Canberra Wasn’t Built in a Day; Australia’s capital city celebrated its 100th anniversary this week

Canberra Wasn’t Built in a Day
Catriona Richards | March 17, 2013


A couple admires the National Library of Australia, lit with colorful light projections as part of the Enlighten festival to celebrate Canberra\’s 100th anniversary. (JG Photo/Catriona Richards)

On the site of a former sheep station not so far from here, Australia’s capital city celebrated its 100th anniversary this week.

Canberra, the seat of Australia’s parliament and home to more than 370,000 people, is one of a handful of cities around the world that was built with the express purpose of serving as a nation’s administrative capital.

Before there was Naypyidaw in Myanmar or Putrajaya in Malaysia, the newly federated nation of Australia began to lay foundations for the city it believed would not only house its parliament, but also express the character of its people.

One hundred years on and deriding the sparsely populated, bureaucratic city has become a national sport — so much so that the phrase “Canberra bashing” entered Oxford’s Australian National Dictionary just weeks ahead of the city’s centenary celebrations.

Indonesia has long toyed with the idea of relocating its administrative capital away from the crowds and infrastructure problems of Jakarta.

The issue most recently came to the fore when floodwaters inundated the central business district in January, killing dozens of people and spilling embarrassingly into the grounds of the presidential palace.

But the experience of Indonesia’s neighbor to the south shows that building a capital city from scratch and finding acceptance from the people it seeks to represent is no easy feat. What’s in a name? 

When Canberra’s first parliament house opened in 1927, sheep still grazed the nearby pastures. The city had only been under construction for 14 years.

The decision to establish the capital on an undeveloped site was made in response to the rivalry between Sydney, Australia’s economic hub, and Melbourne, then serving as the seat of parliament.

If federation in 1901 was the party, then the task of actually having to build the capital was the hangover. The new nation spent the next seven years searching for an appropriate site for the city, and another five years coming up with a name.

Last Tuesday Australia celebrated 100 years to the day since Lady Denman, wife of the then governor-general, announced the name of its new capital city.

She pronounced the name “Canberra,” with a posh emphasis on the first syllable befitting her long white gloves, and the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The drawn-out process of naming the city was perhaps the first indication of the irreverent attitude Australians would take to their new capital.

The federal government had opened the naming of the city to suggestions from the public, who responded with a host of colorful portmanteaus that surely were only half-serious.

At the top of the list were suggestions such as “Sydmelbane,” combining the names of Australia’s biggest cities, “Kangaremu,” melding the names of the creatures on the coat of arms, and “Wheatwoolgold,” naming the country’s biggest exports of the day.

In the end, the government stuck with a version of the original name of the site, which had been known by the Anglicized names “Canbury” or “Kambery” for at least 50 years. The name was said to be adapted from the word “kamberi,” meaning “meeting place” in a language indigenous to the area.

But even this name quickly found its critics, who said that the actual root of the name was the word “nganbira,” meaning the space between a woman’s breasts, and referred to the creek bed between the twin peaks of Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain where the new city would find its centerpoint.

Today the name “Canberra” is used as media shorthand for the federal government, earning it a place in the Aussie lexicon as something akin to a curse word.

Grand designs 

While the name of the city was locally inspired, the plans were drawn from much farther afield.

Australia opened the design of the city to a worldwide competition, won by Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin in 1912.

Provided with general data on the site by mail, but never having actually set foot in it, Griffin scored lines across the landscape in triangles, rectangles and concentric circles.

The central administrative district, known as the Parliamentary Triangle, linked the house of parliament to the military headquarters and the national university. A lake was dredged from the creek that dawdled between the mountain peaks, and institutions were placed along the waterfront, each claiming to represent the nation: the National Gallery, National Library, National Archives, National Museum and National Science and Technology Centre.

It was here that the local government decided to host the city’s centenary celebrations last weekend, at a cost of $3 million. About 150,000 people attended the main event, held on Monday.

The modest crowds were probably the biggest the lake area would see all year. Griffin’s Chicago-minded plan failed to take into the account the Australian propensity for suburban living, meaning that while the outer suburbs of the city have spread like the frilled edge of a fried egg, the central yolk has never managed to consolidate.

For the centenary, the sleepy center was enlivened by interactive displays, street performers and the “longest bubbly bars in the world,” with sparkling wine served at benches stretching 800 meters along the waterfront.

Giant sculptures spelling out words such as “country” and “our home” were erected around the basin of the lake, and the Canberra Symphony Orchestra performed a newly penned symphony titled “Century” before the final fireworks display.

The highly symbolic (and symbolically high-brow) festivities were typical of a city that has long been accused of having more symbols than substance. The city’s detractors were not impressed.

Columnist Martin McKenzie-Murray of The Age newspaper wished Canberra “Happy birthday, to a vision turned sterile” and wrote that “parakeets and mountains do not make a city. People do.”

Even the BBC News Magazine joined in the Canberra bashing, with a centenary piece titled “Canberra: Deathly Dull at 100?”

Robyn Archer, creative director of the celebrations, maintained the day had been a success.

“One is always sad when someone comes to your party and doesn’t have a good time, but when I look at the amount of work the team did, the conception over two and a half years and the way they’ve worked, I was very proud of the team,” she told The Canberra Times.

After 100 years of development, most Australians have not yet come to the party in Canberra, still seeing it as more of a morning-after nightmare.

If Indonesia is serious about relocating its capital, it is worth learning from Australia’s experience that it takes more than bricks and mortar to build a truly representative capital city.

Catriona Richards is an editor for Jakarta Globe Sunday. She was born and raised in Canberra.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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