Sunday, July 13, 2008

Canberra's changing life style - past and present

Photo: What is now Olims Hotel Canberra was the Hotel Ainslie. Designed by architect CFA Voysey in English deco style, it was opened in September 1927 (the year the Old Parliament House opened) to house member of Parliament and public servants.

Going back to a place where one has lived and worked for many years after a gap is always strange.

I worked in Canberra for just over twenty years. Later I visited often, but always going for business reasons. Then came a gap of several years. Over the weekend, Dee and I were there as visitors on holiday, finding old places and looking anew.

We decided to stay at the old Hotel Ainslie. When I came to Canberra, this was one of the city's very few pubs. Now run by Olims with an attractive central garden, it retains some of the old feel.

As we drove over the hill and saw the lights of Canberra before us I was struck by the city's increased size. Now obviously I knew that the city was bigger. After all, it's only three weeks since I flew in on a previous visit. However, I had not come in by road at night for many years.

I relied, successfully as it turned out, on my bump of direction to get to the hotel. In fact, I found that so long as I did not think too much about it, I could get anywhere I wanted to. If I did think, the doubts would set in.

I had a writer's diary with me and took notes of my impressions. I will write these up in various posts, for there was much of interest. Yet in all this, the thing that struck me most was just how run-down some of the original inner suburbs had become.

As we drove from place to place where we had both lived, we passed dry and unkempt gardens, with the winter leaves piled up everywhere. Many of the houses were neither large nor especially attractive, but they were set in attractive streetscapes. This seems to have gone under the pressure of water restrictions. There was also rubbish around in a way that I had not seen before.

I was also struck by the ugliness of some of the new buildings. The sheer physical beauty of Canberra's location remains, but the city has somehow lost the organic beauty associated with the original Burley Griffin design in later urban and monumental accretions.

Part of this is no doubt a function of increased size. But I was left with a strong impression of planning failure, of an ad-hoc urban dynamic that had somehow taken over from the previous coherent approach.

Don't get me wrong. Canberra is still very much worth a visit. I was just saddened at what appeared to me to be a failure of vision for the place.

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