So here's a place.  And perhaps it means something...good.

So here’s a place. And perhaps it means something…good.

Overhead the plover,
Like the moon apart,
Tells his lonely knowledge,
Of the human heart.

– from ‘Town Planning’ by David Campbell

 *

At the bottom of the world, in a country of white-sand edges and a heart of red dust, halfway between a glittery tart called Sydney and Melbourne’s rash of football scarves, is a city, a capital city, a place dreamed up over a century ago to be the ideal[1].  Canberra: founded on landscape and democracy, geometry and axis.  And smack-bang in the middle of this dream city, at the end of a grand spine, is a hill.  Not a mountain or a temple, just a simple pimple of a hill.

It’s not a big place, just a few hectares rising up to a hump, all of it planted out with tree species imported from other lands, thick green grass as if supporting a dairy, vacant park benches scattered here and there.  But encircled by a busy double-lane road, this hill is more an island.  A secret island, and very few people cross over; you can’t see what’s inside.  A grotto, a moated castle, a place for ghosts and hunchbacks, except bells don’t ring out from here – City Hill is gagged.

This isn’t how it was meant to be.

Walter Burley Griffin, the architect/landscape architect/town planner/ dreamer/mystic/sharman who gave us the original idea for Canberra (before it was stymied by a sceptical, Europe-obsessed federal public service) described City Hill – or, as he named it, ‘Civic Place’ – as an ‘eminence’[2].  What a great word!  Distinction, recognised superiority.  A piece of rising ground.  Eminent: exalted, great, famous, celebrated.  I don’t know about you but I’m conjuring witch doctors and cardinals, and there’s applause that could go on for hours.

But in 2013 how is City Hill actually used?

If you ever want to get clues about a place, do what good pulp-fiction detectives do – ferret around rubbish bins.  And this is what you would find on our Hill: empty booze bottles, spent condoms.  That’s it.

Despite all the planning that’s gone into Canberra (it’s been sketched to within an inch of its life, you might say), despite the desires to make this particular spot on our fragile little planet a place of enduring symbolism and meaning, City Hill is nothing more than a forested mound ringed by a raging torrent of cars driven by people with malls to visit and fastfood to buy.  A place no one goes except some time between midnight and dawn, for people who’ve trawled through Civic and scored and are now ready for the payoff.  A place for the losers who just want to forget their heart’s ‘lonely knowledge’, as Campbell puts it.  And it’s a place for the others who haven’t a skerrick and will spend sub-zero nights sleeping beneath pencil pines, tick-ridden possums for company.

Novelist Miles Franklin paid tribute to her good friend Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marian Mahoney Griffin – possibly the brains of the duo – in a piece that appeared in the Bulletin in 1937:

Never, they felt, had there been a better opportunity to create anew, free from the debris of old mistakes and the shackles of dead tradition, than in this wonderland with its forward-looking and independently-minded democracy.[3]

Franklin might have been impressed with Canberra (you would have been if you spent a childhood looking at it from the hazy blue heights of the Brindabellas and then racking off overseas), but City Hill in real life is just a mirror.  Perhaps it proves that if our efforts to plan and design don’t result in the creation of great places, we will fill our world with ordinariness.  Because at the core of our lives, at the centre of our communal existence, is mystery.  And we try to medicate our frustrations at this mystery with the most ignoble of acts.

City Hill hasn’t become what the Griffins dreamt.  No, not yet.

But it could be a wonderland, an ideal – it could have unending eminence.


[1] Walter Burley Griffin, New York Times, 2 June 1912

[2] National Capital Authority, The Griffin Legacy – Canberra, the Nation’s Capital in the 21st Century, Canberra, 2004, p66

[3] Ibid., p. 30

David Campbell’s ‘Town Planning’ can be found in David Campbell: Selected Poems, Angus and Robertson, 1978

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