Canberra

Canberra gets a lot of bad press. Some of it is deserved, but less that you might think.

Being the capital of Australia, it suffers the same curse which afflicts Washington DC and Brasilia; namely that it is an invented settlement which has been located for reasons of politcs rather than practicality. In the case of Canberra, a political tussle between Sydney and Melbourne at the time of Federation resulted in the capital being placed somewhere between the two.

The site couldn’t be considered to be particularly prime. In a country where all the major settlements are on the coast, Canberra is several hundred kilometres inland. Prior to to being the site of the national capital it was an enormous sheep station, of which remnants are still visible. Far from the moderating influence of the coastal breezes, Canberra is monstrously hot in summer and bitingly cold in winter. Supply of water is an ongoing issue. Even apart from these impairments, Canberra’s relatively small size (around 400,000 people) and location within New South Wales means that it often ends up being an appendage of Sydney, both politically and logistically. The population is pretty much a 50/50 split between working class rural New South Welshpeople and people from other states who have moved to Canberra to work for the Federal Government.

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View across the “Parliamentary Precinct”

Canberra’s crime, in the eyes of the rest of Australia, is twofold. Firstly, as the home of Australia’s government, it is the obvious target of the Australian population, who like nothing better than to whine and snipe about the politicians which they selected to represent them. Pollie-baiting is a national sport, pursued with enthusiasm by the vast majority of the population, most of whom could do a better job. When asked why they don’t volunteer, a common ground for refusal is having to live in Canberra. Circularity ensues.

The second great failing of Canberra, universally agreed upon, is that it is boring.

SO BORING.

CANBERRA IS SO BORING, I COULD NEVER LIVE THERE.

I think this is interesting. What exactly do people feel they lack?

The place is monstrously over-endowed with cultural institutions of the National variety. The population are in general highly educated and interested in such things as art, beauty, and the meaning of life beyond their tragic office potplant. As a result there are no shortage of cultural events happening, seemingly all the time. So it can’t be that, although it must be said that Canberra isn’t exactly edgy, despite the large student population.

Is it the architecture? Perhaps. The Canberra suburbs mostly look like they were constructed in around 1965 and are under a misguided heritage overlay. It’s an ocean of cream brick and tidy front nature strips out there, with the exception of the houses where nanna has clearly gone to seed along with her garden. The government buildings are either grim 1980s brutalist horrors or 1930s faux-Westminster, but they’re not without their charm. As they’re scattered around the city there is no ghetto of particularly terrible architecture.

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The National Library, laterally. 60s civic architecture at its finest.

The city is surrounded on all sides by mountains and a gigantic national park, so there’s clearly no excuse for boredom on the part of the adventurously-inclined. I recall a school camp I went on in said park – I walked for two weeks and had no conception that I was half an hour’s drive from the capital.

I think that when people say that Canberra is boring, they mean that there’s nowere fun to get a drink. I’m not entirely convinced that this is a vital component of a good urban existence, but I may be in the minority here. Nightclubs and late-night drinking venues are thin on the ground. The hidden ones in basements are particularly lacking. And it must be said that Canberra’s cafe culture, although developing, is not quite there yet.

When it comes down to it, I wonder whether it isn’t one of those shorthand terms for a city that perhaps once was true, and is now stuck. Think Paris and romance, New York and excitement, Sydney and traffic.

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The relatively un-maligned National Carillon

If so, it’s become pretty ingrained into the cultural mindset, even for the locals. I went on a boat ride around Lake Burley-Griffin, the artificial lake in the centre of town around which are clustered the major institutions. Surprisingly, the captain drove us round for an hour describing the sights in terms of the utmost cynicism and disdain. For him, the High Court resembles a stack of shipping containers and the National Museum is a hodgepodge of lame symbolism with a crane stuck on the top. Only the National Carillon escaped global condemnation, although there were some acid commets on the choice of music and the closure of the function room within the tower.

I do feel that Canberra is under-appreciated as a destination. Most of the frustrations of major cities are absent and as my friend Tommy says, it’s basically massively over-funded country town. For those who are considering a tree change, you could do worse than move to Our Nation’s Capital.

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Saturday night at 7 PM, Braddon

 

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