Canberra at night: a study in futuro-fascist architecture

January 22, 2009 at 8:38 pm (Julia) (, , )

For the last couple of days I have been ensconced in our nation’s capitol, having accompanied Tom on a delicious junket. This is because it’s a bunch more fun for both of us, the hotel is already paid for, and after living together for six and a half years sleeping apart is really strange for us. And hey, part of my reasons for going casual this year were so I could do stuff like this. It’s a lot more fun, too – we have our car adventures, and hotel adventures, and bitching about Canberra adventures. It turns a boring work trip into a fun holiday.

Canberra is weirdly inorganic, for a city. It’s sort of like, in Sim City, you can play the proper way (start out with a tiny little settlement and build up as your population grows, meaning that the city grows in weird patches and looks strange from above) or you can play with cheats on, and build an entire city, with monuments and wide boulevards and avenues and wait for the population to to arrive. Walter Burley Griffin was totally playing with cheats on. Here’s the bit with the parlimentary buildings. Here’s the buildings of great culture – art galleries, the high court, the libraries, etc. Here’s the shops. The affect is aesthetically pleasing, I guess, but very cold and inhuman. The lack of public transport, even from the city centre (which is called Civic even though it has no civic buildings, just shops) to the Australian War Memorial is deeply confusing for an Inner West Sydney girl like myself. The idea of, say, not being able to get a bus more than once an hour from the QVB to the AGNSW would do my head in, but that’s basically what it’s like. Everyone drives, but it’s hard to get a taxi if you haven’t booked it. Most of the area around the main drag is serviced apartments and hotels.

It’s even stranger at night – everything shuts down. There are a few areas with restaurants and bars that have stuff going on, but everything else is dark and sleeping. The only points of light are the big important buildings, which are lit up with floodlights. Right now, it’s Australia Day week, which it seems Canberra takes pretty seriously, so the lights are all green and gold.

Over a year ago, Tom came to Canberra for a week by himself, and one night he decided to go wandering around the area of Canberra with the big national buildings, and discovered that it is creepy as shit. So last night, after dinner with some of his Canberra comrades, we headed off in our car for a night time photography adventure. (Percy, if we roadtrip down to Canberra in March for the net filtering rally, we should totally introduce you to this pasttime, it will blow your mind). We went off to the bit in front of Parliament House, where they’ve got such wonders as the National Gallery, the High Court, and various other things.

My first impression was of Rome. I know that sounds crazy, but I first went to Rome when I was 5, so I have these very vivid, experiential impression-memories of the place. My mum was there on work, so my dad dragged me around to see a bunch of the Fascist architecture, and that’s what I was reminded of last night. There’s a sort of cold unnaturalness in those bits of Rome, which I guess is the intended effect. I don’t think that was the intended effect in Canberra, but it’s all very strange anyway. It also reminds me of the cover of a copy of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, the particular cover of which I can’t find right now. But it had a picture of that sort of architechture – large, impressive, neo-classical/modernist/futurist mashups, dominating the landscape, and totally deserted.  The overall effect is of a futuristic, authoritarian dystopia. I feel as though I should quite like to drop acid in these surroundings, but I’d want one hell of a competant minder. Especially since all these buildings are right on Lake Burley Griffin.

Around the National Gallery, in the parkland surrounding it, are all these art installations of sculptures, etc. They’re lit up too, at night, and the effect is really strange. Canberra loves its public art;  public art is everywhere, and that’s probably the thing I like most about Canberra. However, the stuff around the NG is creepy at night time.

I couldn’t find a name for this installation, and I don’t think my photos do it justice. It’s in the middle of a park, about 300m away from the NG, and it seems to be some kind of whale/alien thing, surrounded by bronze tree-like structures. The lights change, and it makes this bizarre groaning sound. It really has to be experienced.

This walkway leads up to old and new Parliament House. It’s build into a great sloping hill, and it’s right near the flag displays.     It’s bendy and strange and completely looks like a set from a sci-fi movie, one of the ones made in the 60s or 70s. Logan’s Run, perhaps.

This was probably my favourite thing: it’s the National Carillion (yes, all the buildings have “National” in their title, which only adds to the whole authoritarian vibe this city has going on), and check it out, this shit is from Myst or something. Lit-up walkway across water to a weird structure that makes ethereal musical sounds? I kept looking for a video panel or some switches to flick.

The parking lot nearby was nearly empty, apart from a few couples boning in their cars, but we found this delightful sign.

Parliament House and the Australian War Memorial are built facing each other across the lake, with a huge sweeping boulevard going from the lake to the AWM. On each side of this boulevard, Anzac Parade, are memorials to various wars Australia’s been involved in during the past. This here is the Vietnam Monument:

The whole thing is supposed to be like the National Mall in Washington, ideally with many people thronging the street on Anzac Day. Unfortunately, since Canberra just doesn’t have enough people, it’s sort of sad and empty. I love the AWM, though – it’s a gorgeous building, and there’s a sort of peace in the main courtyard which feels similar to a cathedral.  I think I’d like to attend the Dawn Service here one year – it’s outside, and I think it would be sort of amazing. (Note: At some point, I will probably blog about Anzac Day and my complicated feelings about it)

The AWM was one of the few buildings which wasn’t lit up in green and gold last night, which meant that it looked weirdly blue from across the water, but was just sort of whitish as we got closer. It was the last thing we visited, and I was too tired to get out of the car, so my photos don’t really do it justice. But trust me, it’s an impressive building.

My impressions of Canberra are very much influenced by my knowledge of sci-fi, of history, of art and architecture, and in some ways I think Canberra is best experienced at night, that at night it’s closer to WBG’s vision. This makes it like one enormous installation artwork, that you can drive around. I would really like to go again, with you, my AP5 homies, and see what impressions you get.



  1. misterfinn said,

    Canberra: A cold god-forsaken place unfit for habitation by man. Just the place to put our politicians.

  2. naboolio said,

    I’ve been to Canberra a couple of times now.

    The first was on a school trip in which we visited all the political an cultural landmarks and learned heaps.

    The second was when I was in first year and going completely insane. I noticed the necessity of driving that you mentioned, and that the gay scene there is huge in comparison to the population! I was pretty surprised by that last bit.

    It’s beautiful, but too quiet and small for me. I’m creeped out my places where everyone knows eachother, and their business.

    I much prefer the more ‘organic’ feeling of developement in places like newtown, glebe and darlinghurst. I would very much like to visit Melbourne one day soon though. I think I’d be in heaven!

  3. juliadactyl said,

    I know! Everyone in Canberra is a lesbian, or at least looks like one. It’s kind of awesome.

    I couldn’t live in Canberra. I like it as sort of a weird experience, but it lacks things that I consider necessary for a city, without quite being a small town. And yeah, Melbourne sounds awesome (Melbourne roadtrip?)

  4. naboolio said,


  5. chromefist said,

    Roadtrip pact: ENGAGE

  6. danoot said,

    Canberra! Last time I was there, there was tequila snorting. I may have told this story.
    And then someone set the hotel garden on fire. We sat in the park and watched the firetrucks put out this tiny, useless blaze.

    Also it is a weird place and I want someone to digitise the whole thing, then let me bounce around it as spiderman, or some kind of floating-skateboard-guy.

    Canberra is a fucking GREAT place for floating skateboards (but you’ve got to have POWAH! You can’t skate on water, unless you’ve got POWAH, McFly!).

  7. andrewcrisp said,

    I really know what you mean when you describe Canberra as inorganic and authoritarian. It’s a shame, because most people who live there are neither of those things and wish people would stop hating on their city. Unfortunately, it is inevitable. It’s almost like a pure mathematician designed the city rather than a statistician – disaster!

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