Deb & Dave’s Architectural Picks of Modernist Canberra

Deborah Clark & David Broker

Canberra is home to some of the finest modernist buildings in the country, both public and private and in scale both modest and grand. Over a glass of wine some years ago we discovered a shared enthusiasm for Canberra modernist architecture, the outcome of which is shared here in a tasty sampler of the rich feast of Canberra mid-century modern.

The cream of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Canberra architecture was designed by significant interstate and migrant practitioners, as well as some home-grown talent, and included Roy Grounds, Frederick Romberg and Robin Boyd, Harry Seidler, Sydney Ancher, Ken Woolley, John Andrews, Michael Dysart, Colin Madigan, Alex Jelinek, Enrico Taglietti and Theo Bischoff.

The mid-century modernist architecture of Canberra is not unique, but what has been preserved is highly visible, perhaps because the city itself is a unique case in architectural terms: a planned city of symbolic importance, whose genesis has a degree of utopianism in the impetus of its public and residential architecture.

National Carrillon
Architects Cameron, Chisholm, Nicol
Postcards courtesy of Martin Miles, Canberra

Shine Dome
Architect Sir Roy Grounds
Postcards courtesy of Martin Miles, Canberra

From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s the population of the city virtually trebled—from thirty two thousand to ninety two thousand—and in the early 1960s a major phase of the city’s development began with the design of principal national buildings, extensive suburban growth and the construction of vast office complexes to house the bureaucracy.

The National Carillon (1970) stands erect on Aspen Island on Lake Burley Griffin, a gift from the United Kingdom government to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Australia’s capital. Consisting of three triangular columns, the Carillon is a symphony of triangles in striking quartz and opal chip. By world standards it is also an impressive instrument and its spooky chimes can be heard every fifteen minutes, with a tune on the hour. Queen Elizabeth II, who received the Carillon on behalf of the people of Australia in 1970, also opened the Australian American War Memorial in 1954. So grateful were the people of Australia for the United States of America’s assistance in the Second World War that 100,000 pounds was raised to build a hollow octagonal column of sand blasted aluminum panels giving the appearance of stone. A shipping problem required that the eagle perched on a sphere had its wings raised in contrast to the neo-classical span of Nazi or American monumental raptors. This unfortunate deportment gives the appearance of a rabbit, and has awarded it the nickname ‘Bugs Bunny’.

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