Mid-Century Modernism in Canberra

Words by Rose Onans
Photography by Darren Bradley & Jessica Di Scipio

Driving into the valley toward Canberra, you may not be particularly excited about the architecture that will appear. Long stereotyped as a boring, beige, city, Canberra is not a place where you expect to discover an exciting and unique culture of architecture and design. Yet surprisingly, Canberra has a rich heritage of midcentury architecture and has fostered art, design, and architecture, so that today Canberra has become an unexpected mecca for design lovers.

Designed as the ‘ideal city of the future’ by Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, fellow architect Marion Mahony Griffin in 1912, Canberra is home to the work of some of Australia’s most celebrated architects and designers. From Burley-Griffin’s early modernist vision for Canberra, modernist experimentation flourished in the young city, leading Canberra to become the most exciting exemplar of modernist architecture in Australia.

Despite a fractious relationship with the Australian government, which saw the Griffins depart from the project in 1920, the legacy of Burley-Griffin’s utopian design ‘unlike any city in the world’ continued to be felt, attracting emerging modernist architects in the mid-twentieth century. From the 1950s Canberra’s population increased steadily, opening numerous opportunities for residential architecture. Meanwhile, as the nation’s capital, the city required substantial public architecture.

Italian modernist architect Enrico Taglietti referred joyfully to Canberra when he arrived in 1955 as the ‘perfect void’ – far from being a condemnation, a perfect void meant Canberra was the ideal place to push boundaries and create anew. Taglietti said that ‘When you start designing you have to try to fall into a void – tombe dans le vide. Nothing was done before you. Forget everything. Don’t follow history. Don’t follow shapes’. While in Italy he felt burdened by the vast weight of architectural heritage, in Canberra he found ‘finally a city without history’, ripe for avante-garde design.

Today, Canberra is remarkable for the history that developed from this state of newness and unconventionality, with its broad repertoire of modernist buildings that pushed the boundaries of Australian, and indeed international, design. As such a young city, this mid-century modernist architecture remains relatively undiluted by design from earlier eras. Renowned American photographer Darren Bradley specialises in modernist architecture, and he has a special appreciation for the city of Canberra. ‘I think its an extraordinary city – it’s a planned city and it’s one of the few places in the world where almost all the buildings were designed and built roughly in the same period, so there’s a certain cohesiveness to the architecture that you don’t really see in a lot of other cities, either in Australia or throughout the world’.

This extraordinary cohesive quality to Canberra’s architecture is felt in the use of materials across many of the buildings, with concrete, glass and steel contributing to Canberra’s feeling of a ‘city of the future’. Buildings such as the ANU School of Music and the National Gallery of Australia use concrete in innovative ways, creating smooth tactile curves and straight lines that would otherwise be almost impossible with a more traditional material.

Yet, while the materials and principles of Canberra’s mid-century modernist architecture are uniquely cohesive, the modernist ideals of innovation and creativity lead to an extraordinarily varied and wide variety of architecture that is by no means uniform or dull. Robin Boyd, who wrote ‘The Australian Ugliness’ denouncing ‘featurism’ and the excessive ornamentation that pervaded Australian architecture from the colonial period onward, designed several residences and the Churchill House in Canberra, all of which are strikingly individual. Many other of Australia’s most experimental architects, including renowned modernist architects Harry Siedler, Roy Grounds and Alex Jelinek all designed in Canberra, drawn, like Taglietti, to the opportunity to create something new and innovative. Each architect created distinctive and unique works that even today remain inherently modern and original.

From the Griffins’ grand plans for the city through the architectural boom in the mid twentieth century, Canberra has always fostered excellence in design and architecture. Today the vibrant design community is flourishing, and this unique city will be the site of the DESIGN Canberra festival in November. Drawing on the spirit of Canberra’s mid-century modernist innovation and creativity as inspiration, the festival is a chance to experience the contemporary design world of Australia’s youngest city, and an exciting opportunity to explore some of our most significant and interesting mid-century modern architecture.

To experience Canberra’s mid-century modernist innovation check out these events during the festival, or visit the website to explore all of the modern events.

Darren Bradley’s photography exhibition and walking modernist tours here.

Mid-century bus tours: Join renowned architecture enthusiast, Martin Miles on a bus tour around Canberra’s best architecture including mid-century modernist icons by Grounds, Boyd, Seidler and other architects.

Talks: Join Tim ‘Rosso’ Ross for a casual chat about modernism, Canberra and anything else he feels like.