ley line of power. If Government House lies upon any ley, then it’s a pretty obscure and irrelevant one.

Something similar has happened to religious power. Land for an Anglican cathedral, the state religion of the motherland, was reserved on Kings Avenue, on the edge of the parliamentary zone, across the road from where the Federal Police are now headquartered. Land was set aside for a Catholic cathedral on a prominent rise above the lake’s north shore, close by Commonwealth Avenue, also within the parliamentary triangle, if a little further from the centre of power. But neither was ever built. The Anglican cathedral for the Diocese of Canberra and Goulbourn, St Saviour’s, is located in Goulburn, 100 kilometres north-east of Canberra, while the Catholic cathedral, St Christopher’s, is in Manuka, at a distance from the city’s ceremonial centre. Eventually the Anglican bishop decided that the land reserved for his cathedral was better suited to a series of low-key inter-denominational study centres. The Canberra mosque was built in 1960 and, like Government House, discreetly placed away in Yarralumla. Whatever the original plans, whatever the original intent, neither the monarchy nor Christianity are as prominent in the ceremonial heartland as was first planned.

One last observation. The locations of foreign embassies and missions reveal their own hierarchies. The British, Canadian, New Zealand and Papua New Guinean High Commissions line Commonwealth Avenue on the edge of the parliamentary triangle. The United States, France, Germany, Indonesia, India and various significant European and Asian powers have missions located in the embassy belt immediately to the west of Parliament House. Other less prominent countries have their missions isolated far away in the McMansion suburb of O’Malley in the Woden Valley, a ten-kilometre drive from parliament. There, along Culgoa Circuit, known colloquially as ‘Axis of Evil Drive’, you may find the embassies of Libya, Iran, Iraq, Syria and, until Pyongyang closed it, North Korea. In some ways this reflects nothing more than first in, best dressed, with those countries that first established missions getting the best addresses. Yet in recent times the Saudis have muscled their way into a large compound in Yarralumla and the Chinese have claimed, then expanded, a prime lakeside spot lying between the Commonwealth high commissions and the embassies of the Americans and the French. Power talks and the town planners listen.

Canberra is not a planned city, it is a compromise. Its design has not been ordained, not by Walter Burley Griffin or by anyone else. Instead, the modern city has evolved from a thousand debates, power plays and turf wars. It is not set in stone—buildings are demolished or renovated or built, and their tenants come and go with the tides of bureaucratic fashion and political influence. Commercial interests have demolished the grand old Capitol Theatre in Manuka and the Wellington Hotel on Canberra Avenue. One of Griffin’s most important axes, stretching from Mount Ainslie to City Hill, has had a shopping mall dropped across it, like an oversized concrete turd, blocking the line of sight. The city is evolving as the nation it serves is evolving; there are aspects to admire and others to regret, much like Australia itself. And that’s the thing about Canberra: perhaps in its landscape, its building and its monuments, it does more accurately reflect our national priorities, flaws and foibles than any fabrication, no matter how inspired, of a single town planner.



© Chris Hammer

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