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(Not) by design: Utopian moments in the creation of Canberra.

In an article from 2001 entitled 'Ecopolitics by Design', David Wright draws attention to the 'unique integration of political idealism and ecological thinking' that characterizes the work of Walter Burley Griffin as the principal architect of Australia's federal capital. In Wright's assessment, Griffin's legacy has been unjustly overlooked by those attempting 'to map ecopolitical thinking in Australia', as a consequence, he suspects, 'both of the character and scale of the canvas he worked'. (1) In the meantime, Canberra's present-day city planners have embarked upon their own practical revaluation of the 'Griffin Legacy'. This they see not so much as a 'blue-print that fixes the future planning of Canberra in rigid detail', as setting 'the big picture, identifying those things of value which should endure while allowing flexibility to respond to emerging needs and opportunities'. (2) Within the National Capital Authority's (NCA) vision of 'the big picture', the radical democratic and ecospiritual elements of Griffin's Canberra plan, variously illuminated in the research cited by Wright, inevitably get flattened into the familiar mantra of the triple bottom line. The endeavour to integrate economic, social and environmental considerations in the further development of Canberra doubtless manifests a certain utopian impulse of its own, while nonetheless falling short of the recognition that their genuine reconciliation would necessitate a far more profound transformation of the prevailing ecosocial order than is currently intended by the NCA. I will return to a consideration of this and other utopian stirrings in contemporary Canberra at the end of this article. What principally concerns me here, however, is the programmatic utopianism that is discernable in Griffin's--or rather (for it was evidently a collaborative effort) the Griffins'--vision for the federal capital. In particular, I will follow Wright in taking a closer look at the ecopolitical dimension of this utopian design project. In so doing, I will illuminate a certain tension, perhaps even a contradiction, with which all systemic eco-utopias are bound to wrestle: that is, between the Promethean ambition to remake the world and the ecocentric ethos of attunement to the given. (3) From the ecopolitical perspective that frames this study, the utopian ambition to create a better future by design appears at once absolutely necessary and necessarily problematic.

According to Ernst Bloch, who famously first diagnosed such a thing as a 'utopian impulse' and proceeded to trace its many and varied manifestations throughout history and across cultures, the artful shaping of space in the design of buildings and towns is inherently utopian in the general sense that architecture 'as a whole is and remains an attempt to produce a human homeland'. Moreover, 'all great buildings', in his analysis, 'were sui generis built into the utopia, the anticipation of a space adequate to man'. (4) Unlike some of the other major German philosophical works of the mid-20th century, notably Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), written in exile by Bloch's friends Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, or Martin Heidegger's essays on technology, poetry and dwelling of the 1940s and 1950s, from which Ernst Bloch is at pains to distance himself, the marxist philosopher's monumental Principle of Hope (1959) still awaits discovery as a precursor of contemporary ecological thought. Admittedly, his comments on architecture are not encouraging in this regard, implying as they do that the earth requires a makeover before it can become a place where humans truly belong. 'Nature' nonetheless plays a pivotal role in Bloch's resolutely this-worldly understanding of the not-yet place towards which the utopian impulse ultimately tends: the earthly homeland that could properly be brought into being, he insisted (albeit with dwindling faith in Soviet-style 'real existing socialism'), only through marxism. This becomes especially apparent in his discussion of 'technological utopias'. Recalling Marx's observation in The Holy Family that the private property relation 'alienates not only the individuality of human beings but also that of things', (5) Bloch argues that under capitalism, nature appears exclusively in the mode of natura dominata, being valued solely in instrumental terms as a means to an end, subject to human control and exploitation. Reviving the concept of nature as productive process rather than static mechanism, as posited in the Naturphilosophie of Hegel and above all Schelling, (6) Bloch holds to the hope that the emancipatory transformation of human relations would also restore nature to the status of natura naturans, a subject in its own right. Thus recognizing the independent agency and co-productivity of nature, he suggests, necessitates the development of new forms of technology, based on the principle of 'alliance' rather than domination. For, writes Bloch, 'it is certain that the human house not only stands in history and on the foundation of human activity, it also stands above all on the foundation of a mediated natural subject and on the building site of nature' (original italics). (7)

If we follow Bloch, then, it would appear that the term 'eco-utopianism' is in a sense tautological. For the future that is anticipated within his analysis of the utopian impulse is none other than the place of a fully emancipated oikos. 'Nature', Bloch writes towards the end of this truly extraordinary work, far from being consigned to the 'past' (as some modernists and, latterly, many so-called postmodernists would have it) belongs crucially to the 'future', if indeed humanity is to have one at all: 'It is not only the soil of man but also his lasting surroundings; it is certainly not a burnt-out ruin but rather the architecture for a drama that has not yet been performed'. Writing in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the midst of the Cold War, Bloch follows this affirmation with an acknowledgement that the persistence of nature, in the sense of those life-processes that enable human existence and thus afford humanity the very possibility of a future on earth, was by no means assured: 'In all human history so far the drama that could transform nature into a bygone has at least not yet been played to its end; if human history has not yet dawned into brightness, then certainly nature has not yet done so through human history'. (8) Today, however, it seems that the tables have turned, in that it is now conceivable that 'nature' might well consign 'history' to the past, rather than vice versa--the history, at any rate, of modern technological progress, which inadvertently has so altered the earth's ecosystems that they look increasingly uncongenial to human, as well as much other-than-human, life. Within this unprecedented horizon of global ecosocial imperilment, in which hope is especially hard to come by, a new kind of utopian impulse is emerging: one that no longer looks to nature, as Bloch still does, as a stage-setting or building site for the emancipatory projects of humanity, but rather recognizes our multifarious 'earth others' as worthy of emancipation in their own right.

A possible point of departure for this alternative eco-utopianism might be found in Heidegger's concept of 'dwelling poetically'. (9) As I understand it, this entails a praxis of place-making that allows the other-than-human dimensions of earth, sky and divinity to persist in their own being (and hence becoming) even while aspects thereof are drawn into relationship with us 'mortals' in those things of our creation that supply the world in which we make our home. For Heidegger, it is not only the atom bomb but also the atomic power station that endangers the earth, to the extent that it instantiates that modern practice of technological 'enframing' that, he fears, threatens to turn all things, humans included, into 'standing reserve'. Against this, Heidegger calls for the recovery of the poietic potential of techne, namely as a mode of making that reveals, rather than enframes, the materials being worked, in the context of a renewed practice of dwelling, which, as he puts it, 'saves the earth', precisely by respecting its opacity, alterity and potentially resistant agency. To dwell, insofar as we save the earth, is then to create and maintain a place of habitation suitable for human life that summons earth, sky, divinity and mortals into a nexus of interrelationship, yet in such a way as to disclose how the other-than-human perpetually escapes our grasp, potentially eluding whatever designs we might have on it. Recalling Bloch's theatrical metaphor, one might say that dwelling poetically resists the reduction of our earth-others to the status of props or backdrops for an exclusively human show, respecting that they have their own dramas to enact, in which we may or may not be invited to play a role.

To summarize this philosophical preamble, then, the horizon of hope within which I am viewing the case of the Griffins' Canberra is one that envisages a space where the socially emancipatory utopianism of Bloch might be wedded to an ecosophical ethos of dwelling derived from Heidegger. It is in the anticipation of this imagined locus of ecosocialist homecoming, which comes to us, as Fredric Jameson says of all utopian projections, as a 'barely audible message ... from a future that may never come into being', (10) that I will endeavour to discern both the promise and the problems that are manifest in the envisioning of Australia's federal capital. What I should also stress at the outset is that I approach this question without any particular expertise in architectural history or urban planning, but as a cultural historian and critical theorist with a particular interest in literature. Let me then make my way towards the creation of Canberra with the assistance of a poem (recalling that for Heidegger it was after all through the words of the poet that we were admitted into dwelling).

In his 'Psalm for an Artificial City', Michael Thwaites, who was for many years Canberra's most loyal lyricist, addresses Australia's much maligned 'bush capital' with the following exultant words of praise:
 When enemies cry against you
 with vipers' tongues shooting malicious darts
 sneering 'unreal, alien, artificial',
 rejoice, be glad
 grapple their empty slanders to your soul
 and glory, glory in being artificial
 as are those Aboriginal artefacts
 strewn in your valleys, shaped by human hands
 aeons before such things as cities stood

 ...

 Be glad that Burley Griffin,
 before surveyor's pegs, huts, buildings, highways,
 long before fountain, lake that bears his name,
 stood on this ground
 lifted his eyes to the hills, sun, mist, and cloud,
 the singing light, the beckoning Brindabellas
 and willed his plan the servant not the master
 of a chosen place. (11)


Thwaites' defence of his hometown in these stanzas is two-pronged. He begins by affirming its very 'artificiality', aligning it with the use of craft in the long history of Aboriginal dwelling here prior to European colonization: artifice, or techne, as Heidegger would say, is a universal feature of human place-making (to which I would add that a knack for construction is by no means confined to our species, as any child who has ever gazed in wonder at a cobweb or a nest will attest). Implicitly, Thwaites' comparison might nonetheless also prompt us to consider the profound discontinuities between the crafting of the country of the indigenous Kamberri and the creation of the federal capital of Australia: a question to which I will return in due course. However that might be, Thwaites also suggests that Griffin's design for the city was conceived as a response to that which precedes and exceeds all human place-making in the lie of the land and the play of the atmosphere: long before the first human voice sang in and of this place, the light itself was 'singing'. In this second line of defence, Griffin's utopian project is cast as a true work of ecopoiesis, disclosing the pre-existent character of the locality, designed to be its 'servant' rather than its 'master'. As I indicate below, there is much evidence to support this interpretation of Griffin's intention. However, Thwaites possibly comes closer to the mark in another poem in which Griffin's achievement is celebrated in a slightly less triumphant mode. In 'A Message to My Grandson', the poet enjoins the newborn to admire how,
 The view from Ainslie (quite superlative)
 Delineates Burley Griffin's genius, working
 After his death, enlisting trees, hills, water
 As friends (he hoped) not subjects to his plan. (12)


While acknowledging a possible gap between intention and reality in the bracketed interpolation '(he hoped)', Thwaites also risks a certain semantic friction in the verbal construction 'enlisting ... as friends'. The friction is minor, perhaps, but nonetheless significant. In my reading, it points to the central tension, maybe even contradiction, that haunts the Griffins' Canberra: namely, between an impulse towards friendship, implying a willingness to let the other go his own way, and the imperative of enlisting, whereby the other is set to work for purposes that are not of his own designing.

The view of Canberra from Mt Ainslie, as it was prefigured by the Griffins in one of the exquisite drawings created by Marion Mahony for her husband's submission to the Federal Capital Competition of 1911, clearly indicates what Thwaites is alluding to, even though the city streets below are today considerably leafier and less clearly regimented than originally envisaged. Looking down and across from this forested hilltop, you can see from Marion's sepia- and gold-toned rendering, contrasting so strikingly with the emerald green landscapes of other submissions, (13) how the layout of the town is designed to follow the natural contours of the land. Thus, the major north-south axis traces a line from Mt Ainslie through Camp Hill, Kurrajong Hill and Red Hill right out to Bimberi Peak, the highest mountain in the Brindabella Ranges, while the major east-west axis follows the flow of the Molonglo River across the Canberra plain. Similarly, as becomes apparent in their cartographic overview of the city presented in the 'Plan of the City and Environs', the three points of the equilateral triangle that links the Capitol, a building that the Griffins envisaged as representing the history and spirit of the nation, with the Civic, or administrative, Centre and the Market Centre are given by Kurrajong Hill, City Hill and Mt Pleasant. A further equilateral triangle adjoining this one along the line connecting the Civic and Market Centres to form a rhombus, joins City Hill and Mt Pleasant to Mt Ainslie, at the foot of which the Griffins intended there to be a building that they called the Casino, a social centre with bars, restaurants and various entertainments. This respectful response to the lie of the land 'needs to be appreciated', as K. F. Fischer stresses, 'against the backdrop of ... the topographically entirely insensitive gridiron plan and the often rigid symmetrical formalism of the Beaux Arts tradition', which often demanded 'extensive excavation and earthworks'. (14) Moreover, whereas the City Beautiful paradigm, upon which the Griffins' design is partly modelled, requires the main avenues of the town to terminate in arches, obelisks or monumental buildings, in Canberra this function is assumed by hills and ridges, such that the eye is continually being led beyond the human-centred world of the city towards the skyline of the landscape in which it is located. Thus, in Christopher Vernon's analysis, by contrast with the other architects who submitted plans for the city, Griffin 'appropriated the physical site itself as the new nation's primal monument'. (15) Vernon's apt use of the term 'appropriated' here, reminiscent as it is of Thwaites' 'enlisting', should nonetheless give us pause for thought.

Significantly, perhaps, Griffin's remarkable grasp of the topography of the Canberra area was obtained not from embodied experience of the place, as Thwaites' 'Psalm' implies, but from the contour plans, watercolour drawings and small site model on show in Chicago: ironically, then, the conception of the Griffins' ecopoetic design was dependent upon conventions of land surveying and picturesque representation which are intimately bound up with the objectification and commodification of the earth in modernity (as well as with the appropriation of the dwelling places of colonized peoples). It should also be noted that although the Griffin plan was unique among those submitted to the competition in aligning the layout of the city so closely to the topography of the site, the character of the country surrounding the capital had always been considered a crucial factor in the creation of Canberra. This can be seen from the instructions given by Hugh Mahon, Minister for Home Affairs, to Charles Scrivener, the NSW District Surveyor, who was charged with identifying the precise location of the city in the Canberra-Yass region that had finally been chosen for this exalted purpose:
 The Federal Capital should be a beautiful city, occupying a
 commanding position, with extensive views and embracing
 distinctive features which will lend themselves to the
 evolution of a design worthy of the object, not only for the
 present but for all time; consequently the potentialities of the
 site will demand most careful consideration from a hygienic
 standpoint, with a view to securing picturesqueness, and
 also with the object of beautification and expansion. (16)


Mahon's 'hygienic' considerations referred principally to the provision of plentiful fresh water, clean air and the capacity to deal with sewage and other town waste. Such concerns were integral to the urban reform movements that had taken off towards the end of the previous century, including the City Beautiful movement as well as the more radical Garden City movement, which also crucially informed the Griffins' work. What is also striking here is Mahon's concern, not only with hygiene and beauty, but also with 'securing picturesqueness'. As Ken Taylor has observed, Australia's federal capital was always intended to be 'a city in and of the landscape'. (17) As 'landscape', the colonial earth is nonetheless valued pre-eminently as an object of the gaze: for its 'picturesque views'. This aesthetically appreciative gaze is one that had been shaped by the paintings of the Heidelberg School, whose style of late romantic landscape art representing rural life in the Australian bush had helped to give content to the abstract notion of national identity around the time of Federation.

The importance attributed to the picturesque landscape of the federal capital is evident in the competition announced in December 1912 for paintings depicting the site that Scrivener had chosen. According to Taylor, these were to be 'of a panoramic nature with midday effect'. (18) The prize-winning entry was painted by William Lister Lister, but the runner-up, by Theodore Penleigh Boyd, is more frequently reproduced, and can be seen on display in Old Parliament House. It shows the Limestone Plains, as the Canberra area had become known since white settlement, as an open expanse of grassland with three shapely pale-barked gums in the foreground, intersected by two waterways, and ringed by forested hills, with the vista of the grander Brindabella mountain range against the horizon. The lone church of St John the Baptist, shaded by conifers, together with the suggestion of willows along the Molonglo, signals that this place had already been blessed with the presence of a Christian civilization, while the rural character of the scene indicates that it was yet innocent of the ills of urban life. Interestingly, Boyd's painting shows no members of the farming community, human or otherwise, who had made their home here in the previous century, despite the generally poor soil, fickle climate and recurrent bushfires. (19) Less surprisingly, there are also no traces of Aboriginal presence, the local tribes erroneously being supposed to have sadly 'died out' by the 1880s. (20) The apparent vacancy of the plain thus offers itself as an open space, in which the urban planner and landscape artist might combine to create, quasi ex nihilo, a new kind of city, at once grand and green, for the recently constituted settler nation. So enthusiastic was the new Minister for Home Affairs, King O'Malley, about the views afforded by the Canberra site, that he was led to liken it to the Promised Land of the ancient Hebrews:
 When I viewed the site ... it seemed to me that Moses,
 thousands of years ago, as he gazed down on the promised
 land, saw no more panoramic view than I did. (21)


In view of the generally arid climate that the Canberra region shares with parts of Israel, this comparison is perhaps not entirely fanciful. What it discloses more significantly, however, is the utopian impulse, however distorted by the ideology of colonial nationalism, which would prompt others too to figure Australia's future capital city as a 'new Jerusalem on earth'. (22)

Without having ever visited Australia previously, the Griffins evidently also harboured high expectations of what might be achieved there, both politically and architecturally. In an interview for the Chicago press following his success in the Federal Capital Competition in 1912, Griffin described himself as 'a naturalist in architecture' and expressed the belief that in Australia, which he held to be untrammelled by tradition, he 'ought to be able to evolve a very beautiful architectural type adapted to the needs of the climate and harmonising with the topography'. (23) Here, it is evident that the value which the Griffins attributed to the particularities of place went well beyond a conventional concern with the picturesque. The ideal of building in a manner that was environmentally appropriate was a key element in the architectural philosophy of the Prairie School pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright, in whose Oak Park studio both Marion and Walter had worked: indeed this is where they first met. (24) Wright's work clearly had a powerful influence on the Griffins, but other factors too were in play.

Biographical research on the Griffins indicates that they both developed a great and abiding affection for the natural world in childhood. According to Vernon, Marion 'first gained professional experience with her cousin Dwight Perkins', who 'was a pioneer in Chicago's conservation movement' and a member of the local Arts and Crafts Society, which Marion also joined in 1897. (25) Walter, meanwhile, is known to have studied not only architecture, but also forestry and horticulture, styling himself professionally as a 'landscape architect' (as did Marion after she came to join Walter in Australia). (26) In their early collaborative work at Steinway Hall (a building that had been designed by Perkins for Wright with drafting assistance from Marion, where Walter had by then established his own practice), they developed a new style of presentation, influenced by the Japanese landscape aesthetic that was highly popular at this time, but also including 'botanically accurate representations of a given site', which 'often encapsulated landscape design principles'. (27) Around this time (1910-13), Walter was commissioned to design several residential projects with a Garden City orientation, including a remarkable co-operative housing venture, Ridge Quadrangles at Evanston, Illinois, which was never carried out, and another at Rock Crest and Rock Glen in Iowa, which, as Peter Harrison attests, 'survives as the nearest approach to a complete demonstration of Griffin's talents for the design of a total domestic environment', including a scheme of tree planting to 'restore the natural landscape character of the area of which parts were intended to be held in the common ownership of the community'. (28) The careful attention that he paid to the natural contours of the site in planning this small community would be replicated on a monumental scale in the Griffins' design for the federal capital.

There was evidently a philosophico-religious dimension to the role accorded to the natural world in all their work, including their utopian Canberra project, although the precise sources and orientation of this is a matter of some debate. James Weirick, seeking to counter Peter Proudfoot's narrowly theosophical reading of the Canberra plan, insists that there is no hard evidence of the Griffins' involvement with the new age faith of Madame Blavatsky prior to the 1920s. (29) Instead, he points to their more conventionally liberal Protestant background, Walter having been raised a Congregationalist, while Marion was an active member of the Unitarian Church, even designing a new place of worship for the congregation to which she belonged, the Church of All Souls at Evanston (1902), as her first independent work as an architect. Weirick stresses above all their shared commitment to the 'civic religion' of democracy and freedom that they inherited via their mentor Louis Sullivan from the tradition of New England Transcendentalism. Accordingly, he interprets the symbolism manifest in the Canberra plan, especially in the layout of the central city area, as explicitly political rather than covertly spiritual.

Whatever the Griffins' own religious affiliations might have been at this stage, their Chicago milieu was evidently suffused with the syncretic spirituality that flourished in artistic and intellectual circles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Proudfoot, Sullivan was himself a Swedenborgian, as was Daniel Burnham, another of Griffin's models, while at least one of their associates at Steinway Hall, Claude Bragdon, was a Theosophist. As Proudfoot demonstrates, moreover, the geometric shaping and compass-point alignment of the Canberra plan, with its precise axial arrangement of triangles, squares and circles, clearly exemplifies the kind of geomantic design principles outlined by Bragdon in his book The Beautiful Necessity: Architecture as Frozen Musics; Seven Essays on Theosophy and Architecture of 1910, as well as echoing the axial orientation of those ancient Greek and Egyptian temples and European megaliths that were being researched by archaeologists at this time. (30) Marion's drawings also betray hints of the crystal imagery that figures significantly in Theosophy as a symbol of transformation and transcendence (and would be thus deployed in German Expressionist architectural art in the coming years). According to Conrad Hamann, the proposed public buildings, such as the arsenal, cathedral, legislature and Capitol, are rendered 'angled, faceted and shimmering', while the polygonal residential centres are suggestive of 'crystal growth at an enormous scale'. (31) In the aforementioned 'View from Mt Ainslie', serried ranks of gleaming government buildings lead back from shimmering lake waters to a ziggurat-shaped Capitol, echoing the outline of the luminescent Bimberi Peak, which has been brought forward, as if to play the role of sacred mountain. (32) Divinity too, it would seem, was to be woven into the matrix of Australia's federal capital.

The mystical dimension of the Canberra plan has its own utopian impetus, being oriented towards the reclamation of primordial principles of design in crafting a sacred ecology for the cities of the future. 'All the evidence of historical civilisations among men prior to the Romans,' wrote Griffin in 'The Architect's Burden' (1924), 'exhibit[s] ... subordination to Nature, and indicate[s] something in these civilisations that we lack--a closer relationship of man to nature'. (33) The capitalization of Nature here suggests that it is being posited as an abstract universal, but once in Australia, the Griffins quickly set about acquainting themselves with the organic particulars of the local flora and fauna, conceiving a great admiration for the eucalypt in particular. By the time they became involved in the creation of the Castlecrag community in Sydney in 1924, as Harrison observes, they had 'developed such a reverence for the natural Australian landscape that its preservation was adopted as a dominant theme in their ideas for the community environment'. (34) At the time of their involvement with Canberra, however, their desire to foster a new alliance between Man and Nature is countered by a strongly anthropocentric impulse towards remaking the earth for human purposes according to an abstract preconceived design. In keeping with the rigidly geometric, and possibly geomantic, principles governing the layout of the central city, for example, the irregular meanderings of the Molonglo were to be totally obliterated by the creation of three formal basins, flanked by two larger and more natural-looking but nonetheless similarly artificial lakes. In accordance with the City Beautiful convention that other entrants in the competition also followed, the tricksterish river, which was forever oscillating between desiccation and flood, was always going to be sacrificed. However, most other competitors envisaged that the contours of the lake would follow those of the natural floodplain (as does the actual one that today bears Griffin's name). As we have seen, the Griffins did not intend to lie low the hills. But the creation of these geometrically contained and constrained architectural pools 'would have necessitated moving one and a third million cubic yards of earth', according to Fischer. (35) Similarly, the geomantic intent discerned by Proudfoot provides the best explanation that I have come across so far for Griffin's somewhat bizarre and decidedly unecological Coloured Hills scheme, whereby Mt Ainslie was to be planted out with yellow-flowering plants, such as broom and acacias, Red Hill with red-flowering plants, such as callistemon, Mugga Mugga with white-flowering plants, such as Eucalyptus cinerea, and Black Mountain, with pink and white flowering plants, such as Japanese peaches, plums, cherries and almonds. (36) According to Proudfoot, this proposal recalls the Buddhist sacred mountain, Wut'Aishan, 'each of whose five highest peaks, symbolic of the universe, were associated with one of the five sacred colours'. (37)

The extent to which the Griffins' utopian project implied the 'appropriation', 'enlisting'--perhaps we might even say conscripting--of the topographical features of the site is made explicit in the Report Explanatory of 1913, where Walter declares:
 Taken together, the site may be considered as an irregular
 amphitheatre--with Ainslie at the north-east in the rear,
 flanked on either side by Black Mountain and Pleasant Hill,
 all forming the top galleries; with the slopes to the water, the
 auditorium; with the waterway and floodbasins, the arena;
 with the southern slopes reflected in the basin, the terraced
 stage and setting of the monumental Government structures
 sharply defined rising tier on tier to the culminating highest
 internal forested hill of the Capital; and with Mugga Mugga,
 Red Hill, and the blue distant mountain ranges, sun
 reflecting, forming the back scene of the theatrical whole. (38)


Here, it might be noted that the terracing of the parliamentary triangle would have also necessitated 'tremendous earthworks'. (39) More generally, though, I am troubled by Griffin's theatrical metaphor, strikingly reminiscent as it is of Bloch's, which, in reducing the physical environment to a stage setting, a frame, also tends to enframe it, placing it at the disposal of human agents, whose interactions are constituted as the only show in town. This suspicion finds confirmation in Griffin's comment on the benefit of viewing the proposed layout of Canberra from the vantage point of Mt Ainslie. For, he writes: '[o]ne of the chief pleasures we get in contemplation of any work of man is the consciousness that results were intentional. We rejoice in the evidence of intelligence'. (40) Intelligence, in other words, is only made manifest in things of human design. Here, Griffin seems to fall prey to the long-standing Western dualism of reason and nature, which gets taken up into the avant-garde spiritualism of the early 20th century in the utopian notion that an enlightened elite was to bring about a new phase in the evolution of the world, generally understood as an elevation of the realm of matter into that of the spirit. 'Man's history up to the present time has been a descent into matter,' Marion wrote in an essay on 'The Aboriginals', whom she casts a la Rousseau as happily pre-lapsarian: 'It is up to us now to start the ascent into the spiritual'. (41) Within the symbolism of Theosophy, this notion of Cosmic Evolution is imaged in the Vesica, the orifice formed between two overlapping circles, which Proudfoot claims is the central organizing principle of the intended geometry both of central Canberra, and of the building to be constructed on Capital Hill, the primary sacred site in the city itself, functioning as a kind of omphalos or caput mundi. (42) Whether or not it is specifically theosophical in orientation, the spirituality underlying the Griffins' vision for Canberra, far from 'saving the earth' by disclosing its opacity, alterity and potentially resistant agency, would thus appear to privilege active human transformation, oriented towards the triumph of spirit over matter, the ideal over the actual. 'I have planned an ideal city,' Griffin announced in the interview cited earlier, 'a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future!' (43)

The ideality of the Griffins' utopian vision of Canberra also implied a classically modernist privileging of the universal over the particular. Thus, although the layout of the city is aligned with particular topographical features of the site, the layout itself embodies design principles that are held to be universally applicable. Yet this allegedly universal model is in fact derived from the geomantic building practices of earlier societies of a particular kind in other parts of the world: namely, agricultural societies, the historical emergence of which was premised on certain environmental conditions that do not obtain in most of Australia. The lack of reliable annual seasons and domesticable beasts of burden, together with the generally arid climate and poor soils of this continent, almost certainly explain why Indigenous Australians sensibly refrained from engaging in the kind of agricultural land-use practices that had arisen in more congenial climes. From this we might conclude that the imposition of geomantic principles derived from such places in the design of the capital city makes as little sense in the Australian context as does the imposition of agricultural regimes throughout most of the country, as we are belatedly learning at great cost both to the land and its Indigenous people. Tragically, the sophisticated ecopoetics of Aboriginal dwelling, embodying a cherishing of the given that was finely attuned to the ecological specificities of the various regions of this continent, seems to have been utterly invisible both to those who called for the creation of Canberra and those who brought it into being.

That the Griffins evidently shared this colonial blind spot is suggested by Walter's celebration of Australia in the 1912 interview as a 'vast potentially productive undeveloped insular continent'. What he goes on to say about the culture of the colonizers nonetheless discloses a further, and more endearing, aspect of the utopian vision underlying his plan for Canberra. Australians, he fondly believed, were 'a people cherishing the highest standards of human rights, with no dire poverty or political corruption ... a democracy already in the vanguard of political progress setting a standard for the entire world in its struggle against private monopoly and exploitation'. (44) Here it becomes apparent that the Griffins' ecospiritual concern with a new alliance between Man and Nature was linked to a radically democratic political agenda. Griffin was particularly excited about the possibilities for comprehensive community planning that were afforded by the public ownership of land in the capital territory. (45) With regard to the residential areas of the city, these possibilities were to be realized along Garden City lines. Bounded by straight avenues wide enough to support trams, his proposed 'Domestic Communities', Griffin writes in his Report Explanatory,
 furnish not only suitable home sites, but comprise social
 units for that larger family--the neighborhood group, with
 one handy district school or more for the children, and with
 local playground, game fields, church, club, and social
 amenities accessible without crossing traffic tracks, or
 encountering the disturbing elements or temptations of
 business streets ... (46)


Griffin conceived of the internal open spaces of these blocks of residential streets as providing an opportunity for small-community initiatives, such as 'recessed courts, closes, quadrangle terraces, common gardens, irregular hill garden subdivision, and a host of similar possibilities'. (47) According to Fischer, the Griffin plan also calls for the creation of houses of varying size and expense within each suburb, in order to avoid city-wide social segregation. (48) Less typical of Garden City principles, yet evidencing a similar utopian impulse to design housing in the interests of fostering community, are the European-style two- to three-storey rectangular terrace blocks that are shown on the north shore of the lake in Marion's drawing of the central area, fronting tree-lined pavements and built around common gardens.

In addition to the communitarian orientation of these residential areas, the intended arrangement of the public buildings in the inner city evidently manifests the Griffins' radically democratic agenda. In Weirick's analysis:
 Everyday activities and the functions of government were so
 arrayed in the landscape that by simply moving about the
 city ... the powers and responsibilities of government
 institutions together with the rights and responsibilities of
 each individual would become manifest. (49)


The triangulation of the parliamentary, administrative and mercantile centres was intended to represent the integration and harmonization of the democratic trio of liberty, equality and fraternity, which, as Griffin recognized, all too often tended to conflict in practice. (50) Significantly, moreover, the Capitol building at the apex of this triangle, representing the soul of the nation as manifest in the liberation of individual creativity, itself balanced by the more worldly pursuit of pleasure embodied by the Casino at the apex of the opposing triangle, was to be exalted above the Parliament building sited below on Camp Hill. In this way, the everyday business of government was to be guided and illuminated by the spiritual ideals of the people, as celebrated on Capital Hill.

Yet in this dimension too, the Griffins' utopian project was not unproblematic. In Phillip Drew's analysis, Griffin,
 was unable, in the final resort, to reconcile its baroque form,
 signifying autocratic power, with the democratic intent; thus
 his Canberra is an uneasy, and in places, disturbing union of
 two distinct orders of thought: the one mechanical and
 self-sufficient, that other organic and open. (51)


I think that Drew is right about the tension between the 'mechanical' and the 'organic' in the Canberra plan, but with regard to his first point, it should be recalled that what Drew reads as 'baroque' recalls not only the neoclassicism of Versailles, but also the Athenian democracy of classical Greece. In my view, though, the issue is not so much whether this particular style embodies democratic principles or not (recalling also that by the 1930s neoclassicism was being avidly embraced by Stalinist and Fascist regimes across Europe), but whether architecture and urban design in itself can be expected to effect socio-political change. What Bloch has to say of the neoclassicist 'ideal cities' of the modern era surely holds true also for the Griffins' Canberra: namely, that in the face of 'growing economic and cultural anarchy', the geometric and crystalline shaping of urban space, with or without an associated astral mythology, becomes ever more appealing in its promise of order and common purpose. (52) In other words, this kind of architectonic utopianism tends to perform a compensatory rather than a genuinely transformative function within modern society. Whether or not they were already theosophically inclined, as inheritors of the legacy of New England Transcendentalism the Griffins were clearly aligned with the idealist wing represented by Emerson, who also believed that socio-political change was best effected through the transformation of thinking to be brought about by an intellectual and artistic elite. In the absence of any material change in Australia's political economy, the Griffins' dream of creating a new ecosocial community of free, equal and creative individuals was almost certainly doomed to flourish only on a small scale as a counter-cultural experiment: as indeed it would, for a while, in Castlecrag in Sydney. But that is another story.

Meanwhile, as mentioned at the outset, new plans are afoot for the city that inevitably turned out rather differently from how the Griffins had imagined. Officially, these are being developed through a reappraisal of the Griffin Legacy with a view to rendering Canberra more lively and cosmopolitan while meeting the 'challenges of sustainability in the 21st century' and reinforcing its 'reputation as a city in balance with nature'. (53) Elsewhere, though, more radical forms of eco-utopianism are stirring. There is, for example, the delightful vision of eco-suburbia that was generated by the recent Save the Ridge campaign against the Gungahlin Driveway Extension where, as illustrated in their 2004 fund-raising calendar for the month of November, colourful medium-rise housing with shared roof gardens, sacred space and free-ranging chooks, all in close proximity to a well-forested hillside, are combined with participation in urban life by means of light rail and leg-power. In many respects, this vision is in the spirit of the Griffins' hopes for suburban Canberra, and certainly of their Castlecrag community. What they and Canberra's other early developers certainly did not foresee, however, is the remarkable resurgence of Aboriginal Canberra.

Since the 1970s, the presence of the colourful Aboriginal tent embassy in front of Old Parliament House has meant that no Canberran could be entirely blind to Indigenous political concerns. More recently, though, the traditional ecopoetics of local Indigenous people have also begun to be recalled throughout the city in a variety of ways. Among these are sundry artworks, such as those that grace the grounds between the Australian National University's Humanities Research Centre and Centre for Cross-Cultural Research on the Acton peninsula (formerly an important gathering place on the banks of the Molonglo), dedicated to the tawny Bogong moth--the annual appearance of which to aestivate in rock crevices in the Brindabellas helped to render this area a lusciously nourishing terrain and an important locus of inter-tribal gatherings: indeed, it was perhaps from these festive gatherings that it takes its name, Ngambra, 'meeting place'. (54) Clearly, contemporary Kamberri, along with the many other Indigenous people from elsewhere who now live in and around the ACT, do not inhabit the land in the same manner as their forebears might have. Yet the recollection of that earlier mode of dwelling, which had been all but obliterated, if not by pastoral settlement, then certainly by the construction of Canberra, offers a new horizon of understanding regarding human relationship with earth, sky and divinities and one another, within which Indigenous and non-Indigenous people might yet find a way of moving forward together, albeit into a socio-politically and ecologically uncertain future. In the face of this unpredictability, we will need to hone our skills of attunement and improvisation, rather than becoming fixated on preconceived plans. Yet, if earth's diverse more-than-human communities are to have any hope of flourishing in their own multifarious ways, here and elsewhere, it will be necessary to conjoin an improvisational ecopoetics of 'letting be' with an effective ecopolitics oriented towards designing an alternative to the current ascendency of the globally free-ranging capitalist economy. In this context, we should indeed honour the Griffins' envisioning of Canberra as an extraordinary moment in the history of eco-utopianism in Australia, but not without grappling also with the ambiguities of its legacy.

(1.) D. Wright, 'Ecopolitics by Design: Walter Burley Griffin's Canberra', Ecopolitics, vol. 1, no. 2, 2001, p. 16. Many thanks to Robert Savage for providing research assistance in the preparation of this article. Thanks also to the staff in Rare Books and the multimedia section of Monash University Library.

(2.) National Capital Authority, 'Griffin Legacy Snapshot', <www.nationalcapital.gov.au/ understanding/griffin_legacy/index.asp>, accessed 28 November 2005.

(3.) The distinction between 'utopian impulse' and 'utopian program' is derived from Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, London, Verso, 2005, p. 4.

(4.) E. Bloch, The Principle of Hope, trans. N. Plaice, S. Plaice and P. Knight, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1995, pp. 744, 745.

(5.) Bloch, Principle of Hope, Vol. 2, p. 691.

(6.) Bloch's recourse to Schelling here is particularly noteworthy as his philosophy of nature, along with that of Hegel himself, has been vastly overshadowed by Hegel's philosophy of history in marxist thought: regrettably, in my view. See K. Rigby, Topographies of the Sacred: Romanticism, Ecology and the Poetics of Place, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2004, especially pp. 38-45 and 111-13.

(7.) Bloch, Principle of Hope, Vol. 2, p. 690. Tragically, Bloch's call for 'technology without violation' went unheeded by his comrades in the ruling East German Socialist Unity Party, who had turned against their erstwhile leading philosopher by the time the third volume of The Principle of Hope appeared. On Bloch's travails in the DDR following his return to Germany from the United States after World War II, see N. Plaice, S. Plaice and P. Knight, 'Translators' Introduction', Principle of Hope, Vol. 1, pp. xxv-xxvii.

(8.) Bloch, Principle of Hope, Vol. 3, p. 1353.

(9.) The key essays that I am referring to in the following are M. Heidegger, 'Building Dwelling Thinking' and '... Poetically Man Dwells ...' in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. A. Hofstadter, New York, Harper and Row, 1971, and 'The Question Concerning Technology', D. F. Krell (ed.), Basic Writings, trans. W. Lovitt, San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1977. See also my extended ecocritical engagement with Heidegger in 'Earth, World, Text: The (Im)possibility of Ecopoiesis', New Literary History, vol. 35, no. 3, Summer 2004, pp. 427-42.

(10.) F. Jameson, 'The Politics of Utopia', New Left Review, II, no. 25, January-February 2004, p. 54.

(11.) M. Thwaites, The Honey Man and Other Poems, Canberra, Trend Setting, 1993, p. 26.

(12.) Thwaites, The Honey Man and Other Poems, p. 12.

(13.) C. Vernon, '"The Silence of the Mountains and the Music of the Sea": The Landscape Artistry of Marion Mahony Griffin', D. Wood (ed.), Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing from Nature, Evanston, Ill., Northwestern University Press, 2005, p. 11.

(14.) K. Fischer, Canberra: Myths and Models; Forces at Work in the Formation of the Australian Capital, Hamburg, Institute of Asian Affairs, 1984, pp. 20, 22.

(15.) C. Vernon, 'The Landscape Art of Walter Burley Griffin', A. Watson (ed.), Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin in America, Australia and India, Haymarket, Powerhouse Publishing, 1988, p. 91.

(16.) H. Mahon, Department of Home Affairs, Information, Conditions, and Particulars for Guidance in the Preparation of Competitive Designs for the Capital City of the Commonwealth of Australia, Melbourne, 30 April 1911, p. 6; Ken Taylor, 'Picturesque Visions of a Nation: Capital City in the Garden', The New Federalist, no. 3, June 1999, p. 77.

(17.) Taylor, 'Picturesque Visions of a Nation', p. 79.

(18.) Taylor, 'Picturesque Visions of a Nation', p. 77.

(19.) According to Fischer, the marginal value of the land in this area for agricultural purposes was a factor in its selection as the federal capital site, as its 'abandonment did not mean a great loss to the State of NSW', Canberra: Myths and Models, p. 16.

(20.) On the history of European settlement in the Canberra region see Lyell Gillespie, Canberra 1820-1913, Canberra, AGPS, 1991. On the survival of the indigenous Kamberri, see Ann Jackson-Nakano, The Kamberri: A History from the Records of Aboriginal Families in the Canberra-Queanbeyan District and Surrounds 1820-27, and Historical Overview 1928-2001, Weeweewaa History Series, vol. 1, Canberra, 2001.

(21.) Taylor, 'Picturesque Visions of a Nation', p. 77.

(22.) Fischer, Canberra: Myths and Models, p. 17.

(23.) W. B. Griffin, 'Planning a Federal Capital City Complete', Improvement Bulletin, vol. 55, no. 23, 6 November 1912. See also P. Harrison, Walter Burley Griffin: Landscape Architect, R. Freestone (ed.), Canberra, National Library of Australia, 1995, p. 26.

(24.) Marion, who was the second woman ever to graduate in architecture from MIT, had been working for Wright for several years when Walter joined the Oak Park studio in 1901. He left to establish his own practice in 1905, but she continued working with Wright on an irregular basis until 1909. See Harrison, Walter Burley Griffin, pp. 19-25. G. C. Manson describes the project of the Prairie School as a quest to develop 'a new indigenous architecture growing from the native landscape and expressing its innermost meaning'. G. C. Manson, Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910: The First Golden Age, New York, Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1958, p. 72.

(25.) Vernon, 'The Silence of the Mountains', p. 6.

(26.) Harrison, Walter Burley Griffin, pp. 16-18. See also City of Dreams: The Collaboration of Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, dir. B. Mason, Film Australia, 2000. On Marion's understanding of landscape architecture as articulated in an article that she published in the Australian journal Building in two parts in June and August 1914, see Vernon, 'Silence of the Mountains', pp. 15-16.

(27.) Vernon, 'Silence of the Mountains', pp. 7, 10.

(28.) Harrison, Walter Burley Griffin, p. 22.

(29.) J. Weirick, 'Spirituality and Symbolism in the Work of the Griffins', in Watson, Beyond Architecture, pp. 58-62. See also, P. R. Proudfoot, The Secret Plan of Canberra, Kensington, UNSW Press, 1994. Weirick only finds hard evidence of the Griffins' affiliation with Theosophy from 1926, when Walter began publishing in theosophical journals and

(30.) Proudfoot, The Secret Plan of Canberra, pp. 35-42.

(31.) C. Hamann, 'Themes and Inheritances: The Architecture of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony', J. Duncan and M. Gates (eds), Walter Burley Griffin: A Re-View, Clayton, Monash University Gallery, 1988, p. 36.

(32.) Theosophically inspired crystal imagery would soon be deployed by the Secessionist and German Expressionist architects in Europe, as indeed by the Griffins themselves, most stunningly so in the ceiling of the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne. See also K. Burns, 'Prophets in the Wilderness: Australian Architecture of Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin', Transition: Discourse and Architecture, no. 24, 1988, pp. 14-30, 22-6.

(33.) W. B. Griffin, 'The Architect's Burden', Proudfoot, The Secret Plan of Canberra, p. 6.

(34.) Harrison, Walter Burley Griffin, p. 76. Harrison exemplifies this by citing a remarkable lecture that Griffin delivered to architecture students at the University of Melbourne in 1923, in which he railed against environmental destruction in Australia: 'Each year more and more are:-Forests ring-barked, fields eroded and pest-infested: Rivers befouled and dredged, factory-invaded and slashed by railways ... We are actually coming in measurable distance of the extermination of all divergent Races; animals except vermin, uneconomic plants except weeds ... in fact the spoliation of all our resources to end in an ant like existance [sic] and the elimination of the soul', Walter Burley Griffin, p. 94.

(35.) Fischer, Canberra: Myths and Models, p. 30.

(36.) J. Gray, 'T. C. G. Weston (1866-1935) Horticulturalist and Arboriculturalist: A Critical Review of His Contribution to the Establishment of the Landscape Foundations of Australia's National Capital', PhD thesis, University of Canberra, July 1999, p. 100, and R. Clough, 'Canberra's Landscape', Architecture in Australia, vol. 72, no. 5, p. 63. Marion Mahony mentions this scheme, which contributed to the falling out between Griffin and Weston, in 'Canberra--Its Designer and Its Plan', The Magic of America, 'The Federal Battle', p. 438. All page numbers for quotes from Magic of America are taken from the microfilm of this work held in the Monash University Library.

(37.) Proudfoot, The Secret Plan of Canberra, p. 65.

(38.) W. B. Griffin, The Federal Capital: Report Explanatory of the Preliminary General Plan, Melbourne, 1913, p. 3.

(39.) Fischer, Canberra: Myths and Models, p. 30.

(40.) W. B. Griffin, 'Architecture', in Magic of America, 'The Federal Battle', 361h.

(41.) M. M. Griffin, 'The Aboriginals', in Magic of America, 'The Municipal Battle', p. 252.

(42.) Proudfoot, The Secret Plan of Canberra, p. 79. Proudfoot notes with approval that the architect of the new Parliament House that is now on Capital Hill, Romaldo Giurgola, in staying true to Griffin's geometric design principles, has (unwittingly perhaps) 'aligned Canberra with the most potent of ancient paradigms', p. 108.

(43.) Griffin quoted in Fischer, Canberra: Myths and Models, p. 30.

(44.) Griffin cited in J. Weirick, 'The Magic of America: Vision and Text', in Duncan and Gates, p. 7.

(45.) In a letter to King O'Malley from 12 January 1913, Griffin expresses his admiration for the 'bold radical steps in politics and economics' which had been taken in Australia, including the 'land policy of the Capital, whereby, "freed from land speculative selfish interest, the natural instincts of the community will guarantee higher aesthetic and social standards"'. Weirick, 'Spirituality and Symbolism', p. 64.

(46.) Griffin, Report Explanatory, p. 13. According to Harrison, this proposal represents the first enunciation of the neighbourhood concept in urban planning, later elaborated by Clarence Perry. Harrison, Walter Burley Griffin, p. 34. An example of Griffin's residential design can be seen in Melbourne in Eaglemont Summit and Glennard Estates near Heidelberg, the curvilinear roads of which are 'fitted to the topography'. Harrison, Walter Burley Griffin, p. 57. On the eco-utopian aspirations of Ebenezer Howard's Garden City movement, see M. de Gues, Ecological Utopias: Envisioning the Sustainable Society, Utrecht, International Books, 1999, pp. 122-30.

(47.) Griffin, Report Explanatory, p. 13.

(48.) Fischer, Canberra: Myths and Models, p. 30. Fischer also discusses Griffin's subsequent endeavours to develop a cheap, efficient, easily constructed and aesthetically pleasing style of domestic architecture as indicative of his socially egalitarian agenda.

(49.) Weirick, 'Magic of America', p. 8. Weirick discusses the political symbolism of the Canberra plan in more detail in 'Spirituality and Symbolism'.

(50.) W. B. Griffin, 'Liberty and Equity', in Magic of America, 'The Individual Battle', p. 247.

(51.) P. Drew, 'National Capital: Palace and Monument', Australian Architecture and Design, vol. 1, no. 3, p. 15.

(52.) E. Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Vol. 2, p. 742.

(53.) 'Griffin Legacy Snapshot', National Capital Authority, <www.nationalcapital.gov.au/understanding/griffin_legacy/index.asp>, accessed 28 November 2005.

(54.) On Indigenous lifeways in the Canberra region, see J. Flood, Moth Hunters of the Australian Capital Territory: Aboriginal Traditional Life in the Canberra Region, Downer, J. M. Flood, 1996; and B. Gammage, Australia under Aboriginal Land Management, 15th Barry Andrews Memorial Lecture, Canberra, University College, ADFA, 2002. On Aborginal understandings of 'country', see also D. B. Rose, Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness, Canberra, Australian Heritage Commission, 1996.
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Title Annotation:Part III: Australian Utopias
Author:Rigby, Kate
Publication:Arena Journal
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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