This is the last piece of writing about Canberra I’m going to do for now. A commission by Neil Hobbs for the Centenary edition of Landscape Architecture Australia magazine, which is out now.
I think I’ve said about all I wanted to say about this little place. For the moment.
Cracks in the Masterplan (first published in Landscape Architecture Australia magazine No. 138)
To the uninitiated Canberra can appear a pale imitation of the country’s larger, older cities. The surface is one of a toy town, a textbook diagram, a town planners play thing. Everything seems in its place, neat, clean, sealed, sensible; concrete huddle and manicured lawns aside a man-made lake; Sexless, earnest and impenetrable.
This impression, the first of travellers streaming up Northbourne Avenue or bussing around the parliamentary triangle, is hard to sidestep. Even the CBD is dominated by homogeny, in the creeping clutch of a mall, turning its back on the arcades and shopping strips of ‘old’ Canberra, directing and losing pedestrians within its cavernous comfort. The outsider or weekend visitor is hard pressed to reconcile the city’s outward appearance with its reputation as an arts capital – a supposed seething mess of artistic activity, from tertiary study in art and design through to monolithic arts institutions, from the outpourings of misspent youth to the yields of professional careers.
To experience this Canberra, to understand why people would choose to live here in a entire world of other cities, to base their creative practice here, is to look at the spaces around the façade – between the bars, restaurants, shops and galleries, apartment blocks and office space, away from the brightest and the biggest. Only then you begin to see that as with anywhere, this city is populated with the perceptions and projections of its inhabitants. The gaps become opportunities, invitations; spaces where real life, creative life, begins.
Each year we watch our talented graduates migrate for the bright lights of the big city the day they have a degree in hand, racing one another up or down the Hume to the promised lands of Sydney, Melbourne, or further still. Yet those individuals who remain in Canberra upon finishing tertiary study find themselves extremely well placed in a city that is bursting, oozing, tripping over itself with a completely unordinary scale of opportunity, though it may not be in the expected sense.
It’s no secret that a design education ultimately emerges as less one of practical skill and more about problem solving with innovation and creativity. These make valuable contributions to any industry, creative or otherwise. More important than design as a vocation is design as a way of seeing and reading the environment, to identify what is lacking, and to address it. It is the designer as dreamer, designer as cultural interpreter, designer as change agent. For these individuals Canberra is wide open.
Everybody has ideas, schemes, grand plans, and in a town like this, they can probably pull them off. In a town like this, you have no excuse not to. The likeminded find one another, and in Canberra’s time and space, freed from the creative crush of our larger near neighbours, ideas spread, at first creeping into public consciousness, then fast and boundless.
Two years ago a paste-up began to be seen around Canberra in a distinct style that set it apart from the clustered imagery found across the city. It was the effigy of Walter Burley Griffin, tucked around corners, down alleyways, standing dapper with one hand in pocket and the other clutching a letter to his beloved Marion. As the artwork proliferated the ‘Dear Marion’ project became loved and recognised, more well known than the group who had spawned it. Going by the name of Canberra Lab, the collective of young designers and architects had come together to foster discussion and critique in the industry. The paste-up in Walt’s honour was but one way to do so.
While the majority of Canberra Lab are architecture graduates of the University of Canberra these multi-tasking individuals are eager to encourage dialogue between design disciplines and the wider art community. The group’s mainstay is its online zine, but the public success of ‘Dear Marion’ led to Canberra Lab increasing involvement in arts festivals and collaborations with local galleries and other artists. In mid 2012 they joined with artist and designer George Rose, (graphic design graduate of the University of Canberra), to mount an interactive exhibition at Canberra Museum and Gallery entitled Circumcised@617.
The collective took to the gallery to imagine a Canberra that wasn’t subject to height restrictions, such as 617 metres above sea level. Members of the public were asked to suggest a better, higher Canberra, their visions realised by Rose’s hand in a dreamed cityscape on the gallery wall. As a collaboration, the project went a long way to engaging the residents of the city while satisfying the group’s central mission. In their own words, “Canberra Lab is about understanding Canberra… investigating what it is that works for Canberra, why is the city the way it is, what works, what doesn’t and exploring the potential of the city.”
One of the best recent examples of what does work in Canberra can in fact be found in the hospitality sector. Tucked at the end of Marcus Clarke Street, away from the relative action of the city, café Mocan and Green Grout is set as the jewel in Molonglo Group’s New Acton precinct crown. For Myles Chandler and David Alcorn, a close partnership with Molonglo Group has seen them able to realise the classic dream of running one’s own establishment as two of Mocan’s operators.
Chandler and Alcorn came to the café game with no significant hospitality experience, as graduates of University of Canberra Industrial Design and Graphic Design respectively, yet their background sits well within Molonglo Group’s particularly exacting and wholly integrated vision. Together, the team have carefully orchestrated every detail, from hardware to crockery to fixtures and furniture, commissioning local artisans, closely overseeing fabrication or even building with their own hands when need dictates. From the consumables to philosophy, styling and service Mocan addresses a hole in Canberra’s coffee landscape for an alternative to the cookie cutter cafe. The café exudes honesty and authenticity, built with passion and expert skill at every turn, yet no aspect is accidental in this collaboration on a colossal scale. Canberrans signal their approval with fever-like patronage, on weekends covering the street furniture like contented pigeons, relaxed enough to stay all day and making the precinct their own.
Avid cyclists, Chandler and Alcorn have come full circle to return to their design roots, last year beginning production on Mocan brand road bikes and cycle wear for distribution through the café frontage. The ‘Good Speed’ fixed gear bicycle is currently being manufactured to order, wholly Canberra-made, and café patrons can peruse the options while they await their drinks. Coffee and cycling have long gone hand in hand, and in continuing the tradition the café becomes a comprehensive hub for the promotion of a lifestyle informed by culture and the admiration of fine craftsmanship.
As I write this, on a sweltering November afternoon, another major player is preparing to be officially launched. Lonsdale Street Traders is the community-centered trade-off for an otherwise potentially clinical transformation of Braddon, which for a time looked to push out independent business in favour of boutique apartments and hi-shine retail frontage in the former industrial zone’s inevitable gentrification. Nick Bulum, a director at B&T Construction, has reworked a former tyre store (a fitting nod to the street’s long-standing reputation as a greasers haunt) into a sort of mini mall for independent boutiques and businesses.
The greater warehouse of the original building has been sectioned into small spaces, capsule stores, tenanted on short-term leases by a diverse array of creative Canberran entrepreneurs. Among the selection is vintage clothing, a vegan bakery café, gift and homewares, a florist, hairdresser, exhibition space, locally designed fashion, and a showcase gallery associated with the ACT Craft and Design Centre. For many traders, this marks their first venture with retail space, having previously operated out of home and from markets. Many are formalizing collaborative relationships that have grown out of the arts community and continue to evolve. Many are graduates from Canberra institutions, taking advantage of this shift in the landscape. As an initiative enabling early-career creatives to get a foothold in the market, Lonsdale Street Traders encapsulates the inherent opportunity of this city.
That’s not to say setting forth on the path of a professional arts practice is easy in Canberra. It will be a struggle, of course, but here it can feel more like one that will give back what you put into it. Here we often have comrades and collaborators instead of competitors, because there are enough of those elsewhere.
Despite the construct, the carefully considered veneer, Canberra is no place for posers. Here it is not enough to simply look like an artist, a creative or a culture consumer, draped over café seating. Here, you have to walk the walk and practice what you preach because the city is too small for anonymity and too generous with possibility, with reward to be gained all round.