The question of Canberra remains, if not the most urgent, one of the most interesting in Australian urbanism. The city was shaped by its time, sited to placate a rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne which still exists and a threat of Russian invasion which now seems unlikely. For all who have ever found themselves haunted by the place, either in the form of nightmares or dreams, the launch of the CAPIThetical, “a competition for a hypothetical Australian capital city,” is exciting news. CAPIThetical is timed to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the capital design competition in 2012, and is backed by the federal and ACT governments, the Australian Institute of Architects and a gaggle of universities and professional organizations.
To disparage Canberra is every non-Canberran Australian’s birthright. To many Sydneysiders and Melburnians, the bush capital, seemingly custom built for cars and the public servants they contain, is not a proper city. As with Washington, what goes on there has not helped the city’s image and “Canberra” has become shorthand both for government, and for the kind of self-referential political sausage-making which thwarts true progress. During my visits to ‘our nation’s capital’ I’ve often wondered if the city was the result of a scaling error; there is a weird discrepancy between what your brain envisages when looking at a map of the city and reality. All those circles which one might imagine to be urban boulevards turn out to be dusty suburban streets, their radii too large to be perceived, yet just curved enough to get the visitor well lost.