The Canberra Experiment - Museum as Mall

By Pegrum, Roger; Metcalf, Andrew | The World and I, October 2001 | Go to article overview

The Canberra Experiment - Museum as Mall


Pegrum, Roger, Metcalf, Andrew, The World and I


Canberra is an architecturally polite, respectable metropolis of 315,000 persons that is not yet one hundred years old. Built--with modifications--to a design devised, site unseen, in 1912 by the American Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahony (who both worked in Frank Lloyd Wright's studio), Canberra has been the seat of the Australian government since 1927. Planned down to the building colors, tree species, and streetlights, Canberra is regarded by many urban planning and architectural historians as an exemplar of the twentieth-century city. It is loved almost unreservedly by its inhabitants but dismissed by most other Australians, including the current prime minister, John Howard, who has forgone an official Canberra residence in favor of a waterfront domicile in Sydney.

During the capital's period of most rapid growth, from 1960 to 1980, it became home to a unique collection of national buildings. The National Library, National Gallery, High Court of Australia, National Science and Technology Centre, and eventually a new Parliament House (opened in 1988 to commemorate the bicentennial of European settlement in Australia) are located in the National Triangle, which corresponds roughly in purpose and scale to the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Collectively, the city's public buildings form an architectural catalog of carefully designed Modernist works that are locally significant but internationally little known. If Canberra's architecture is well regarded in design circles, it is not really appreciated by the Australian public. While the aura of freestanding monuments in parkland may, arguably, convey nationalism, it is not urban in the normal sense.

Griffin's plan included a national historical museum. The impetus to create the museum at Canberra's onset was subsumed by national grief after World War I, which found an outlet in the massive Australian War Memorial. Designed in 1925 and opened during World War II, the War Memorial includes an extensive museum that overwhelms its memorializing function.

Dogged by political prevarication for decades, the opening of the National Museum of Australia last March came as a huge relief. Reaction to the museum has been less than gratifying, however. Sited on Acton Peninsula across the lake from the National Triangle and designed in a sort of computerized, Post-Modern-cum-deconstructivist aesthetic by Ashton Raggat McDougall, the museum is the young firm's biggest and most radical work to date.

The new building has been described as "a stimulating experience" on the one hand and "a vortex of madness" on the other. On the positive side of the ledger, it has occasionally been seen as "a bundle of delights" and "Canberra's answer to Epcot."

If the new museum's garish forms, architectural "quotations," looping layout, and twisted warehouse aesthetic are perverse, playful, and ultimately evanescent gestures that reflect the architects' interest in funky, gritty, easy-to-consume pop architecture, they may also be a commentary on the project's protracted birth and low construction budget. Putting aside these observations, the museum's brooding symbolism suggests a somber, thought-provoking side to its architecture. …

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